Soapmaker Dr. Bronner Releases Posthumous Album Of His Own Words

Feb 9, 2017
Originally published on February 9, 2017 8:46 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

This next story starts with soap, Dr. Bronner's soap. The company claims you can use it to clean just about anything - your body, your hair, dishes, pets. Dr. Bronner's is also known by its crowded label - 3,500 words all by the company's founder, Emanuel Bronner. Now the company has expanded beyond personal care. It has put out an album, a collection of Emanuel Bronner's home recordings that stray far from the topic of cleanliness. NPR's Andrew Limbong reports.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Emanuel Bronner had gone blind when he decided he wanted to keep a record of his thoughts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EMANUEL BRONNER: First, if I'm not for me, who am I - nobody. Second...

LIMBONG: So it makes sense that the album begins with what he calls the Moral ABC, a mishmash of philosophies about uniting humans on this planet or what he calls spaceship earth. If you're familiar with the soap, you'll know it's printed super tightly on the label and that it's a lot to read in the shower.

MICHAEL BRONNER: For my grandfather, this message was intended to lightening-like unite the human race.

LIMBONG: That's Michael Bronner, Emanuel's grandson and current president of the company.

BRONNER: And so if you've just got the perfect alchemy of vocabulary, grammar and punctuation, that instantly people would see his message for what it was, which was an urgent need to bring people of the world together before we've destroyed ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRONNER: Every tyranny, every human heart by teaching each and every man on God's spaceship earth, the Moral ABC that unites all mankind free instantly by a new birth.

LIMBONG: If all this talk of tyranny and uniting man sounds dramatic for a household product, there's a reason for that. Emanuel Bronner was born in Germany to a family of Jewish soap makers. In the late 1920s, the Nazis were on the rise. At the age of 21, he fled to Chicago alone.

BRONNER: He tried to get his parents to come with him to Chicago, and they refused.

LIMBONG: They said this would all blow over in a few years, and Hitler would soon be forgotten. There's a sort of apocryphal story within the Bronner family that Michael Bronner who tells here. It's about a letter his grandfather received while working as a cosmetic chemist.

BRONNER: From one of the camps, all the words on this letter are blacked out except for three words. And it said, you were right.

LIMBONG: Michael Bronner says after they died, his grandfather felt compelled to combine teachings from different religions and preach love and unity. He ditched his job, his home, his kids to go and spread the Moral ABC. People liked his soap more than they cared about his message, so he put that message on the label. And a lot of the record does sound like a guy on a literal soapbox except for one track. In it, Emanuel Bronner tells the story of working in his neighbor's huge garden as a boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRONNER: Which was only 20-foot wide but 200-feet long.

LIMBONG: They were an anti-Semitic family, but his effort impresses them. They become generous. They thank him and share food with him. And then Bronner makes this turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRONNER: I said nothing. I was embarrassed. I knew they were apologizing for having hated Jews. They no longer hated them, and that's the key to help unite the whole human race.

LIMBONG: If you miss that, he said, (reading) I knew they were apologizing for having hated Jews. They no longer hated them, and that's the key to help unite the whole human race.

Michael Bronner calls this a parable for hard work and reaching out to your enemies. Emanuel Bronner's message couldn't save his parents, but his grandson hopes that the album will be the next step in getting that message off the soap bottle and into the world. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACEY CHATTAWAY SONG, "SHIMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.