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In ‘Shmuel’s Bridge,’ a St. Louis poet retraces his family’s Holocaust journey

Jason Sommer, right, with his father Jay.
Jason Sommer
Jason Sommer, right, with his father, Jay.

In 2001, the St. Louis-based poet Jason Sommer and his father, Jay, took an unusual, and heavy, trip. They flew to Budapest and then traveled to Jay Sommer’s birthplace in Ukraine. From there, they slowly, painstakingly retraced the route traveled by many family members to Auschwitz.

Their goal was to find the spot where Jay Sommer’s brother, Shmuel, had made a desperate bid for freedom, leaping from the cattle car transporting him and other Hungarian Jews to the concentration camp. In less than two months in the spring of 1944, around 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary, many of them to Auschwitz; the majority were killed. Shmuel was seemingly on a path to be one of them. Then he escaped the train car as it rolled over a bridge — and jumped into the river below. He tried to swim to freedom but was shot and killed by guards before he reached its banks.

Growing up in New York City decades later, Jason Sommer idolized the uncle he never knew.

Listen to Jason Sommer on St. Louis on the Air

“He was a hero to me,” Sommer explained on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “Even though it wasn't a successful resistance and escape attempt … he managed to resist.”

Continued Sommer: “I titled myself the least tough kid in the Bronx. So here was an uncle of mine who was tough — who defended my father, even though he was younger — and he became a sort of image of manhood to me.”

And helping his father identify Shmuel’s final resting place, and pinpoint the day he died, became a way for Jason Sommer to contribute to the family’s story.

“I had felt all my life so much that [I was] the recipient of the stories — and sometimes the recipient of the fallout from survivors who had tough lives, and were damaged, badly sometimes,” he said. The journey in “Shmuel’s Bridge” offered a new opportunity: “It was a way of being an adult for me, to take some agency, to do the research, to have my bookishness of use. I was then able to feel like I was participating in some way, joining the story at the end.”

Jay Sommer, himself escaped from a labor camp in Hungary, survived on his own for months before being conscripted into the Russian army. Ultimately, he made his way to New York, where he earned accolades as the New York State Teacher of the Year and then National Teacher of the Year. He was scarred by violence, as his son’s memoir makes clear, but also a father enormously proud of his American son.

“I was told rather directly that ‘you’re compensation’ — in some sense, ‘Everything was taken away from us. This is what we get: children,’” Jason Sommer explained ruefully.

Today, Jay Sommer is 98 years old, and his memory is frequently faulty. That’s one reason Jason Sommer, normally more comfortable with poetry, put their story down in prose, 21 years after their journey to Auschwitz.

Even so, Jason Sommer acknowledged that the tale he tells is not, in key ways, the one his father would have told.

“He has a privately printed memoir that is very much the American story and triumphant — and glosses over, or makes more palatable, some stories I knew in different versions,” he said. “He tends to need to ‘happify’ things. He'd been in so many dark places, he didn't want to dwell in dark places. And he feels a responsibility, as a Holocaust survivor, to talk about the triumphant spirit of people.”

“Shmuel’s Bridge” offers a more unvarnished family history.

Said Sommer: “I just think the truth is important to me. And the truth — with warts and all — I think is more preventative than the shiny truth without the warts.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.