Parents' Escape From Nazis Inspires Entrepreneur James Jacobson, now a media producer in Maui, says his values and work ethic are grounded in the experiences of his parents, who left Germany as young children. "Knowing that you can turn something bad into something good is very much formative of how I approach business, how I approach my life," he says.
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Parents' Escape From Nazis Inspires Entrepreneur

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Parents' Escape From Nazis Inspires Entrepreneur

Parents' Escape From Nazis Inspires Entrepreneur

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This month, NPR is launching a series on the children of immigrants to the United States. Our stories will try to discover what these first generation Americans learned through the experiences of their parents and how that may have informed the choices in making a life for themselves.

Today we're going to talk to James Jacobson. He runs a production company based in Maui, Hawaii. Maui Media does everything from producing an audio book by Desmond Tutu to publishing Mr. Jacobson's own book, "How to Meditate with Your Dog." Mr. Jacobson's parents fled Germany and the Nazis as young children. Both eventually found their way to the United States, in St. Louis, where they also found each other and married.

Jim Jacobson grew up in Washington, D.C. He joins us now from the studios of Hawaii Public Radio in Honolulu.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JAMES JACOBSON (Maui Media): Aloha, Scott. It's great to be with you.

SIMON: So just tell me the story of your parents and their parents, for that matter, if you can.

Mr. JACOBSON: Well, they both grew up in Germany, very different backgrounds. My dad left Germany when he was seven years old. He was put on a train with his sister as part of what later became known as the kindertransport, where they basically put children on a train. Their parents told them we'll see you in a few weeks. And they got to go to England. And of course they never saw their parents again. And my grandparents on that side were both killed by the Nazis.

On my mother's side, it's a happier story. My grandfather on my mother's side ran a very successful company in Germany that focused on clothing and uniforms. And they left him alone for a long time. But finally one night they arrested him. And my grandmother, using I guess her wiles and charm and elegance, and whatever was at her disposal, got him out of prison. They left that night on a quote-unquote "vacation to Holland." All they could bring with them was a couple of Leica cameras that he had. And he basically came to the United States and started over.

SIMON: It's a hell of a story. It not only is a movie, it has been several movies. Did they talk about this?

Mr. JACOBSON: He didn't want to talk about that. A few years ago, he passed away in Washington. And I went and took care of him for the three months before he died. And you know, one day I walked into the kitchen and he was about to cry 'cause he was so upset about his cancer. And he caught himself and he basically said, I'm sorry, I don't do this. And I don't know if that's a function of having had this experience as a child or if it's a function of growing up in England, where they have a stiff upper lip. But he just didn't want to talk about something unpleasant, although I know that it totally informed his decisions that he made in his life and certainly the values that he passed onto me.

SIMON: Well, tell us about the decisions he made and the values you feel he passed onto you.

Mr. JACOBSON: Well, I think that, you know, when he left Germany at seven, he went from being beat up in Germany for being Jewish to being beat up in England for being a German. And he basically got the sense that you can rise up over anything, you know, take the past and put it behind you and move forward and make right decisions and be in control of your own destiny.

And that is a certain value that I always got from my father growing up and focusing on: You can do anything you want to do, you just have to be committed, you have to work hard, and despite whatever's happened in the past, you have the opportunity to create the future.

SIMON: Now, this despite the fact that he certainly knew a lot of people who didn't have any opportunity at all.

Mr. JACOBSON: Absolutely, and he considered himself, I think, fortunate, but he really didn't hearken on all the things that happened. There are groups, of course, you know, in the United States where people go and talk about the Holocaust and sort of relive it over and over and over again. And for him, I think his focus was to give me a childhood and to give me a life where I didn't need to think about that and to really do whatever I wanted to do.

And he also, I think, instilled a certain sense of patriotism, that this was a country where you could do that.

SIMON: And your mother?

Mr. JACOBSON: And my mother - well, because she had a very different experience, I was very close to my grandmother. And she didn't want to talk about it because she remembered the beautiful things and the way that life was in Germany before the war. She used to say that people didn't talk about religion, that it was just everyone sort of got along, and that was what reminded her of what life was.

SIMON: And how do they affect you, do you think, all these years later?

Mr. JACOBSON: I've built a number of businesses and every time I start a new business, there's always obviously the risk that it won't work out. But knowing that you can turn something bad into something good is very much formative of how I approach business, how I approach my life. Even the willingness to move to Maui - I used to commute between Washington, D.C. and Maui for 13 years, 72 times, and one of the reasons I didn't move earlier was because I have a dog who I'm madly in love with, and I couldn't bring her here because there were quarantine laws. I helped to change those quarantine laws. So the upbringing that I had showed me that if you don't like something, you can change it. You don't have to live with the status quo.

SIMON: Do you think that immigrants have an understanding of this country that those of us who've just been born here might not have?

Mr. JACOBSON: I do totally. I think that people who have family that goes back to the Mayflower, they don't necessarily appreciate the uniqueness of the United States, the way that first generation, second generation immigrants do. I think we have a certain feeling that we are incredibly blessed to be in the United States.

SIMON: Mr. Jacobson, thanks so much.

Mr. JACOBSON: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Jim Jacobson speaking with us from the studios of Hawaii Public Radio in Honolulu.

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