Interview with Author and Holocaust Survivor Barbara Sommer Feigin

There are many memoirs on bookshelves and available to read online. They intend to beckon the reader into the world of the author.My American Dream- A Journey From Fascism to Freedom, by multi-faceted author Barbara Sommer Feigin dares the reader to enter into a world that is a testament to love and resilience overcoming trauma, tragedy, and fear. She has lived many lives in her decades on the planet. 

An advertising specialist and powerful communicator, a caregiving spouse, widow, and mother to three sons, two of them twins, Sommers Feigin, has taken what she has learned and offered it as a gift to anyone in need of inspiration. 

A stunning piece of literature revealed aspects of your life that you had known nothing about until 2013.  Can you please share what it was and how it changed so much of what you believed about your lineage?

Several years ago, when I was in my seventies, I learned of a journal my Jewish father had kept before and during the terrifying, death-defying escape he, my Lutheran mother, and I at age two-and-a-half made from Nazi Germany in July of 1940, at the onset of World War II. I had known, of course, we’d escaped from Nazi Germany, but I knew nothing of the details until I read my father’s journal. My parents never spoke of them, and I remembered nothing. As my father wrote, we traveled with a group of 82 refugees on a harrowing seventeen-day train trip from Berlin through Lithuania, Russia, including Siberia, China, Korea, and Japan, and from there on a fourteen-day trip across the Pacific Ocean on a Japanese ship, the Hikawa Maru to Seattle.

Reading my father’s journal was an emotionally overwhelming, life-affirming experience for me. I learned all the horrifying details of their frantic efforts to escape and of the escape itself. But beyond that, I learned so much about my parents—aspects of their character I’d never even thought about as I was growing up: their courage and bravery, their determination and perseverance, their optimism and resilience, and their profound elation to be in the land of the free.  They believed fervently that in America, the land of the free, with education, hard work and persistence, big dreams can come true.

Do you marvel at the courage it took for your father to carry his journal with him as your family escaped Nazi Germany at peril of your lives?

I marvel at the courage of both my parents as my father scrambled frantically to find a way to get us out of Nazi Germany. And to travel, as my father wrote, “three-quarters of the way around the world, into the unknown,” with a two-year-old in these harrowing times took unimaginable courage and bravery. The train was stopped fourteen times on their grueling trip, and each time, my parents had to show their documentation and the few things they were carrying. And each time, I know they were terrified that they would be taken off the train, and who knows what terrible things would happen to them. The entire experience, including my father’s carrying his journal, took unspeakable courage and bravery.

What values did you inherit from your parents that served you throughout your life?

My parents had a very strong value system which they modeled in the way they lived their lives. Their values have become my own, and I’ve tried to pass them along, successfully I believe, to my own sons. Among the most important of these values are honor and integrity, having high standards, being proud and independent, always striving to be the best you can be, generosity of spirit, courage and bravery, determination and perseverance, and optimism and resilience.  Undergirding all these values was their strong belief in the importance of family and their fundamental principle for living:  dream big, work hard, and never quit.

How did you learn to integrate into a new culture?

As a young, German-speaking refugee girl who with her parents were complete outliers in their community, Chehalis, I yearned passionately to become an authentic American girl, just like everyone else. I wanted to be a part of a group of friends, I wanted to dress like everyone else, not in hand-me-downs from kind-hearted neighbors, and I wanted to be an integral part of what was happening in school and in my town. I focused on all these goals, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously, and over time I became integrated, for the most part, into the culture.

Do you feel like being an immigrant has shaped your life view?

Yes, to the extent that I felt like an outlier, an “other,” and wanted so much to be a part of the culture, being an immigrant did influence my life view.

Have you experienced anti-Semitism?

During the time I was growing up I was very naïve and lived something of a sheltered life.  I was never aware during those years of experiencing anti-Semitism. When I went to college, though, I went through a painfully humiliating experience.  The lion’s share of students at my college belonged to fraternities and sororities. Rush took place at the very beginning of freshman year, with many parties, teas, and picnics as the sororities assessed the freshman girls and decided which ones they wanted to invite to join them. 

The day the bids came out, I did not receive a single one. I thought surely there had been an error, but when I checked I learned that there was no error. I tried and tried to figure out what was wrong with me. I was absolutely crushed; I could hardly hold my head up in this small college community where everyone knew everything about everyone else. I eventually was invited to join a sorority, but once again I felt as if I were a second thought, an“other.”  I never knew until my fiftieth reunion—fifty-five years after the fact what it was that caused all the sororities to shun me.  At a reunion luncheon with my classmates, a woman who knew I’d achieved some success in life leaned over and whispered to me, “You know, we would like to have pledged you, but, you know, it was the Jewish thing.” 

I was floored and nearly fell off my chair. It had simply never occurred to me that the same anti-Semitism that had caused me, together with my parents, to flee for our lives from the Nazis was what had caused me to be banned from my college sororities. This had been a devastating experience, but now I was able to fit one of the missing puzzle pieces into my life.  

What was it like to become a caregiver at such an early age and experience a role reversal?

My husband, Jim, suffered the first of a series of very serious strokes at the prime of his life, when he was only fifty-four years old.  This was a shattering experience not only for him.

“Mrs. Feigin, your life will never be the same.” Truer words were never spoken.  Life for all of us in our family became “the time before” and “the time after” Jim’s stroke. Jim and I had always been very strong partners throughout our marriage, discussing our key decisions, sharing our responsibilities as parents, and managing our household and finances. After Jim’s stroke, I took over primary responsibility for everything—most importantly looking after Jim’s health and well-being, but also managing our household, our financial situation including being the only breadwinner, and everything having to do with our family. This was a huge and stressful adjustment, but as one of my colleagues used to say, “Champions adjust,” and fortunately, I was able to do so.

At what point did you realize a discrepancy between the ways women and men are treated?

When I graduated from college, the options for women were to become nurses, teachers, typists, or to get married, while men were able to pursue any career they wished: doctors, lawyers, engineers, business executives, and the like. I was very aware of this disparity. I wanted to study business administration in graduate school, but was unable to attend the Harvard Business School as it was for men only. Instead, I went to a virtually identical program for women, the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration where we women received “Certificates,” upon graduation, not MBAs as the men did. 

After I graduated and decided to go into marketing, I could not get a career-path-building position as a product or brand manager; these jobs were for men only. As I built my career in a male-dominated business, advertising, I was often the only woman in the room.  I learned to move forward by always bringing something of value to the table and always, literally, by making my voice heard.

How did it contribute to your professional experience of sometimes being the only woman in a male working environment?

Throughout my career as a top-level advertising executive and as a corporate director, I was often the only woman in the room. I was guided by my life principle: to dream big; work very, very hard; and never, ever quit. I knew the importance of determination, perseverance, and resilience, understanding that achievement of my goals might not always come in a straight line—that there would be bumps in the road. I learned how to overcome obstacles and to speak up for what I believed was right. Always, I understood the importance of bringing something of value to the table. For me, that was my expertise as an authority on the American consumer. And I sometimes needed to raise my voice to make it heard, so it would be clear that I had something of value to contribute.

Please tell us about the pivotal moment when you met your husband, Jim, and then another when, after 30 years of marriage, he had the first of a series of strokes.

I initially was introduced to my husband, Jim, during the early days of my time at the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration, when he was a student at the Harvard Business School. We were introduced by one of my housemates who had grown up with Jim. Jim and I never saw one another again until one day during the last week of school, just before we graduated, when we were at opposite ends of the card counter at the Harvard Co-op, looking for Mother’s Day cards for our mothers. We made eye contact and slowly moved toward one another, started a conversation. . .and the conversation never ended. 

I had a profound feeling, right away, that my relationship with Jim was going to be an important one. It turned out to be the most important one of my life. Jim left Boston after graduation for a job in New York, and I went to New York a few months later to start my career. We were married the following September. We had a wonderful partnership, built a tightly bonded family as we raised three fantastic sons together, and experienced much happiness. Our charmed life was shattered, as I noted earlier, when Jim had several strokes during the prime of his life. Over time, and with much support of Jim and of one another by our family, we adjusted to our new reality.

You have experienced so much loss throughout your life, your parents, the third of your triplets, and later on, your husband.  What got you through?

I think I learned from my parents, through osmosis, the importance of optimism and resilience. They lived through unspeakable hardships and challenges, always looking forward—always working toward their goals. There were many obstacles in their way, but they were resilient and found ways to work around them. They were great role models for me as I faced my own losses. I tried always to move forward, as best I could, under difficult circumstances. And I was always motivated by my guiding principle:  to dream big; work hard; and never quit.

What was your motivation for writing your story now?

The impetus for writing my story was my learning of my father’s journal when I was in my seventies.  Reading his journal was an overwhelming, life-affirming experience for me. I learned so much about my parents—aspects of their character I’d never even thought about as I was growing up: their courage and bravery, their determination and perseverance, their resilience and optimistic spirit, and their fervent belief that in America, the land of the free, with education, hard work, and persistence, big dreams can come true. I wrote this book primarily for my sons, my grandchildren, and generations to come so they would never be as ignorant of what came before them as I had been. It’s so important to know what came before us, as this is what helps make us who we are.

How can your experience be a healing balm for the woes of the world when it comes to the hatred and division we are experiencing?  Is it a wakeup call?

My life experience has been deeply influenced by my parents’ elation and appreciation of being in America, the land of the free. From the beginning, they impressed upon me how profoundly lucky we were to be in a country where we could be who we wanted to be, do what we wanted to do, go where we wanted to go, and strive to achieve the goals to which we aspired. My father wrote in his journal about how grateful he was to live in a land where he could express his opinions and where he was able to get his news through a free press and radio. At this very difficult time in the world, it’s more important than ever for all of us to understand, appreciate, and protect our precious freedom, and never, ever to take it for granted.

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