2017-04-12 / Voice at the Shore

Native American author talks about his Holocaust-survivor father at Stockton

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore correspondent

Award-winning Native American novelist David Treuer, a protégé of the famed Toni Morrison, gave a rare talk about his father, Holocaust survivor Richard Treuer, at Stockton University late last month. The talk, titled “The Burden of Blood: Holocaust, Race and Trauma,” was jointly sponsored by the masters’ programs in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and American Studies, as well as by several other Stockton departments and foundations.

Treuer, who delivered Stockton’s Annual Paul Lyons Memorial lecture to a packed auditorium, said he had many times tried but failed to write about his father, who passed away just over a year ago. The author read an essay about his father to the many students and community members who came to hear him speak, the author also hinted that a new work focusing on his father might be in the works.

The elder Treuer fled Austria to Great Britain at age 13 to avoid capture by the Nazis, immigrating to the United States a few years later. At 18 he enlisted in the U.S. army to fight Germany and “exact some revenge,” said the author, but ended up being sent to fight on the war’s Pacific front. After the war, he became a teacher at the Leech Lake Indian reservation in northern Minnesota, where he met and married Objiwe tribe member Margaret Seelye Treuer, who is now a tribal court judge.

David Treuer, who grew up on the reservation, now teaches literature at the University of Southern California. He has written four novels centering on Native American characters as well as a book of commentary on Native American literature and a nonfiction work on reservation life. During his reading at Stockton, the author painted a picture of his father as a complicated man, with glaring flaws as well as great strengths. “This is a version of my father that he wouldn’t agree with and certainly wouldn’t like,” Treuer told his audience, adding that he did not believe in idolizing or idealizing survivors of any kind, be they war veterans or survivors of the Holocaust.

“There is a tendency perhaps to think of survival as noble or glowy. I’m not interested in that so much. I’m interested in being human,” he said, stressing that he felt compelled to preserve and recount his father’s life in all of its humanity, rather than to blur out all of his idiosyncrasies. He described his father as well as his grandparents, who came to the United States with his father, as “frustrating, flawed, amazing people.”

Indeed, Richard Treuer had many idiosyncrasies, his son recounted. He was a short, strong, handsome, and highly emotional man who cried easily and had perpetual affairs during the course of his two marriages. Having learned English in part from listening to radio broadcasts, he spoke with the cadence of a 1940s radio broadcaster, which annoyed David as a teenager.

The author said that after entering adolescence, he spent much of his life disliking his father. “Part of what I felt when I was young was the burden of being his son because of his strangeness.”

It was only after Richard Treuer died “that he became not a character but a human being” for the younger Treuer, who realized how much of his father’s strangeness came from difficulties he’d faced throughout life after fleeing the Nazis at age 13.

“My father didn’t get an adolescence. He was a child and then an adult. That’s why he was never able to know me after I was 13,” said the author, who realized that his father’s emotionalism stemmed from the fact “he never grew out of being a child.”

While Richard Treuer’s experience as a refugee and immigrant contributed to his emotionalism and strangeness, it also contributed to his ability to see everyone, regardless of race, religion, or nationality, as a human being worthy of care and respect. The author recalled his father saying that he had stayed on the Indian reservation because it was the first place he felt comfortable. “As a survivor, he found a community of other survivors and felt comfortable and protected and loved there.”

The author also saw the shadow of the Holocaust in his father’s response to his ever-expanding family of seven children, 27 grandchildren, and many great grandchildren. “Whenever another Treuer was born he would scream out: ‘Take that, Hitler!’ The Treuers, who had almost been wiped from the earth, were definitely making a comeback.”

Although the elder Treuer tried to write about his experiences during the Holocaust, he was unable to because “it was too close,” his son explained. “My father lacked the ability to look with detachment.”

What did Richard Treuer think of his son’s writing? According to the author, his father had always wanted to be a novelist. “He kind of lived through me,” he noted. 

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