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U.S. Citizen Delves Into Her Family's Nazi Past

October 6, 2005 By:
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Ernestine Bradley, wife of former presidential candidate and New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley, arrived in the United States from her native Germany as a 21-year-old in 1956, hoping to live life on her own terms, and taste the promise of America.

But on an unconscious level, Bradley - who is not Jewish, and is a native of the town of Passau, near the Austrian border - believes she sought to distance herself from her nation's legacy, a history she knew little about due to the silence that had descended upon her family and her birth nation.

But the Pan Am flight attendant-turned-literature professor-turned political spouse has for much of her adult life wrestled with Germany's collective guilt over the Holocaust. She's often written about how post-World-War-II German writers have both dealt with and avoided the subject of the Shoah. And this past spring, she published a memoir titled The Way Home: A German Childhood, An American Life, where she grapples with the Nazi atrocities that occurred during her childhood.

"It's a historic legacy that you can't simply push aside," insisted Bradley during an interview last month at the Gershman Y. "As a non-Jewish person, I feel it's very important to speak out about the Holocaust - because there had been this silence."

She spoke at the Y about her bout with breast cancer, which she has so far overcome.

"I want my grandchildren to know where I came from, and how I struggled with where I came from," said the American citizen of 40 years. "Just like with breast cancer, I did not want to succumb to silence."

Now a full-time professor at the the New School in New York City, Bradley lived in the Garden State while her husband was in office from 1979 to 1997. Her story garnered some national attention in early 2000 when her husband - the retired senator and NBA hall-of-famer who now directs an investment-banking firm - challenged Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination.

She said that questions posed by the media about her family's past led her to investigate that period, and ultimately, to write a memoir. She notes in the opening pages that her stepfather joined the Nazi Party in the 1930s.

Bradley said she's often spoken to Jewish audiences. "I have always found - I don't want to say an understanding, because a gap was always there - but a receptivity to my point of view, and a desire to hear what I have to say. We are on very different sides of this very horrible, long event."

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