Welcome to the blog about my book, “Looking for the Glassmaker’s Son.” Here you will find excerpts and images from the forthcoming memoir about my father, Robert Cooper (né Kupfer), who immigrated to the United States from Nazi Germany in 1937.
On Oct. 15, 1937, my father crossed the border from Kehl, in the southwest corner of Germany, into Strasbourg, France. Five days later he boarded the SS Bremen in Cherbourg for the five–day voyage across the Atlantic to New York.
Among the items Dad brought with him when he arrived in New York was an album covered in beige canvas containing snapshots of family, friends, and landscapes. They were pictures of elegantly dressed, confident-looking people, secure about their place in the world. There was no hint of the catastrophic events that would soon envelop them and millions of other European Jews.
One of Dad’s first jobs in New Haven was working as a night clerk at the Hotel York, a residential hotel in a sketchy neighborhood near the railroad station. He earned $10 a week, which even in those days was a paltry sum. In January 1939 he took a job as a salesman for the J.R. Watkins Company, a Minnesota-based maker of soaps, spices, extracts, and other household products.
Like my father, my mother’s parents, Samuel and Sara Schwartz, immigrated to the United States to escape religious persecution. They arrived in 1905, fleeing Jewish pogroms in Ukraine, which was then part of the Russian Empire.
My parents were both Ashkenazi Jews from not-very-observant families, but that’s where their similarities ended. My father grew up in a world of big houses, fancy cars, and vacations at posh resorts. My mother was the product of a tight-knit family of modest means. She was 31 when she married and had lived with her parents in the same house virtually her entire life.
My father married into a family of powerful, strong-willed women. My grandmother was a stern, no-nonsense matriarch who didn’t suffer fools gladly. “She was tough as nails. Dominant,” recalled my cousin Jean Adnopoz.
I grew up in the first-floor flat of my grandmother’s house on Willow Street in New Haven. It was a neighborhood of stout, three-story shingled houses a mile or so from the ivy-covered neo-Gothic halls of Yale University. It was a tight-knit community of immigrant families, mostly Italian, Irish, and Jewish.
Once or twice a year Dad took the family to New York for a weekend matinee. The show that made the deepest impression on me was a performance by the French mime Marcel Marceau. From the moment he shuffled onto the stage in his signature striped sailor shirt, tight-fitting black vest, and white bell-bottom trousers, I was completely in his thrall.
Everything about New York was bigger, faster, louder, messier. Dad was different, too. At home my mother ruled with unchallenged supremacy, but here in the Big City, Dad was in command.
At the turn of the 20th century, The Kupfers were one of the largest producers of sheet and mirror glass in Bavaria and Bohemia.
On Tuesday, August 18, 1942, Train Da 503 pulled away from Platform 40 of Frankfurt’s Grossmarkthalle. Its destination was a small town north of Prague, near an old fortress called Theresienstadt. The train was packed with more than a thousand elderly Jews. Among them were my grandfather Otto Kupfer and his sister Mina.
In May 2015, 72 years after my grandfather’s murder, I boarded an intercity bus in Prague for the 40-mile trip northwest to Terezín. … I lit a white prayer candle and placed it next to several other burning candles on a metal ramp that had apparently been used to feed the corpses into the flames.