The delight of Fred Amram’s memoir, We’re In America Now (Holy Cow! Press, September 2016), about growing up as an immigrant to America, arriving at age six in 1939, comes entirely from Amram’s verve. The subtitle, A Survivor’s Stories, refers to his emigration from Nazi Germany after a childhood forever altered by the Gestapo (see “The Reluctant Grown-Up,” Hippocampus January 2012 and collected in Selected Memories, Hippocampus Magazine and Books, February 2017) and his first-hand experience of Kristallnacht. His family soon fled Germany, keeping ahead of the Germans, stopping at Amsterdam (home to his mother’s sister, her husband, and their baby, Fred’s only cousin) and Belgium, before a two-week voyage to his new country.
Holocaust memoirs are often equal parts sweet and grim. Amram’s young cousin in Amsterdam is killed by the Nazi’s, as are her parents. He dreams about cockroaches (his apartment in New York City is next to a bakery), and hearing of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, they become brownshirts in his dreams, rounding up Jewish refugee children. The boy has survivor’s guilt. Looking at photos from liberated concentration camps, he looks for his cousin. “I see no children,” he writes. “I look for myself in the pictures but I’m not there. I’m here in America.”
In Amram’s writing, distance soothes the hurt and reduces it to a dull ache. He is a sharp student, with a steady internal voice questioning authority, assessing his place in the world, and growing confident in his maturity. His narrative attention to school as formative makes his professional career as a lauded educator (here largely unchronicled) no surprise. His sixth grade teacher, Miss Christie, redefines his outside status as ‘special’ (see “The Outsider”, Hippocampus, February 2012.) Amram’s awareness of class distinction (“Every day in every way I know that we’re poor.”) never translates into self-pity (“but somehow Papa saved up the money for the World’s Fair.”) He constantly asks questions and evaluates himself with insight and humor. As a coming-of-age tale, Amram’s book reminds me of John Bower’s Love in Tennessee, which should be a completely different tale of a native son growing up in the country, but that feels remarkably similar because of the era and earnest enthusiasm of the narrators. In narrative voice, Amram shines. He is the friend we want to root for, always accepting injustice and hardship and working around it, never expressing an extended ill-will. Amram has a love for life that’s palpable.
Near the end of the book, Amram attends the Bronx High School of Science. This is a big deal. But in this new environment, he’s no longer special. The other kids are smart. In German class they discuss Goethe. “German is my first language, but I can barely keep up with the discussion,” he tells us.
In the course of his life, Fred Amram has gone from outsider, to special, to normal. Or so he’d have us believe. His memoir is well above average.