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Larry Bacow, Harvard’s 29th president, will step down at the end of June after five years on the job. Bacow’s well-honed leadership skills — he served on the Harvard Corporation, as president of Tufts University, and as chancellor at MIT — proved indispensable amid national polarization, public questioning of the role of higher education in society, and, most critically, the profound disruption of the pandemic.
Bacow grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, the son of Jewish immigrants intimately familiar with the horrors of the Holocaust, and like his father, a lawyer, became an Eagle Scout. He built radios from kits, and spent hours reading about science and technology in Popular Science and Scientific American, laying the groundwork for his undergraduate education at MIT. Throughout his life, he has been deeply influenced by the experiences that led his family to emigrate from Europe, particularly those of his mother, who survived three years in Nazi concentration camps.
Bacow sat with the Gazette to share memories and lessons from his early life and his career as a scholar and a leader in higher education. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: You’ve spoken and written about your parents, especially your mother, Ruth Wertheim, who survived Auschwitz. How did you learn their stories?
BACOW: My sister and I knew about my mother’s experience. It had been discussed — not in depth — but we knew about it, in part because my mother had almost no relatives. She had an aunt and uncle who had left Germany in ’36 and she lived with them when she finally made it to the U.S. She got out of Germany after the war on the second Liberty Ship — troop ships that brought refugees from Europe. When I was growing up, if there was a TV show about the Holocaust, we’d either change the channel or my mother would leave the room.
Keep in mind that Auschwitz was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945, and I was born in 1951. That’s just six years later. By the time I was 3 or 4, my mother wasn’t 10 years out of Auschwitz, so it was still very fresh in her mind. My father’s story — he was born in Minsk and came here as a child to escape violence there — was not that difficult to talk about, but my mother did not really start sharing her story in depth until she had a heart attack. I think she realized her own vulnerability and that she wasn’t going to be around forever.
GAZETTE: Last September, you visited Londorf, your mother’s hometown in Germany. How did that feel to you? Was it a homecoming of sorts?
BACOW: It was far from that. I had been to Londorf twice before, the first time with my parents when I was about 13 or 14. We went to Israel and then we went to Europe and spent one day in Germany so my mother could see her lawyer in Frankfurt. He was attempting to get reparations for the loss of my mother’s family home, which had been confiscated by the Germans. We spent a few hours in Londorf and that was not a pleasant experience. My mother had connected with a childhood friend, Otto, who lived next door to my grandparents and who had been very kind to my mother’s family before they were transported to camps. At that point, everybody was on rations, but Jews were on half rations and Otto’s family shared what they had with my mother’s family. Londorf was about an hour from Frankfurt, so we went to Frankfurt and then stopped off so that my mother could see Otto. I remember they were talking, standing on the street, and there was this man at a second floor window who kept pulling the curtain back and looking down. I thought it was odd, but when my mother saw him she said, “We have to get out of here.” He was the Nazi who fingered all of the Jews in Londorf. This was 1964, less than 20 years later.
The second time I went to Londorf was in 1994. I was on sabbatical in the Economics Department at the University of Amsterdam. My mother died on Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and we went home for her funeral. We came back to Amsterdam and my sister came over about six or eight weeks later and we took a trip to Londorf. Otto was still there and he had asked the woman who was living in my mother’s house if we could visit. We were standing in the vestibule and she seemed very uncomfortable. She was an elderly woman, so I asked Otto how long she had lived there and he said over 50 years. I knew that the confiscated houses of Jews were given to the Nazis and their sympathizers, so we got out of there immediately.
Until recently, Londorf had never done anything to recognize the Jews who had passed away. There were 15 Jewish families that traced their roots in Londorf for hundreds of years. Londorf had erected a monument for all of its residents who had died in World War II, but none of the Jewish residents were listed. That’s how it came to be that I went to Londorf in September, when the town decided to honor its Jewish citizens who died in the Holocaust. My sister, my wife, Adele, and our children attended. We were the only descendants of the only survivor of those transported from Londorf on Sept. 14, 1942.
GAZETTE: Was that when the Jewish population was sent to Auschwitz?
BACOW: Yes, though most did not go to Auschwitz directly; most went to Theresienstadt. Some died in Theresienstadt, including my great-grandfather. The survivors were sent to Auschwitz. There were seven villages, including Londorf, that collectively made up the area known as Rabenau. Of the approximately 120 Jews from Rabenau transported on that day, my mother was the only one who survived.
GAZETTE: How old was she?
BACOW: She was 15 when she went into the camps, 18 when she was liberated. She was in Auschwitz only for about six weeks. If you were young enough and still well enough to work, they sent you to a slave labor camp, where you were forced to work on behalf of the Nazis. Many of those who worked in the slave labor camps died of starvation, disease, and sometimes, when the Nazis didn’t get what they wanted from them, they killed them.