Not Self-Made: Part 1

Q: Who has been your greatest inspiration(s) and why?

Thanks so much for your question. I heard a sermon years ago at Thanksgiving that really stuck with me. It was on the topic of gratitude. The point was that no one is entirely self-made. Everyone who has experienced any amount of success has done so with the support of family, friends, mentors, teachers, etc. This is certainly true in my case. There have been many sources of inspiration in my life, but I want to focus on three women in particular who each inspired me for different reasons – the first being the subject of this blog, the next two, in blogs to follow shortly.

The dedication in my book, Fine on Acting, reads “for my grandmother Julia Brandt who defied the odds.” My grandmother was a survivor in the figurative and literal sense. She survived Nazi Germany by escaping to Shanghai, China. There, she managed to feed and care for her children as she and my grandfather struggled to make ends meet. She was able to get my grandfather out of Buchenwald concentration camp by selling everything she owned and bribing the right people.

Hitler had opened what was called the Chinese Corridor. He let a limited number of Jews move to Shanghai, as a show for the Red Cross. My grandfather fled first, and then my grandmother followed on the last train that ever left for China. Hitler intended to deal with the Shanghai Jews later but never got the opportunity. In Shanghai, her son Heinz (who I am named for) got blood poisoning and died. Although she never quite recovered from that loss, she carried on.

My father was an American GI who was part of the liberation of Shanghai. He was the sergeant in charge of hiring girls to work at the PX (military store) where my mother got a job. They fell in love and married in Shanghai. My father brought my mother to the US as a war bride. Because of this status, she was able to get her citizenship expedited and was able to send for the remainder of her family. Julia came to this country not knowing the language and having lost not only her son but also her mother and numerous relatives in the Holocaust. She had experienced enough tragedy to make lesser human beings give up. She did not.

My mother was a very young bride and had four children very quickly. I came along eight years later as a bit of a mistake. (LOL) My mother was overwhelmed and therefore needed help raising me. My grandmother stepped in. I spent so much time with her that I ended up speaking German before I spoke English. My grandmother did learn English well enough to function. She passed the citizenship test and learned the bus system well enough to get around town with ease. My grandfather passed away in the prime of his life and still she did not give up.

Julia was outgoing, funny, and quite a character. She thought of herself as very progressive and was not shy about tackling sensitive subjects. More than anything, I remember her zest and passion for life. From my grandmother I learned that while we must not forget the past, we must also not wallow in sadness.