By CALVIN PYNN
You never really know whom you’re going to meet on a day-to-day basis. One week ago, I was thrown head first into an assignment, without a clue about what questions to ask or really even what the story was going to be about.
A young woman, maybe just a couple years older than me, came to the office so I could interview her and get the details for a story I was nowhere near prepared to write. She was an interesting character, small in stature and decked head to toe in gothic attire. She had long, grayish-purple hair, wearing ripped jeans over black and white striped leggings, like a turn of the century jailbird would wear. They matched her shirt, which was mostly covered up by a studded jacket. She walked with a cobra-headed cane, which she made sure to tell me was not a fashion statement, and indeed, it supported her frail body as she walked. She also wore mirrored sunglasses, which stayed perched on her nose throughout the entirety of our interview. I never saw her eyes.
Her name was Tovah Trompeter. Less than a day after we met, she lost her life in a fatal car accident. I heard the news just a little over 24 hours after she left the office.
Naturally I was shocked when I heard the news. I have been fortunate enough to not lose many people who have been close to me throughout my life, but it couldn’t help but hit home in this case, even for someone that I knew for such a brief period of time. It’s a strange feeling, and in a way I wonder if death had created a mental connection that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. Either way, the fact remains that Tovah Trompeter made an impact.
She came in to tell me the story of her grandfather, Max Trompeter, a Holocaust survivor, baker, and well known community member in Pulaski throughout the second half of his life. If there was nothing else I could take away from my conversation with Tovah, it was that she admired her late grandfather, whom she referred to affectionately as “Daddy Max,” very much. Although his story had been published multiple times in The Southwest Times and other local papers before and after his death in 1996, she was determined to make sure his story would be told at least one more time. I saw it as her way of keeping an old story alive so it wouldn’t wither away as the generations progressed. Persistent as she may have been, you can’t help but admire that notion.
During our talk, Tovah came through to me as a person who had endured more than most, perhaps holding a shield of strength up for too long, and not too far from a breaking point. She told me of constant struggles with abandonment, heartbreak, as well as her illness – lupus of the brain, which required her to use the cane.
She was engaged to her longtime boyfriend Elton Washburn, who was in the car at the time of the accident, and is currently recovering at Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Based on what I learned from everyone I talked to after her death, it was apparent that he was the light of her life.
I was supposed to meet with Tovah again last Thursday, as she was going to bring some notes about her grandfather for me to look over for the article. Sad to say, that meeting never happened, and I was only left with what I learned from her during that brief, 30 minute interview last Tuesday.
However, as a journalist, I feel that the best way to do my part in honoring Tovah’s memory is to convey what she told me, and honor her grandfather the way that she wanted me to, by telling his story. Tovah started to tell me about Max Trompeter, although heavy emotions and sketchy details (the reason why she wanted to bring me those notes) left for a spotted picture. Still, I could make out the message Tovah was trying to get across, and I’m going to try to the best of my ability to make her proud by getting it out there.
As Tovah told me, Max Trompeter would have celebrated his rebirth yesterday, May 5. Sixty-nine years ago to that date in 1945, he was liberated by American troops in 1945 after spending six years in Nazi concentration camps.
During those six years, Max lost his entire family. Both of his parents were dead. At the time of his liberation, Max was 24, the oldest of nine children, none of whom survived the Holocaust. Tovah fought back tears as she told me of the atrocities he endured, but one point remained throughout her story – Max Trompeter never broke. Not even after seeing ever member of his family perish did he lose strength. To Tovah, his resilience was the epitome of the man she called “Daddy Max.”
According to Tovah’s story, Max Trompeter worked in a bakery in Poland around the time the Nazis occupied the country, working day and night to supply food for the people in hiding. This gave way to the life he made for himself later as he ran Max’s Bakery until his death.
Those were the details I was able to glean from Tovah’s story as she told it through a heavy wave of emotions. Still, I seemed to develop an understanding of who her grandfather was, and why after all these years, she won’t let the world forget about Max Trompeter’s rebirth following the death of his entire family. It’s common sense to accept that the Holocaust took more casualties than the dead. Witnessing such horrors could understandably bleed a person of their humanity. Not Max Trompeter. According to Tovah, he came out on the other end as a man of true strength, who didn’t so much as curse his experience, but rather looked onward as he lived his life.
I’m glad I met Tovah when I did. She was taken from this life in a sheer, unpredictable moment, but if there was one thing in this world she wanted to make sure of, it was that her grandfather’s story never died. Rest in peace, Tovah. Wherever you are, I’m sure you have a proud grandfather standing right next to you.