52 years after leaving Israel as the impoverished nine-year-old son of a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp, Chaim Witz returned to his birth country this week under different circumstances – as mega-millionaire rock star and TV personality Gene Simmons.
J POST“It’s amazing to be back here,” said the outspoken 61-year-old co-founder of rock legends Kiss on Tuesday in Jerusalem’s David Citadel Hotel. Simmons is still adept at the Hebrew he learned as a child and responded in a broad American accent to a question of whether he still spoke the language, “Ken, aval shachachti hatzi safa (Yes, but I’ve forgotten half the language).”
Simmons is in Israel with his family to shoot episodes for the “Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels” reality show, which documents his family’s life and his relationship with his wife, former Playboy playmate and actress Shannon Tweed.
Simmons’ rags to riches story had a particularly difficult beginning as his father, a carpenter in Tirat Carmel, was barely able to eke out a living for his wife and son. When Simmons’ Hungarian-born mother Flora left her husband and moved with the young Witz to Jackson Heights, Queens in 1960 in pursuit of the American dream, they were not far removed from the European nightmare the family had experienced in the Holocaust.
Imprisoned at Auschwitz at age 14, Flora saw her mother, grandmother and almost all of her family go the gas chambers, but it was a story that Simmons, who changed his name to Gene Klein in the US and eventually to Simmons, didn’t hear until much later. “When I was growing up, my mother hardly ever talked to me about Nazi Germany and the concentration camps because she didn’t want to upset me, and I hardly ever asked her about it,” said Simmons. ‘But over the years, I started to learn more about it and about how my entire family was killed and how my mother saw her mother go with her grandmother to the gas chambers.”
Even though he hadn’t returned to Israel until this week, Simmons has always been an ardent supporter of the country, most recently sending a televised message to a IDF soldier (and Kiss fan) wounded during the 2006 war with Hezbollah in which he called him a “hero.” Although Kiss has never appeared in Israel, Simmons dismissed other entertainers who have chosen to boycott the country as “idiots.”
“As an American, there’s no choice but to be supportive of Israel,” he said. “This is the Holy Land, and it’s no secret that everybody in America perceives Israel as it’s only real friend in the Middle East – who else are you going to rely on?”
According to Simmons, Israel has been a source of pride for him ever since he left. “There ain’t no place like it on planet Earth. It’s astonishing that it’s still here – stronger and prouder than ever,” he said, adding that the recent upheavals in the Muslim world has filled him with hope for the future of Israeli-Arab ties. “We went from being slaves in Egypt to actually having a peace treaty with the same people who enslaved us. And now, seeing those people rise up and want the same kinds of things that other democracies in the world have is astonishing,” he said.
“I saw a CNN interview that was so telling. The interviewer asked one of the young, well-dressed demonstrators in a Cairo street if he would like to thank anybody for the popular uprising, and he said, ‘I would like to thank Mr. Zuckerberg.’ Here’s an Egyptian Muslim thanking an American Jew for inventing Facebook!
“And I just saw in The Jerusalem Post today a photo of Moroccan women holding up the ‘F’ from Facebook as they were demonstrating. It’s amazing that Facebook, invented by a Jew, is actually helping Muslims be able to express themselves. That’s the story!”
Then, with the light and camera men trailing his every move, and the makeup person not far behind, Simmons strode through the hotel lobby – the master of his world where the rest of us are merely guests.