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Grandpa Joe's Alpine Legacy

Grandpa Joe's Alpine Legacy

The joy of skiing, etched into a family's DNA, spans four generations -- from war torn Austria to a Californian mountainside.

by

In my family, almost as soon as the sukkah comes down, the next seasonal activity begins -- pre-ski season. My friends watch in bewildered amusement as I run around town trying to get my three Southern Californian sun babies ready for our two annual ski trips.

As anyone from snow country knows, this is no easy feat. The miniature mittens and socks seem to lose their partners almost as soon as I can borrow or buy them, and old ski clothes seem never to be as I left them at the end of last season.

Invariably, the question (from both friends and even my husband) is why? Why subject yourself to this hassle -- all for the privilege of driving five hours with three whiny kids, enduring the incessant complaints about the cold, and spending enormous amounts of money?

My usual reply involves something about the speed, the exhilaration or the beauty of skiing down a mountain and breathing the clear, cold air. But last year my answer changed.


We went on a ski trip with my parents. Though my dad and I don't really talk all that much, we share the same joy of skiing, so we are natural ski partners. During one memorable chairlift ride, my usually reticent engineer dad started talking about his father, my grandpa Joe. I'm not sure if it was the gorgeous scenery we were gliding through, or if the impossibly bright and glistening snow glittering around us that was making him almost giddy, but my father spoke with emotion about his father, and revealed things I never knew.

My grandpa was orphaned at age 12 in Austria and was an avid and passionate skier.

I did know that my grandpa was orphaned at age 12 in Austria and was an avid and passionate skier (which was very uncommon for a Jewish boy). My parents have a picture of him in the Austrian Alps, age 20 or so, holding his skis and grinning wildly. They even have a picture of him ski jumping. He was a member of an Alpine club and was training to be a ski racer.

In the summer of 1939, it was his Austrian club mates (some of whom later became members of the Nazi party) who warned him of the coming danger and told him to leave. Fortunately, perhaps because he had no family ties in Austria or because he trusted his teammates, he left in July 1939 -- the last transport out. He brought with him my grandmother, father (age five at the time), seven dollars and his beloved skis -- and headed for Shanghai, the only place open to Jews at the time.

During the years in Shanghai, my grandfather lost a lot of his physical prowess, his body ravaged by tropical illnesses, and ended up having to burn his skis for firewood. Some eight years after leaving Austria, in 1947, they were allowed to enter America via San Francisco.

All of this I had known, but on this particular ride, my father, his memory perhaps jogged by the stunning vista before us, started talking about the first time, after the war, that my grandfather skied again. He remembered the incredible joy my grandfather radiated when he strapped on skis for the first time in 10 hard years. Grandpa taught my dad to ski with Austrian techniques in the California snow.

Skiing is one part of our history, even our Jewish history, as is the heirloom siddur from my mother's family.

Grandpa continued to ski, perhaps with not quite as much vitality, but with as much abandon -- and even skied a few months before he died of pancreatic cancer two years before I was born.

It was at that point that I realized, perhaps while overlooking the same scenery that he so loved, and sitting next to my dad, that the joy I feel skiing is as much etched into my DNA as is the color of my eyes. And that to my family, skiing is one part of our history, even our Jewish history, as is the heirloom siddur from my mother's family.


The next day was the last day of our trip. My oldest son, Josh, age six at the time, had been in lessons and had learned to ride the chairlift the day before. As a special treat, before his lesson, my dad and I took him up on an intermediate run. On the ride up, with Josh securely situated between us, my dad and I discussed with him the importance of skiing in control, not too fast, and of making his carefully practiced wedge turns. I assured him: "Josh, you take as long as you need to get down the hill, I'll be right behind you."

Well, we got to the top and the kid took off like a shot and started careening down the mountain. I hurriedly strapped on my poles, thanked God he was wearing a helmet, and sped after him. "Josh, slow down!" I screamed, "are you totally out of control?"

He looked back at me, grinning wildly and said, "No way, Mom! This is great!"

We got to the bottom of the hill and my dad skied up and asked, "Josh, were you scared? Are you okay?"

"Are you kidding, Grandpa? That was awesome!"

As I smiled up at my dad, he had to turn away to hide the tears streaming down his face. I think we both knew that somehow, on this sun drenched California mountainside, my grandpa Joe's Alpine legacy lived on.

Published: November 1, 2003


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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Diane Litzky, November 3, 2003 12:00 AM

An enjoyable read which my family will really relate to.

(1) Elana Rosenblatt's Mom, November 2, 2003 12:00 AM

Thank you for taking the time to write the article. It is beautiful!

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