A Jewish Child in a Christian Disguise: Holocaust Survivor Jack Kuper

Jack Kuper. Photo by Tori Silvera.

Holocaust survivor, graphic designer, filmmaker, and 1960s ad man Jack Kuper graced the Trent community with his presence on Thursday November 29th 2012 thanks to Lady Eaton College and the History Department. Jack spoke to a packed house as the aisles of Enweying’s room 114 spilled over with students and community members eager to hear the stories of one of the Holocaust’s last living witnesses. As History professor Carolyn Kay said in her introduction, “we should be grateful for the survivors because they give us hope.”

Kuper was born in Poland in 1932 and escaped to Canada in 1946. “The moment I was liberated in 1944, I started to talk about it,” he says. Jack Kuper’s memoire, Child of the Holocaust, has been published in over a dozen languages. Talking about how at 8 years old, he had to survive by pretending to be a Christian orphan, travelling from village to village without getting caught. Also he has written a second novel, titled After the Smoke Cleared, to discuss what life was like after the holocaust.

It took quite some time for Jack Kuper to have his first book published. He had 24 publishers in New York turn it down, before a publisher taking it on. Many publishers felt like the story had already been told with the Diary of Anne Frank. Kuper’s honesty spoke saying, “I got to the point where I began to hate that little girl.”

During his talk at Trent, Jack shared a dark, comic story from his childhood. While pretending to be a Christian orphan, Jack Kuper spoke of the difficulties behind hiding his identity based on being circumcised as part of Jewish tradition. During one summer Kuper was resistant to swim with his friends. He was so nervous of his identity being revealed he considered putting a piece of chicken skin over his penis. Despite his avoidance he was coerced on the hottest day of the year to go swimming. He covered himself with one of his hands, and dived with one arm. When confronted by the other boys why he was cupping his genitals, he had come up with a clever excuse. He told them that a priest said if he didn’t cover up that his penis would fall off. When the young boys questioned him he asked, “Have you ever seen Jesus’ dick?” From that point on all the boys started to cover up their genitals and dive one armed when they went swimming.

Jack offered some perspective on forgiveness and pessimism: “In my own case, I don’t feel like I have right to forgive, because I’m alive.” He also equates forgiving with forgetting: “I cannot forget,” he says, “I would feel a sense of betrayal if I forgot. That would be unforgivable… Don’t expect goodness so that you’re pleasantly surprised when you find it.”

“Some of these things are pleasant thoughts, are religious thoughts of forgiveness and turn the other cheek, but my experience is that it doesn’t have a place in it. What I got out of the entire experience is that man is very vulnerable, that the world is not a pleasant place. Watch out. Don’t turn the other cheek; don’t be meek, like we were. Don’t go like sheep into the gas chamber. By all means, carry the Ten Commandments in one arm, but carry a gun in the other. Because there are animals in this jungle. And the world is a jungle… That’s what I got out of the experience, not to let them to do it again.”

In light of his experience of the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, Jack has a unique view of Canada. He said, “Innocent but decent. I love Canada. I love Canadians. We have the best people in the world right here. The best government. The best country. How fortunate we all are here.” An example of how innocent people are in Canada was one of his neighbour. He talked of several conversations where a neighbour of his didn’t understand how neighbours could betray each other. It does not come as a surprise to Jack Kuper. His life experiences lead him to remark, “in reality I think he would. I think all of us would. When your life is at stake you do everything to protect it.”

With such a horrific background it was interesting to get Jack Kuper’s take on his national identity. He talked about how in 1970 he tried moving to Israel thinking he would make a life for him there. It didn’t last as he came back to Canada 9 months later and “kissed the ground.” Thinking about Poland and Canada Jack Kuper said, “I think I’m rootless in a way, but if I were to have roots they would be here (in Canada).” With his wife, 4 children, and 13 grandchildren here, he feels the most roots where his family lies.

His love for Canada as a nation was also expressed in which Kuper stated, “I’ve got tremendous love and respect for this country and the opportunities it gave me and other people.”

Jack Kuper has traveled on book tours spreading the word of his horrific past. What was shocking to find out was that he chose not to tell his children about it explicitly. He explained his choice by saying, “It’s not a pleasant subject, it’s not something you want your kids to go to bed with.” When they became older his children read his book, and they saw that he was actively researching the holocaust throughout their lifetime. He just didn’t want it to stick with them like it did him. “I never wanted them to be saddled with my baggage. I didn’t think that that was fair.”

In 1952, Kuper worked as a graphic designer for the CBC. He eventually became the head of the graphic design department. “You felt like you were doing something with your life. Like you were contributing to society. At least that was in your head. It probably wasn’t true.” He continued to speak warmly about his work with the public broadcaster, “we’re educating a nation here, we’re upholding its virtues.” He cited the CBC as the place where he was able to learn a great deal about graphic design and filmmaking, but to allure of the ad man’s paycheque was too great.

Thirteen years after he had started at the CBC, he was offered a job as an ad director of a big American firm. The day he started he “was paying more taxes in that day, than [he had] made at the CBC” in total. Apparently the HBO show Mad Men was rather accurate with its depiction of ad agencies in the 60s, “especially with the smoking and the drinking.”

Jack told stories about his old boss that “had a bar in his office, supposedly for clients,” but “by 9 o’clock in the morning, when he came in, he would have a double scotch right away.” The womanizing was also no exaggeration, one day Jack’s boss “confided in [him] that there was not a girl in the office that he had not slept with.” Purportedly, this real life Mad Man would start the sexual harassment in the interview process: “When a girl comes in, he would say: ‘you type?’; ‘you know shorthand?’; ‘do you know how to pour a drink? We have lots of clients that like to have a drink.’; and, pardon my language, ‘do you fuck?’” One interviewee ran out of the office to tell her father, who promptly called the agency and threatened to alert the police. The General Manager sent someone over to their house with $500.

“I felt like I was capable of much more than that,” he said of the ad agency, “surely I didn’t survive Hitler’s Holocaust to end up making commercials for bubble gum… It was a sellout… you pretended it was an artform.” It was this attitude that lead to Jack starting his own production company, Kuper Productions, so that he could make his own projects while still producing commercials. In this era, he made his first documentary, A Day in the Warsaw Ghetto: A Birthday Trip to Hell. Taken from a German soldier’s negatives, this film is about the soldiers birthday that he spent on leave in the Warsaw Ghetto. What he saw there was so horrific that he never developed the negatives himself and kept them until the day he died. Jack saw them on a trip to Yad Vashem and “knew right away there was a film in that.”

The short film screened at the event, RUN!, was inspired not necessarily by the holocaust but to Jack Kuper witnessing a man standing devouring his lunch of a hamburger and fries in New York in 1952. “That was very North American,” he says of the film, the first live-action piece he had made while still with the CBC.