When Martin Weiss stood in front of an audience at age 63 to speak for the first time about his experiences in the Holocaust, it became a liberating moment for him — and for his daughter.
“When my father stepped on the stage at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he had never done public speaking in his life,” said Gail Gaspar, who has written and self-published a memoir about her father and herself, called “Carrying My Father’s Torch.”
“He was frightened to do the talk because he didn’t have any training in writing and delivering a speech. So, he did it like he does everything else, by the seat of his pants.”
Before that moment in 1992, her father had refused to speak publicly about his Holocaust nightmare. Born in Polana, Czechoslovakia, in 1929, he had lost his mother, father, three sisters and a brother to the Nazi killing machine.
Weiss had been a slave laborer at the Melk sub camp of the Mauthausen concentration camp.
At first, he didn’t think that people would be interested in what he had to say, said Gaspar, 62, who lives in Potomac and is an executive coach. But when people gave him standing ovations and hugged him and told him he was their inspiration, he realized that he had been wrong.
From then on he became “an educator and a messenger,” the author said, “keeping the memory of his family and his village alive.”
That speech also was life changing for his daughter. “That first time there was something that hit me,” she said. “Oh my God, if he at 63 found his voice, the outlet for the angst he has lived with, I need to do that, too.”
For much of her life, she had felt inhibited and silenced, outside of her journals, which she scrupulously kept.
Caspar writes in her book: “I grew up only knowing what I could glean of Marty’s story. His story, not mine. I grappled with questions. Was his story mine to tell? How could I do it justice? Say it right? … I owed him. I owed them all. But what did I owe? Unbroken silence? Keeping myself buried in the pages of my journal as I have since childhood? Whom was I protecting? What was I refusing to own? How did I melt my resistance to telling my story, my experience of being down, then getting up and moving through it?”
Does she resent her father for inadvertently stifling her creativity when she was younger? “Absolutely not,” Gaspar answers. “Our relationships with people are complicated, and they change over time. When I was living in their house growing up, they [her parents] were strict. I didn’t like that. But I always saw their behavior as loving and wanting to be good parents.”
She had wanted to write the book for some time, but began to feel a sense of urgency.
“My father is 91, and no one is getting any younger. I wanted to tell the story while he is here. And I wanted to tell it for my children, for the next generation.”
In addition, Gaspar believes her story can help others “to break through the legacy expectations, the legacy stories that are holding them back.”
Already, she said, Second Generation survivors are telling her that the ideas expressed in the book are helping them because “they have been stuck in mind-sets and beliefs that they didn’t know how to change.
“The book is not a traditional memoir,” she noted, with poetry scattered throughout. “I wanted to say what I wanted to say and in the way I wanted to say it.”