Rush‘s vocalist and bassist Geddy Lee, whose real name is Gary Lee Weinrib, shared with Q104.3 New York his parents love story in the most unprobable and infamous place: the Nazy concentration camp of Auschwitz. Read it here:
So, your parents were from Poland?
“Yup, my parents were from Poland. My mother was born in Warsaw and moved to a small town about an hour south called Stachowice, and my father was from a town – I don’t know how the English version of it would be, but he called it Ostrowce.
“He was from another town, and they were both in work camps and that’s where they met. They met in work camps in ’39, they were 12 and 13.
“So they were kids really, adolescents, they would chitchat and flirt on their way to their work camps because originally when the German army moved in there, they needed to build the camps, so they used the young people and healthy people of the town, the Jewish population to walk to the site and build and work until it was finished.
“That’s where they met, and of course they would joke around and flirt as kids would no matter what the circumstance. They sort of had a crush on each other.”
They ended up in Auschwitz before they were separated, with your mother going to Bergen Belsen and your father being taken to Dachau. How old were they then?
“Well, my mom and dad were in Auschwitz for a couple of years, and how they survived in there, I don’t know. My dad was transferred out of Auschwitz before my mother was; my mother and her sister and her mother survived together in Auschwitz.
“My grandmother used to tell this story – they would line them up every day and they would go left, right, left, right. If you went to one direction, you went to the gas chambers; if you went to the other direction, you went to work.
“So, my grandmother would rearrange them in the lineup so they all went to the same direction. She believed that if they were all going to perish, they would perish together, and if they were going to survive, they would survive together.
“My grandmother was an amazing person, she kept them alive throughout their time in the camps, and when the war was starting to look bad for the Germans, panic ensued, and they were starting to ship surviving prisoners into Germany and out of Poland.
“That’s when the three of them were shipped to Bergen Belsen, where they were eventually liberated.”
There are many Holocaust survivors who just did not want to speak of that horror to their children. Your parents were different, they started speaking about this to you when you were how old?
“My earliest memories were my mother talking about the war and talking about Hitler and about what had happened to her family.
“My dad was not a big talker about that period and he passed away when I was about 12 years old, but I remember my mother constantly reinforcing the idea that we had to keep the family together because these terrible things can happen.
“She felt, as many survivors did, that it was their desire to repopulate and rebuild the clan that had been destroyed by the war.”
Did they actually tell you about – I mean, as a child – about the horrors they endured?
“Yeah, they did. I mean, I could’ve turned out to be a real mental case, but I didn’t. My mom is a really interesting woman, she’s super strong and she believed in sharing everything she’d experienced.
“It gave me nightmares as a child, as I’m sure my brother and sister had the same thing. My brother was too young to remember a lot of this, but my sister is two years older than me.
“We grew up with the same horror that she’d survived, we felt blessed that we still had her in our lives, and my grandmother, aunts, and uncles, all of whom were survivors of the Holocaust. It’s a very large community and they stay very tightly knit, and that was their way of reinforcing the importance to carry on.
“Some of my uncles and aunts were more close-mouthed about it, and I have friends, one friend in particular who is one of my closest friends, Ben Mink, a musician, who’s worked with Rush and had gone out to be a successful producer – his parents were Holocaust survivors. That’s one of the things that bonded us, the stories.
“Some parents don’t like to relive the past. I’m thankful my mother wasn’t afraid to do that because I grew up with a better perspective on things. She’s a combination of an optimist and a paranoid.
“In 1995 was the 50th anniversary of her liberation and she called me to her house and said, ‘Well, I got the call from the Society, they’re doing a reunion.’ I said, ‘Of the survivors?’, ‘Yes, it’s in Belsen.’ I said, ‘Is this your way of telling me you’d like me to take you to Belsen?’ She said ‘Well, I would go.’ I said, ‘Okay.’
“So I arranged a trip for my mom, my sister, my brother, and myself, and we flew as guests of the German government to this reunion of the Holocaust survivors back to Belsen.”
What was that like for you?
“We were all in tears, of course.”
It’s interesting to me how Germany has dealt with its history of the Holocaust because I was recently there, I was really taken with how they don’t try to erase history. They embrace it but say that they moved on. What I didn’t ask you yet is: how did your parents get reunited?
“That’s a good story too. They got separated, obviously, my dad was transferred out to other camps and he ended up after liberation in Munich.
“After the war, the people that had survived in Bergen Belsen were moved into the officer’s quarters, the barracks. They torched the actual place where they were incarcerated and they said the excuse was because of diseases and typhus, but I think it was partially political – they didn’t want it standing.
“Anyway, she was living in the barracks, and it was a displaced persons’ camp, they would post, every day, survivors so people who were trying desperately to find out which of their family members were still alive.
“And my dad had discovered my mom’s brother, he bumped into him in a hospital in Munich. He had also survived the war. When they saw each other, my dad said, ‘Well, you know what, I’ll wait and we’ll both go to Belsen for them.’ He had this feeling that at least one of them had survived, but my dad got impatient and he left.
“By that time, they were just hitch-hiking around Europe trying to find each other, and my mom didn’t know that he had survived and she said she was hanging something out of the window, I think clothes to be dried or something like that, and she saw him walk into her view and she fainted.
“So they were reunited and eventually got married in Belsen at the displaced person’s camp.”
Why did they decide to settle in Canada?
“My father’s sister had left Poland before the war and had missed the Holocaust. She was there, so my father wanted to be reunited with his sister, so they decided on Canada. My mother came, her mother, and her sister, and her brother. My dad lost both his parents and I think six brothers and sisters in the war.”
I know there are at least two Rush songs that were inspired by your parents’ experiences – ‘Red Sector A’ and also from your solo album [2000’s ‘My Favourite Headache’], ‘Grace to Grace.’ My question is – how did your parents’ experiences and you learning about that, how did that impact who you became?
“It’s a hard question to answer. Obviously, I think children of the Holocaust are a cross to bear in a way. Smarter people than me had written books about it. I was raised in a house largely by my mom, and my mom is a fighter and a survivor so she taught us the importance of working for what we want in life, and the importance of family.
“Of course, as a teenager, I rebelled to all things familial, and when I started to play music she thought I’d run off to join the circus pretty much, but that didn’t last long.
“So, I don’t feel like I was scarred by her experiences, I think I was made wiser by her experiences. It helped me view the world in a different way, to fight intolerance and to fight for humanity, and it made me a liberal thinker, and I remain a liberal thinker, especially in this day and age where the word ‘liberals’ is quickly becoming a dirty word.”
Thanks to Ultimate Guitar for transcribing the story.