||Herald Community Newspapers
author comes home
Bernard Otterman captures history through short fiction
|By Scott Brinton
||March 28, 2002
Before Bernard Otterman had reached the tender age of 7, he had witnessed mass murder.
|The former Merrick
resident, now 65, was born in 1937. World War II broke out when he turned 2 1/2 year old.
As a Jewish child living in Lodz, Poland, he stood little chance of surviving the
Holocaust. Thanks to his parents' remarkable ingenuity and bravery, however, he not only
lived through it, but they did as well.
Bernard Otterman went on to earn a Ph.D. in engineering from the State University of New
York at Stony Brook in 1968 and rise to chairman of Hofstra University's Engineering and
Computer Sciences Department in 1974.
In 1979, with his younger brother born after the war, he joined his parents' booming
co-op/condominium development business, Narcor Management Corporation in Queens.
Despite success, Otterman could not shake the Holocaust memories that haunted him.
"There's no getting past it," he said during a recent interview at the East Bay
Diner in Bellmore. "Every Holocaust survivor is really a marked person.
"You put it into a meta-stable equilibrium. Something small can bring back a
Otterman moved from Merrick, where he had lived since 1975, to Old Westbury in 1993. That
same year, he began transforming the images of Nazi atrocities that he carried in his mind
into poems. The process proved painful, but self-enlightening.
Then one day, the phrase "black grass" stuck in his head. He didn't know what it
alluded to precisely, but believed it could form a metaphor for the Holocaust. He tried
writing a poem around the subject, but nothing turned out right.
He set out to compose a short story, which became "Black Grass." The fictional
work succinctly shows the link between irrational fear, bigotry, violence and Adolf
Hitler's "Final Solution." It was the first of eight short works about the
Holocaust, which Otterman recently anthologized in "Golem of Auschwitz Stories"
(Slovo-Word Publishing House, New York, NY, 2001).
subhed: Capturing history in fiction
Except for "The Escape," Otterman's stories are in no way
autobiographical, the author said. He did not write them as a catharsis. Rather, they are
intended as a remembrance of the Holocaust and a way of teaching about it.
He divides the 242-page "Golem" into two main sections. Stories in the first
part take place during World War II and illustrate the desperation and courage of Jewish
refugees fleeing Nazi oppression. "There were some people who continued to resist.
Not everybody just blindly followed German orders," Otterman said.
Stories in the second part occur after the war and illuminate the sense of utter shock
that Holocaust survivors must cope with in returning to civil society after years of
feeling only fear in a world gone insane.
"Golem" is published in English and Russian, with English on the
right-hand page and the Russian translation on the left. Otterman said his publisher
believed the book would appeal to New York's numerous Russian-Jewish immigrants, as many
of them were persecuted -- and imprisoned in forced-labor camps -- under communist rule in
the former Soviet Union.
Though never formally trained as a writer (outside of classes he recently took at the New
School for Social Research in Manhattan), Otterman has received a myriad of accolades for
his stories, including the 1999 Long Island Nassau Review Best Story Award.
He is now on a book tour, lecturing about and reading selections from "Golem."
Last Thursday evening, he stopped off at the Merrick Public Library, and before that, he
was at Congregation Ohav Sholom in Merrick, where he is a member and former board vice
Subhead: Surviving the Holocaust
Bernard Otterman spent his early, formative years racing from one Polish ghetto to the
next, as his parents tried to stay one step ahead of the Nazis before they would close a
ghetto and "liquidate" it. The Nazis, though, eventually caught the Otterman
family and imprisoned them at the Radom slave-labor camp in Poland.
Bernard's mother and father were forced to build munitions for the Daimler Weapons
Company. At first, Bernard was allowed to play with other youngsters during the day while
his parents weren't around. Toward the war's end, however, the Nazis even required
children to work. Bernard was sent to a sub-sanitary factory for butchering and canning
As the Russians and Americans converged on Germany -- and an Allied victory grew more
likely -- the Nazis began ferrying Jews in greater numbers from labor to extermination
Otterman's father was shipped to a slave-labor camp inside Germany to continue working.
Bernard and his mother were to be sent to Auschwitz, where they would surely perish.
"We all knew by that time what was happening in Auschwitz," he said.
The two were being herded into a railroad car. Suddenly, his mother slipped away from the
line with her young son in tow. If the guards had spotted the two, they would have shot
The guards did not see them, however.
Otterman and his mother spent the war's waning days hiding in the country, depending on
Polish farmers' kindness for food.
Bernard Otterman was the only child known to have survived Radom.
drophead: Hope for the future
Having lost much of his childhood to the war without formal schooling, Otterman stressed
the importance of education with his three children, Michelle, 30, Sharon, 28, and
Otterman notes that he and his wife, Sandi, an American and former teacher, never demanded
that their three children achieve in school, but achieve they have.
Michelle graduated from Calhoun High School in North Merrick with honors and earned her
undergraduate degree from Cornell University. Sharon finished as valedictorian and a
Presidential Scholar at Calhoun and went on to Yale. And Michael completed Chatterton
Elementary School in Merrick and Wheatley High School and now is studying at Boston
Interestingly, each has chosen a profession that involves writing and "tikkun
olam," Hebrew for "repair the world."
Michelle now works for the U.S. Agency for International Development, helping to form a
democratic government in Indonesia. Sharon is studying journalism and international
relations at Columbia University. Previously, she had worked as a reporter for Newsday,
the Jersey City Journal and the Riverdale Press. And Michael, a former Merrick Herald
editorial intern in 2000, is enrolled in the journalism program at BU.
Holding back tears, Otterman says proudly that each is dedicated, as many children of
Holocaust survivors are, to the idea that "the world should be a little better."
Today, Otterman recognizes his good fortune in having survived the Holocaust.
"There are two reasons I'm alive, the courage of my mother and father. And it is just
a miracle," he said. "There is no other way of explaining it."
Future reading of
'Golem of Auschwitz'
Bernard Otterman is to read from and lecture about
"Golem of Auschwitz Stories" at the Holocaust Memorial and Education Center of
Nassau County, 100 Crescent Beach Road, Glen Cove, Sunday, April 7, 1:30 p.m. For more
information, call (516) 571-8040.
"Golem" can be ordered for $16 from
www.bernardotterman.com or amazon.com.
The book is also carried at Yossel's Judaica store on
Merrick Avenue, near Smith Street, in Merrick.