black and white photo of a man standing behind a boy on a bike
The author and his father in the backyard of their house in New Haven, Connecticut, ca. 1959.

‘Glassmaker’s Son’: S.F. journalist tackles his father’s unspoken Holocaust story

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

A few years after his German-born father died in 1976, Peter Kupfer traveled to his dad’s hometown of Weiden in the state of Bavaria. He made the trip to learn more about his family history, something his Holocaust survivor father, Robert, remained mum about during his life.

headshot of Peter Kupfer, an older white man with gray hair
Peter Kupfer

In Weiden, the then-28-year-old found a small city of people eager to help him unearth the past. A local journalist became his liaison, and soon Peter learned that his grandfather, Otto, had run a glassmaking factory in keeping with a Jewish profession dating back thousands of years.

He also learned that Otto was forced to sell the family villa, which the Nazis turned into their regional headquarters. It was later destroyed by U.S. artillery in the closing days of World War II.

Kupfer made more trips to Weiden and other parts of Europe in the decades that followed to conduct further research.

The book that came out of this research — “The Glassmaker’s Son: Looking for the World My Father Left Behind in Nazi Germany” — is a family history–focused memoir. On Sunday, Feb. 5, Kupfer, 71, will give a reading at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley.

“It’s like you have a big blank in your family history,” Kupfer, a journalist and photographer who lives in San Francisco, said of the impetus for the project. “My dad never talked about his life in Germany. It was almost like the Holocaust had never happened, because he never talked about it.”

Cover of "The Glassmaker's Son" by Peter Kupfer“The Glassmaker’s Son” is full of small discoveries about Kupfer’s ancestors. For example, he learned of his grandfather’s desperate attempts to escape Germany from letters he discovered in his parents’ attic. The letters document how Robert (who was already in the U.S.) tried to get his cousin, a lawyer in Connecticut, to write an affidavit in support of Otto’s application for a U.S. visa.

“I am waiting for this affidavit for nearly a half a year now,” Robert wrote in 1940. “I naturally was relying completely on this promise and let valuable time pass by, without contacting any other people. This problem has now reached a stage where no time can be lost any longer unless I should decide to let my father starve to death.”

Robert goes on to make a list of things he’ll give his cousin for the affidavit, including $5,000 cash, a platinum cigarette case and a stamp collection. “I have put all my cards on the table and cannot do more,” he wrote.

Eventually, Otto’s visa application was approved (with or without the affidavit is unclear), but for reasons that Kupfer wasn’t able to determine, Otto never received it. He was deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp in August 1942. He died a few months later.

But “The Glassmaker’s Son” isn’t just about the glassmaker Otto, his son Robert and Robert’s wife (and Peter’s mother), the daughter of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. It’s also about Peter Kupfer himself, his upbringing in New Haven, Connecticut and his coming of age.

The author, who is gay, paints a poignant image of the world he grew up in.

“I dreaded going to gym [class],” Kupfer writes. “Just the thought of undressing in front of the other boys made my stomach flutter with anxiety. I was deeply ashamed of my skeletal body, but even more distressing, I was terrified of getting a hard-on.” He tried to avoid taking a shower in the locker room, but a nosy gym teacher wouldn’t let him: “Where do you think you’re going, bar mitzvah boy?”

It was almost like the Holocaust had never happened, because he never talked about it.

A freelance journalist and self-described introvert, Kupfer said he is used to writing about others, not himself. “All my career, I’d been taught to keep myself out of the story,” he said. “I struggled with how much of my own story I should include in the book.”

But his friends encouraged him to write about his experiences about his life as a gay man. With so many books that have been published about the Holocaust, he said writing about his own life makes his story unique. “I didn’t want to just write about the horrors of the Holocaust, and about the tragedy and the loss,” he said. “I wanted to also make it about the second generation, and how it affected me.”

Kupfer, who worked as a copy editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for 13 years, said that learning about his family history has strengthened his sense of self and made him better understand how he might be similar to his father. “The fact that he never spoke about his experiences during the Holocaust was sort of analogous to my being in the closet,” he said. “My father’s experience affected who I am, and my life is in some ways a reflection of his.”

He added, “My introversion, my distrust of other people — those are things I think I absorbed invisibly from my father.”

Ultimately, Kupfer’s use of speculation — he sprinkles words such “imagine,” “speculate,” “wonder” and “must have” throughout the book — demonstrates that he can never truly know what thoughts and feelings animated his father’s psyche. His book is a testament less to his father’s emotional life than to a human need to feel rooted, and the Nazis’ violation of that need.

Kupfer, who changed his last name back to Kupfer after his father anglicized it to Cooper, puts down roots on every page.

“The Glassmaker’s Son: Looking for the World My Father Left Behind in Nazi Germany” by Peter Kupfer (Amsterdam Publishers, 266 pages). Kupfer will give a reading 3-4 p.m. Feb. 5 at Afikomen Judaica, 3042 Claremont Ave., Berkeley. afikomen.com

Lauren Hakimi
Lauren Hakimi

Lauren Hakimi is a writer with bylines in the Forward, Alma, Lilith, Bon Appétit, CNN and more. She is also associate editor of New Voices Magazine.