The Holocaust and Rock ‘n’ Roll

One of the first things Gene Simmons reveals in his new autobiography, "Kiss and Make-Up," is that he is the child of a Holocaust survivor.
April 4, 2002

One of the first things Gene Simmons reveals in his new autobiography, "Kiss and Make-Up," is that he is the child of a Holocaust survivor. The co-founder and bassist for Kiss, one of rock’s most commercially successful bands, writes that his mother, Flora Klein, a Hungarian Jew, was sent to concentration camps at age 14, "where she saw most of her family wiped out in the gas chambers."

The ghostly grasp of the Holocaust has reached farther and wider than perhaps realized, even casting its shadow on rock music. Simmons is but one of a number of prominent rock and pop musicians whose families suffered during the Holocaust. That flesh-and-blood connection to such cataclysm has colored their lives and music.

Piano man Billy Joel, Procol Harum lyricist Keith Reid, WAR harmonica player Lee Oskar and Ten-Wheel Drive lead singer Genya Ravan are the children of those who survived the Holocaust, or fled before the Final Solution became official Nazi policy.

Longtime stars Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt; bass player Bob Glaub; Justine Frischmann, leader of the British band Elastica; singer-songwriter Dan Bern; and the late Enrico Rosenbaum, guitarist, singer and songwriter for the ’70s band Gypsy, share similar histories.

Former Blues Project and Seatrain bassist-flute player Andy Kulberg still remembers his Austrian-born father Siegfried, who escaped the Nazis in 1939, telling him long after coming to the United States to "always keep about $5,000 in cash in a safety deposit box."

Mickey Raphael, longtime harmonica player for Willie Nelson, is fortunate that his father and uncle were wise enough and lucky enough to escape Germany by 1936, especially since his Uncle Arno had insulted a group of Hitler’s Brown Shirts and been thrown in jail.

Billy Joel, whose resumé lists more than 30 Top 40 hits from 1974 through 1993, developed resilience, toughness and determination from his father, a WWII refugee, who though absent much of Billy’s life, was an example of fortitude. (His mother, Rosalind, who raised Billy as a single parent also served as an example of dogged determination.)

Joel’s grandparents and father, Howard, barely got out of Germany in 1939 before the Nazis implemented their plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe. The blows of losing their business and their Nuremberg home, being forced to flee, and spending three years as refugees in Cuba may have caused the Joels to keep their Jewish roots under wraps when the family arrived in the United States in 1942.

In one of life’s great ironies, Howard Joel was drafted in 1943, sent back to Europe, fought in Italy and was among the troops who liberated Dachau, the infamous Nazi concentration camp in southern Germany. "I had relatives that were in concentration camps — although not Dachau — and some of them were put to death. But at Dachau … it was terrible. We were too late to help," Howard Joel told Billboard’s Timothy White in 1994.

It’s no coincidence that so many of Joel’s songs champion the underdog. He has paid tribute to unemployed steelworkers in "Allentown," disparaged Vietnam veterans in "Goodnight Saigon," and to Long Island fishermen struggling to make a living in "The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’" illuminating the dignity and resolve in each.

In a song title, Joel’s 1985 hit "Keeping the Faith" sums up the nature of his work.

Bass player Bob Glaub may not be a household name, but check the credits on Rod Stewart’s album "Atlantic Crossing" and John Lennon’s "Rock & Roll." He has also accompanied Browne, Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Dave Mason — and most recently, Dwight Yoakam — on concert tours. He’s the bass player on Adam Sandler’s "Hanukkah Song." He is also one of the biggest mensches in the business.

And it’s not easy being a mensch when you grow up hearing horror stories of Ravensbruck and Mauthausen, especially when they come from your mother.

A Hungarian-speaking Czech, Glaub’s mother, Edith, was working as a nanny in Budapest when Hitler’s troops swept through Hungary in 1944. His father, from the same Czech village as his mother, spent the war in a series of slave labor camps in the Ukraine. Glaub’s parents were reunited after the war and immigrated to the United States in 1949. (His father, Zoltan, paid their way by helping to paint the ship.)

While his parents eventually were able to speak of their Holocaust experiences and regain a sense of humor and an upbeat outlook on life, the specter of the Holocaust hung over their home.

"I can’t say that [being a child of Holocaust survivors] hasn’t been filled with a lot of negativity. I have to constantly fight to overcome that. Hearing throughout your whole life about the genocide that happened doesn’t give you a positive outlook on the world." Nonetheless, he says, "My perspective on life is of extreme thankfulness for all I have and all that has come my way."

Singer-songwriter Dan Bern wrestles with the horror of the Holocaust more often and more directly than any other contemporary songwriter. In a new song, "God Said No," from his 2001 album, "New American Language," Bern asks God to send him back in time to Berlin to take out Hitler. "I will stalk him. I will bring him down," the Iowa native sings. In the song "Hannibal" from his 1996 album "Dog Boy Van," Bern takes on Holocaust deniers: "Hitler never hurt a soul./ I read it in a book/ That I just finished up this morning./ I was happy and I just couldn’t wait to tell the good news/ To all of my dead uncles."

In June 1999, several years after his father’s death, Bern visited Skuodas, his father’s birthplace in Lithuania, to make peace with the family ghosts. His father, Julian Bern, born Yehuda Bernstein, and one brother, Leon, were the only two members of a family of seven to survive the Nazi invasion of Lithuania in 1941. They left Lithuania in 1939 after Hitler’s pact with the Soviet dictator Stalin. Yehuda eventually made it to Palestine, while Leon joined partisans in the forests of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Bern, along with an Israeli cousin, arrived in Skuodas searching for a part of his past he never knew and a part of his father’s past he wanted to better understand.

"I went back to get my house in order, to make peace with my past, to face it and look at it," Bern says. A result of the trip was the reclamation of his family name. "A women we met in Skuodas knew the name Bernstein, and from that moment I felt I was Bernstein [pronounced Bern-stine]."

Upon returning home, Bern simply began referring to himself as Bernstein. It strengthened his identity and connection to his family. "Now," he says, "when I say ‘Bernstein,’ I feel something every time."

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.