Reimagining Loss Podcast Episode Transcript

Reimagining Loss Podcast Episode Transcript

Brad Wolfe (singing with instrumentals):
Throw a stone, the pie. What should fall? Wonder why we laugh. We cry on this big rock of loading in the sky. How do we know to breathe? Where do we go when we leave in songs and dreams in the bright stars? When my friends I see if love, love is the answer, ask me these questions all night or show you what it feels like.

Holly Ignatowski:
Welcome to the Remembering a Life podcast. I'm your host, Holly Ignatowski, and today my guest is Brad Wolfe, founder and executive director of Reimagine, an organization that helps people face adversity, loss and mortality, and channel the hard parts of life into meaningful action and growth. Brad and his family know all too well how difficult life can be. His grandparents, Elliot and Sally both survived the Holocaust, enduring the experiences that would influence them for the rest of their lives as survivors of the Holocaust. Elliot and Sally knew adversity that most of us can't begin to imagine. Their lived experience and resilience inspired Brad to do the work he does today and to create music, some of which we heard at the beginning of today's episode. Before we begin our conversation, please note that we will be discussing the concentration camps and the trauma experienced by Brad's grandparents during the Holocaust. Some listeners may find the discussion difficult to listen to. Welcome Brad, and thank you so much for joining me today.

Brad Wolfe:
Thank you so much for having me.

Holly Ignatowski:
Let's start by learning a little bit about your organization, Reimagine. What is it and what does the organization do?

Brad Wolfe:
Yeah, so Reimagine, as you shared in your introduction, we help people face the hardest parts of life, mortality, losses, and all types of adversities, but we don't just help them open up conversations about those things and feel more comfortable beginning to process them. Once folks feel like they have a safe space to arrive at, we then help them transform what's hard into beauty, into creativity, into positive action in the world. And we do that in a number of ways. We host, for example, thousands of online events every year that are free and accessible to make sure everyone in the country has access to spaces to process these hard things. And now we are actually building a social media platform, an alternative to things like Facebook and to Instagram that's actually healthy and might help people move forward on their journeys.

Holly Ignatowski:
And talk about the values that Reimagine espouses. You have them listed. What are those values?

Brad Wolfe:
Oh, you're putting me on the spot with our main values, but the values as we're going to be talking about today, they stem from what we're going to be talking about. One of our core values is justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. And that really is at the top of everything that we do. We call that Jedi justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. And really that means we want to champion the space for everyone that no matter your background, no matter your belief system, everyone should have access to community support through the hard times in life. And not only that, by bringing people together of different backgrounds, we all strengthen that death and loss. That's something we all have in common. So reimagine my place where we don't only reimagine the hard parts of life, we reimagine life, all of it together and create an optimistic future. And optimism, in fact, is another one of our values to believe in, to strive for, to actually manifest new possibilities. The other values that I think touch on this work are creativity, community, authenticity. And one of the things we're going to be talking about today, as well as courage to be able to turn toward what is hard,

Holly Ignatowski:
The value of courage that leads us right into your grandparents. Now, I understand that your grandfather died when you were quite young, and that your grandmother Sally, actually died recently at the age of 102. Now as we said, they both survived the Holocaust. Are you willing to share their story with us?

Brad Wolfe:
Sure, yeah. Their story is so horrific and also some parts of it are beautiful and certainly the reason why I'm here today. So very, very much willing to share. If you want me to start with my grandfather, whom I know less about than my grandma, but my grandfather Elliot, he was in the Polish cavalry and was a very amazing horseback rider. But as you might imagine, the horseback riding and the cavalry was really no match for the German tanks at the beginning of the war. And he was captured and he was brought to Auschwitz, which I'm sure everyone knows about Auschwitz, one of the iconic, most horrific death camps. Now, my grandfather had a unique distinction of, I don't know if anyone was there longer than him. He was there for four years because he was there from the outset, forced to actually build the barracks and build the camps himself with his bare hands.

And then as they started getting prisoners, they actually forced my grandfather, his job in the camp in part was to carry the bodies to and from the crematoriums where they were executed. And he only stayed alive by eating the food that he found in the clothing of the other prisoners after they were killed. And he also has a unique distinction of being one of probably the only people that ever escaped Auschwitz, and this is crazy, but broke back in because he, one day after carrying one of the bodies, one of the guards at the end of the day just said, just run, just escape, go run in the woods and let him run away. But my grandfather was so gaunt, he was down maybe to like 90 pounds after being someone who was maybe 190 pounds. He had very little survivability left, and at that time, no one would take, the houses were far apart and it was the dead of winter and it was snowing.

And I think he knocked on a door, but no one would take him in. So the only way for him to survive was literally to go back and sneak back in to resume his work in the camps. That's how desperate he was. So yeah, I mean, I can only just the number of souls that he had to deal with their transitions. I just can't even fathom eating snails and eating scraps of food and seeing all the death and having to do that. I really have a hard time wrapping my head around his job during that period of life. Now, would you like me to share my grandma's story? Because they actually end up, what's crazy is they end up together at the very end of the war, and that's where things kind of come together, but they both have their own journeys to get there.

Holly Ignatowski:
So they didn't know each other when they were both brought into the camp. They met after.

Brad Wolfe:
They were in the same rehabilitation camp after the war, and I think they were on the same train that was ostensibly taking them to their death. I mean, it's really insane. My grandmother, she was also in Auschwitz. It's true. She did not know my grandfather. She actually, her family was moved to a ghetto in L. She was also Polish. It was my grandma's parents. And then her two younger sisters, her oldest sister had actually had been married and had to England before the war and eventually migrated to America, but her mom didn't want to leave her home. So they had talked about leaving, but then they didn't. And then it was all of a sudden too late. And next thing you know, they were moved to this imprisoned in this ghetto where they were served coffee grinds and a piece of bread. And grandma's, her name was ska Grandma Sally, grandma Sally's dad, was, he quickly developed an illness and died in the ghetto.

And my grandma had to sneak out as the oldest child at maybe 19 years old, snuck out under the bright watch of these lights that they would shine and catch you if you even left your home and put her father in a wheelbarrow and took him to a cemetery to give him a dignified burial in the middle of the night by herself. Next thing you know, they took my grandma's mother and then her two younger sisters and my grandma, they said they were going to take them to a great place, a great place to work to have a nice job. But of course, they took them on this train and they also landed in Auschwitz. And from there, my grandmother, they had these two different lines where they separated people they thought could work and from people that they took directly to the gas chambers. And that's where immediately they separated my grandma and her sisters from their mom. And I know her mom cried out, and next thing you know, there was a commotion, but my grandma's mom was taken to the gas chambers immediately. And when they asked to guard where their mom went, he pointed to the sky.

And so immediately it was my grandma becoming really the protector of her siblings for the remainder of their time. And it was just a crazy, horrific journey through these camps. They had them one time she shared that they would bring trucks of bodies to bury, and one time there was my grandma's aunt in the truck dead and she had to bury her right there. So it's just stuff like that. And then my grandma went on a march across the country from concentration camp to concentration camp. Now, the only reason they were able to survive, my grandma was extremely well educated and spoke perfect German, and she was also very, whereas they cut the hair off most of the prisoners, as we all have those images in our minds of bald con prisoners, they for some reason kept my grandma's beautiful blonde hair, auburn hair on her head.

And there was a moment where they again had those lines to separate people from the weak to the strong to continue working. And this time they were going to separate out my grandma from her two younger sisters who were, I think 16 and 14, and my grandma knowing perfect German said, just step forward right out of the line. And then all of a sudden they came up to her with a gun, it pointed her head and the dog sniffing her. And she said, these women imperfect German, she said this, that's how it works. She said, these two girls, they can do the work of 10 men. And the guard just laughed at her face but said, alright, go ahead. And so they pointed them to go together, and that's how they ended up leaving the camp to go to another camp. And as they look back, all of a sudden, I think someone else tried the same thing to stay connected to their family, and shots were ringing out and they were firing right into the mass of prisoners.

So my grandma, they just got out and continued on their way. And then another crazy story is my grandma, the only reason then that she was able to survive is that at this subsequent camp where they were building munitions, the guard that was overseeing them, he I think found my grandma really beautiful. And every day he would sneak a sandwich into a drawer and tell her that she could have the sandwich. Now, instead of just eating the sandwich, my grandma took it back with her and divided it into 18 little pieces for all the other women in the camp. And they each had a morsel of it, which really helped 'em. I dunno, that story really stayed with me. And I shared that at her at her funeral just recently because not everyone in the family knew about that story, but that really speaks to some of her values. It gets even wilder, more like almost cinematic. My grandma then was taken on a train at the end of the war, the same train that they said, we're going to take you and we're going to go to your final spot. Everyone got a body bag on this train and they were going to throw them off the Alps.

So this was the final solution that they were thinking about. So they were on this train, people were dying around them and defecating, and this was the very end of the war, and this was it really. But all of a sudden, in the dead of winter, the train lurched to a stop and there was gunfire outside and no one knew what was happening. And next thing you know, it was Eisenhower and his troops had intercepted the train and opened the doors and all the prisoners ran out. And then they said, I mean, it was just remarkable that this happened. And then they literally lined up the Germans and then they gave guns to my grandma and said, do you want, you go ahead, you shoot them.

And they said, no, we don't want to shoot them, we just don't ever want to see them again. And they cried and ran off, but they were saved and then they were placed in these rehabilitation camps. And that's where, I mean, ironically, I mean the crazy thing is that for the first time my grandma's younger sister, Jenny was unwell. She was placed in a hospital in a French hospital where they didn't speak Polish and the sisters didn't know where she was here. They had survived this whole war together, and now only now they didn't know where their sister was. And so Jenny, in the middle of the night not wanting to be there, wanting to be reunited with her sisters, broke out of the hospital and just started running away from the hospital to try to find her sisters. Meanwhile, my grandfather happened to be on a bike riding through this forest and saw this poor girl Jenny. And Jenny said, have you heard, I'm looking for two sisters? And sure enough, my grandfather had heard that there's these people looking for their sister and was able to take Jenny on his bike and bring him to reunite with her sisters in the camp and met my grandmother and then really became the protector and the friend of these three young girls as they all healed from the war. In that time, he fell in love with my grandma.

Holly Ignatowski:
It was fate that they met. It sounds, the word that keeps going through my head, Brad, is unimaginable. I don't know if there's anyone listening to this who could possibly wrap, as you said, wrap their brain around what you just said and such intricate details of what happened. So your grandparents, at least your grandmother, they told you their story. We hear of so many people who go through war and don't talk about it, but it was important for them to tell their story, to tell you their story. And the value of courage doesn't even give it justice. How your grandparents survived, what they went through, and then the story of your grandfather breaking back in because he didn't have the strength to survive. Freedom is again, unimaginable. How did they do? They talk about how they got through each minute of each day and then just having to move forward after the war and try to live a normal life. How do you do that?

Brad Wolfe:
I mean, this is the question that really has percolated in my brain my whole life, what you're asking. It's like, because my grandma would say that a lot of people would be, a lot of her peers, sadly, they would wake up and people would've flung themselves onto the fence and were committing suicide at a very high rate. And so what is it about life and her life that made it worth continuing to persevere? But I do think there's just something about the human spirit. I don't know. It's like there's something about life that makes people in these dark times fight for it so hard to survive. It's like what we would endure to have this precious opportunity to be alive. I mean, my grandmother, she would talk about this pretty much, and first of all, she didn't talk about it to my dad very much, and to his brother, they never talked about it growing up. Whereas for me, it's strange that I've probably heard her stories almost every time I saw her almost my entire life.

She said, and this is also really amazing. So you talked about Reimagine the organization that I run now that in many ways is an extension of her spirit. Now, before the first Reimagine event, we hosted this large scale festival in San Francisco simultaneously, I really wanted a video or a tape of my grandma's story, and she had written things down by hand, but there was no footage of her sharing her story, and she never wanted me to record her. So she would tell me these stories verbally, which really made their way into my soul. But I didn't have a recording of it. I got wind that Steven Spielberg actually recorded a number of these testimonials as part of this foundation that he runs the show up project. And someone in my family said, I didn't grandma get recorded for that, but she never talked about it or told anyone.

Anyway, at USC's library in Southern California, I tracked down, and sure enough, my grandma in 1998 had recorded a three hour testimonial and I got them to send me 18 copies to give to my family. So I got these tapes in the mail and they just came right before the first Reimagine event, and I watched the whole thing and I was just blown away because the very, very last line in the entire video, they asked my grandma, do you have anything you want to share to future generations? And I would ask my grandma stuff like this, but she never really said anything about any kind of macro lessons or anything. But here she said, I want people to be tolerant of other religions and other races because we're only here for a short while.

I don't know. It was like, that is the mission of Reimagine. I mean, the fact that life is so precious and we're only here for a short while, and so why treat each other with anything but love? Why not be tolerant and inclusive and open? And so Reimagine is about using our impermanence to remind us of what matters most. And I think for me, I think just holding on to love. And I think that for my grandparents, it was thinking about having a family ultimately and then loving their kids, and that gave them a purpose in life thereafter.

Holly Ignatowski:
It seems like your grandparents gave you your purpose in life. Obviously they were the inspiration for the work that you do today. Do you think you would even be doing this line of work if it weren't for their story?

Brad Wolfe:
I mean, surely I'd be a different person and I don't know what I'd be doing. My whole life I felt like I was meant to do something that had some kind of spiritual bent to it. But because of the horrors of the war, my relationship to religion, I would say has been challenging as religion itself. So I didn't want to do something within Judaism necessarily, even though I'm Jewish, it felt like it didn't bring people of different races and religions together in the way that my grandma really mentioned it. But there's something about our impermanence and death that feels like it's, it almost sits, it's like something we all experience every religion has in common. And so being able to, I don't know, buy some kind of karmic inspiration, find this work, I do feel like now I think about my grandfather and all those souls that he had to see transition. There's something about this work that feels like together in this community that we're building that we are, for me anyway, that in some small humble way trying to atone for the suffering that they had to go through in this broken world to try to gently repair it. One small little step at a time.

Holly Ignatowski:
And your grandfather died when you were young, but did your grandmother at least get to see the fruits of your work to see her influence on your work?

Brad Wolfe:
Well, yes, and I'm sure, I know she felt it. I mean, I know that not necessarily, I think she knew what kind of person I was for the last 10 years of her life. She really, she suffered from some dementia. She began to suffer from some dementia and was also very hard of hearing. And I would tell her about what I do and tell her every time that she was my inspiration and I would write that down for her so she could see it in writing. I just wanted her to know in her heart that she indeed, that her legacy was being passed on and I was working to honor her life in my own. I don't know if she could really absorb that, but I know deep down, every time I saw my grandma my whole life as well, she would just start crying.
And I think it was tears of just like, wow, how life was able to just pass on. I think we're very connected. Oh, what am I saying? And she participated in Reimagine. Honestly, I don't know how. I did an event with my dad and my grandma where I interviewed my dad and my grandma showed up even though she couldn't participate much. And when I turned to my grandma to say, grandma, do you have anything you could share about this? This was on Zoom. She just said, I love you all. I love you all. I love you all so much. Thank you. So she actually was a participant in Reimagine, which is a video that I also have, which is one of my other greatest possessions now.

Holly Ignatowski:
That's incredible. And you'll have it forever.

Brad Wolfe:
Yeah, exactly.

Holly Ignatowski:
So their legacy obviously lives on through the work that you every single day and always will. What other ways do you honor their lives?

Brad Wolfe:
Well, I really think, and this is part of what Reimagine work is about as well, is we honor people. We can keep memories alive by how we live our own life. And so if we can articulate those values to ourselves and then even in relationships that aren't perfect, there's sometimes we can find a quality or two that really we admire and that we can think about when we decide we want to live that out more in our own life. So my grandparents were the kind of people that would always invite in. For example, when the milkman, it was always a point that anyone who came over to the house come in and have a drink, let's have a chat. So I dunno, the kind of values of kindness towards strangers toward anyone, around, toward anyone having a seat to being inclusive, I mean, those are values that I really see in my own life.

I feel like I honor my grandparents through that. And I definitely believe in this concept of how these, both the traumas, but also these qualities are just passed down in your DNA based on people's lived experiences. So I carry so much with my grandparents in me also, my grandfather had a, it turned out he played the mandolin. It was a way for him to process, I think some of his experience. And for me, music has really become a real central part of my life. And in fact, as my grandma just passed away, I am now in possession of my grandfather's mandolin.

Holly Ignatowski:
Oh, that's very special. And obviously music is a big part of your life, was influenced by your grandparents. Tell us a little bit about the song that we heard at the beginning of the episode today.

Brad Wolfe:
Yeah, thanks. That's the song called Why Wait and the title of the song is really the point of the song. It's a song about our impermanence and it reminds us as my grandparents' story does, why wait to realize that we're all the same? Why wait to, I think there's a line about why wait to open our mouths to the rain and why wait to remember what matters most? And I mean, in so many ways, that song is an embodiment of both. All these values, the values of my grandparents, that's what I learned from them is like in world where there, there are people still, obviously the Holocaust is something that happened, but we're reminded of it all the time and reminded of other atrocities and things are obviously happening in the world now that are so painful. We don't have time to wait to live a life with love and to pursue what we care about in our hearts.

And so I feel like that's what my grandparents' story teaches me, and that's what Reimagine is trying to espouse and make real for people in our community to transform their pain into outlets like music outlets like photography, like service, like saying, I love you repairing a broken relationship. And so for me, my music is my this kind of outlet. And so we're really asking everyone ideally through their pain, can find their own music. And that should be possible or is possible. We can all turn towards something that heals us and heals one another. And so even the song, there's a line that says, why wait? Why wait to heal? So yeah, I mean being able to channel that experience into that song and into my music has really given me somewhere I can turn

Holly Ignatowski:
Great words to live by Brad. I ask all my guests this, who are you remembering today?

Brad Wolfe:
I mean, given the conversation, it's hard for me not to say that I am remembering and Elliot Wolf, but not just them. I do want to extend when I think about them, I see them in my heart in the center, but they're all the other victims of the Holocaust. They have other family members who went through that experience who are no longer here. And I think about all the other people that aren't in my family that I don't know. And then that extends out today to all the folks. I think about all the pain in the world and just remembering all the people that are suffering each month at Reimagine, we host a monthly vigil now that we hold each month that anyone in the world can tune into. It's online and it's really beautiful and inspiring time. And every month we have a chance to honor people.
And I always ask this question of the guests there when I get to host those vigils, and we always have notable guests and music and such, but it's just so interesting each month to think about who we honor in our hearts each month and to see so much suffering now in the world month over month. There's, I'm part of a ritual now where I'm constantly reflecting on who I honor and all the losses and it just is really healing to be able to, so I thank you for your question because I don't get asked that question. I'm really the asker and to be asked who we want to honor, it feels really, really good to be able to remember those that are in our hearts so we don't get to verbalize out loud every day because we aren't in our culture asked by random people unfortunately, or to hold these things in our heart and to be able to shout it out of our hearts and into the world by saying Elliot Wolf and Seco Wolf.

Holly Ignatowski:
Thank you so much, Brad, for joining me today and sharing not only your own story, but the incredible story of your grandparents and the details of what they endured and how they inspired you to do the very important work that you do related to loss and remembrance. You have truly honored their memory and I feel they're very proud of you.

Brad Wolfe:
Thank you so much. I thank you for doing the work that you're doing by I think they'd be proud of you and remembering a life and all this work. I mean, I think we're all the children of the earth and we're all connected, and so I'm so appreciative to have a space today, to be able to share it really means a lot to me that you care about this story and I had the chance to share it. It is a lot. And so everyone out there who's listened to this, thank you so much for taking the time to hold this in your heart. And I know it's heavy for me. I can only imagine if you're just hearing this for the first time, but it seems like it's something that's almost unrelatable, but it's actually very relatable. And so I hope we can all, it's sadly relatable in so many ways and I hope we can all band together to move the world toward something better. And that's going to take all of us taking these small sweet steps.

Holly Ignatowski:
I agree, and I hope so too. For more information about Reimagine and to learn more about the programming and events, visit letsreimagine.org. For more information about grieving a loss and honoring loved ones after they die, visit remembering a life.com. As we leave you today. Please enjoy more original music by Brad. This piece again is called Why Wait.

Brad Wolfe (singing with instrumentals):
I woke up today. Remember, we die. I woke up today. I woke up with no time to, way to feel my mouth on rain. Make art from pain to know no makes us the same before. It's to her never. It's too late up today.

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