Richard Bank L’72 had what he called a good childhood growing up in Philadelphia and its suburbs in the 1950s and 60s. Not happy or carefree, but good.
It was good because he had loving parents, friends, attended school dances and had membership in a fraternity. He even played football — poorly, he says — with classmate and baseball great Reggie Jackson.
Those sunny childhood days were counterbalanced by his family dynamic, namely that Bank’s maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors and his mother a German refugee.
Bank’s childhood through law school is the basis of his recently published memoir, The Tree of Sorrow, the last of his Holocaust trilogy. The first, Feig, is about a survivor of Auschwitz who stands accused of murder. The second, I Am Terezin, was written in the voice of the concentration camp itself.
“The Tree of Sorrow, the metaphor of a tree casting a shadow, that’s basically what I had my whole life hanging over me in the background, keeping me back from thoroughly enjoying everything was a fear that it could quickly be taken away,” Bank said.
“My fear was not totally phobic. It was grounded in reality. My mother didn’t talk about it. My grandparents didn’t talk about it. You sense these things. They’ll worry. They hover over you. You’re going to lose something and something terrible could happen. So that did hold me back,” he said.
In The Tree of Sorrow, Bank expresses that fear, writing, “The outside world, the world of the Gentiles, caused me pause if not downright fear — the fear of being forced from my bike and beaten to the fear of being carted from my home, corralled into a cattle car, and taken to some remote place to be shot, gassed or worked to death. No matter whether the fear was well founded or not, it was there inside of me.”
A lifelong writer, Bank is the author of nine books and has published more than a hundred articles, short stories, essays, poetry, op-eds, and book reviews for a wide variety of publications.
With The Tree of Sorrow, Bank wanted to write a book that was easy to read despite the heavy subject matter.
While the book captures the centrality of the Holocaust and Judaism in his life, Bank succeeds in painting a picture of what the times were like for him and others of his generation. There are teachers who inspired and terrified him, his fears of being drafted and how he avoided it, fraternities, and life within the Philadelphia Jewish community, as well as other moments and tales that illustrate his experiences.
And so there is four-year-old Bank “perched atop a pony belonging to some shrewd photographer preying upon a parent’s inability to deny their child the opportunity to be donned in a cowboy hat, kerchief, gun and holster and then plopped upon a leather saddle to sit astride a real live horse.”
For his 16th birthday, Bank received a red convertible Chevrolet Corvair. He used the car to take spins to “alien and unnerving” Ringoes, New Jersey, less than an hour away from his home in Wyncote. In Ringoes, he worked at his dad’s Hunterdon Drive-In Movie Theater, but the car also gave him the freedom to meet girls beyond his neighborhood.
All typical baby boomer experiences — except, “The only thing that made me a lot different is, I can’t think of any of my friends in my group that had grandparents that were in a concentration camp. So that made me different,” Bank said.
Those two core components of his identity, descendant of survivors and baby boomer, is what makes The Tree of Sorrow so bittersweet. For every great professor he had or hug that he received, there is an antisemitic incident or the specter of the Holocaust hovering around him to be reckoned with.
It is inescapable and Bank is okay with that.
“I feel what I wanted to do, and that I feel it’s my responsibility to do, is remember the Holocaust. It’s got to continue to be remembered and that’s why I want to do the writing about it,” Bank said.