June 14, 2007
My father, who was not a hero
He left his mark fighting in the Shoah, spearheading postwar relief efforts, aiding migration to Palestine - and on me
My father always said he wasn't a hero. "All the heroes are dead," he used to say. He said he just did what he had to under the circumstances.
My father was born in Rzeszow, Poland, as Benzion Teichholz (but he was also known as Bronislaw, Ben or Bernhard). His family later moved to Lemberg (then also known as Lviv, today as Lvov). He was the second youngest of six children; his father, Izak (Isaac), was a merchant; his mother, Henia (Helen) Glucker, came from Vienna.
My father's father was observant, a follower of the Ger rebbe. Although my father's cousin claims that my father wore payot (earlocks) as a young man, my father maintained that he practiced modern, "progressive" Judaism and wore modern dress with no beard or skullcap. He attended a Jewish gymnasium, which is akin to today's Jewish day schools, less yeshiva than a function of the quotas (numerus clausus) that limited the number of Jews allowed to attend secular and professional schools.
In Lvov, the family lived at 20 Bernstein St., the same street Sholom Aleichem had lived on. Their building was at the intersection of Bernstein and Rappoport streets, across from Lvov's oldest Jewish cemetery and down the street from the Rappoport Jewish Hospital.
Early on, my father established himself in business. From 1936 to 1939 he was a director of Polski-Lloyd A.G., the Polish arm of Lloyd's of London, involved in the import-export business. His father was a merchant, and his eldest brother, Josef, worked in a family business they ran from the home (I found their telephone number listed in the 1936 Lvov phone book). Another brother, Aron, was a banker. A sister, Adella (or Bella), married and moved to Tarnopol, where she ran the Orbis Travel agency.
In 1939, as a consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Poland was divided, with the Nazis invading and conquering the western half, while eastern Poland, including Lvov, came under Soviet rule.
Thousands of Jews fled German-occupied Poland, many arriving in Lvov as refugees. My father, along with a friend, immediately became involved in the Jewish community's relief efforts, providing clothing, food, housing and financial assistance for homeless families.
The Soviets made him a nochelnik, a foreman, in charge of a lumber operation.
His experiences with the Soviets would make him a lifelong anti-communist.
In 1941, the Nazis conquered the rest of Poland and, with the help of local Polish police and Polish and Ukrainian collaborators, soon established a ghetto in Lvov and ordered the Jews to establish their own leadership organization, the Judenrat. My father was appointed to a committee of the Judenrat that dealt with accommodating Jews who'd been dislocated from their homes. He would later say that he was eventually asked to head the Judenrat, but as the first leader had been shot and the second hung himself, he declined the position and escaped from Lvov.
In another account, my father related that on Sept. 19, 1941, he left Lvov as part of a labor detail assigned by the Nazis to cut down lumber in the forest.
My father was able to bribe a guard and flee.
As a reprisal for his escape, the Nazis rounded up his parents, brothers and sisters and sent them to their death either at the local Janovska concentration camp (most likely) or from there to the Belzec extermination camp.
My father joined the underground, fighting in a partisan group called Skole-Lawdezne. They attempted to procure arms, which were costly and often turned out to be old and/or defective. On occasion, the non-Jews who sold them those arms and supplies or who even fought alongside them in the resistance nevertheless denounced them to the authorities. They were in constant danger.
My father used to tell a story that around Christmas 1941, he was up in the mountains starving, and the group approached a Polish farmer, asking him to sell them some food. The farmer refused, and they later took one of his cows. The farmer denounced them to the police and the Nazis.
The slaughtered cow left a trail of blood, which the Nazis and police followed. There was a battle in which many of the members of the partisan unit were killed or captured. My father escaped across the border at Munkacz into Hungary, where the border police promptly arrested him.
Hungary was not yet under Nazi rule, but the border police were vigorously on the lookout for illegal refugees and members of partisan units. For three days, my father was beaten and tortured by the Hungarian police. He was beaten so badly that he had to be taken to a hospital in Budapest to recover.
At the hospital, he was visited by members of the Jewish community involved in rescue work. They arranged with a guard there to have him taken outside to get cigarettes, and once in the streets of Budapest, my father managed to escape.
In early 1942 in Budapest, he joined the Polish Rescue Committee, heading the Polish-Jewish Refugee Committee with Siegfried Moses. In April, 1943, he reported to the Hungarian leadership about the fate of Poland's Jews and the specific steps of the Nazi's plans for Jewish extermination.
The response was that what occurred in Poland could not happen in Hungary.
Nonetheless, his account was forwarded to Gerhard Riegner and Jewish leaders in Switzerland and to the Jewish leadership in Istanbul.
After the Nazis arrived in Budapest in April 1944, he operated under the code name "Glick," leading a technical unit of 120 Jewish men and women (many of them teenagers). They built bunkers, served as couriers and smuggled people and arms across the Hungarian border. They also forged identity papers and distributed false documents. My father's work brought him into close contact with such Hungarian Jewish leaders as Rudolf Kastner, Joel Brand and his wife, Hansi Brand, as well as Moshe Kraus and Otto Komoly.
On two occasions, he was arrested but managed to escape from both the Tollonhaz and Marko Street prisons. When members of the underground were arrested and tortured and asked to reveal their leader, they answered "Glick" (regardless of whether he worked with them or not). As a result, the Nazis and Hungarian Arrow Cross police put a price of 500 marks on my father's head for his capture, arrest or death.
For many months, my father never slept twice in the same apartment and was constantly on the move. At one point, they had to move him to the surrounding countryside because the search for him became too intense and too dangerous to other members of the unit.
Forging identity documents also caused him to meet with Raoul Wallenberg. When Wallenberg issued 100 Swedish protective passes, my father's group would forge several hundred copies. Concerned that the Nazis would see a problem in there being so many "Swedish" citizens of Hungary, Wallenberg requested a meeting with my father. My father explained that the more Swedish passes, real or forged, the more lives saved. Wallenberg assented to the forgery operation.
In later years, my father would say that he admired Wallenberg for putting his own life at risk when he didn't have to. He witnessed Wallenberg standing up to the Nazi authorities and personally going to the train transport platform to pull people off the trains and out of the lines that meant certain death, declaring them "Swedish citizens."
The last time he saw Wallenberg was in January 1945, a few days after the Russian army liberated Budapest. A few days later, he heard that the Russians had arrested Wallenberg. My father always believed that Wallenberg died in a Russian jail, not only because his experience with the Russians had taught him of their brutality but also because he knew of their ineptitude and believed that were Wallenberg alive, he would have somehow sent a message from his cell to the right channels to free him.
After the war, my father went to Vienna, where he convinced the occupying authorities to designate the former Rothschild Hospital, which had been used as a prison during the war, as a center for Jewish refugees under his leadership.
The International Committee for Jewish refugees and Former Inmates of Concentration Camps was created as a result, with my father as its president, to represent the Jews in Austria.
Between 1945 and 1951, the Rothschild Hospital would help more than 200,000 Jews get medical attention and vocational training and aid them in finding new lives by providing emigration visas. Men, women, families, orphaned children, famous rabbis, the religious and the atheists, the young and the old, the infirm and the healthy - all passed through the Rothschild Hospital.
As president, he wielded great power. He dealt with the four occupying powers --and the American Army officials in particular - as well as Jewish and American relief agencies, such as the Joint Distribution Committee and the Red Cross. He also was involved with securing visas to foreign countries.
I am under the impression that my father earned little salary for doing all this, but at a time when many survivors had nothing, he had an apartment, a car and access to supplies and rations. He was a big shot - "the king of the Jews."
As president of the International Committee, he attended the first post-war Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1946. During this period, he was also active in the Briha, facilitating illegal immigration to Palestine, helping to arrange transports and smuggle arms, for which Israel awarded him the Ot Haganah in 1967 and the State Fighter's Award in 1988. In 1949, he was one of the pallbearers when Theodore Herzl was disinterred in Vienna and flown to be buried in the new State of Israel. In 1952, he emigrated to the United States.
All this happened before I was born. In my memory, however, the father I was born to was an immigrant, a greenhorn, a Polish Jew who wanted to have nothing to do with his Polish heritage (asked where he came from, he would often say "Galicia" or some term that referred to the Austro-Hungarian empire, or he might say "Lemberg," as if the city were a country). My mother, a Hungarian, had met my father in Vienna after the war. They were trying to make a life in New York, trying to make a living in America, the best country in the world.
What did I know of my father's experience during the Shoah? How did I learn it? What did my father tell me and when? How did it affect me then and to this day?
For the first five years of my life, we lived in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on West End Avenue. All the other kids I knew and played with were the children of European Jews. We lived there because another Polish Jewish couple had told my parents about the apartment. Most of my parents' friends were either Hungarian, Polish or Austrian survivors. My maternal grandmother, Adrienne Bogner, lived two blocks away.
Even at that early age, I had some notion, some vague consciousness, that a war had occurred in Europe. The Nazis were the bad guys. We, the former Europeans, the Jewish ones, had outsmarted them, had bested the German Nazis and won (I was a little confused about Germans and Nazis, because all the parents I knew spoke German but were not Nazis, but all the Nazis spoke German).
I knew that my father had played some role in this, that he had been a spy for the good guys. I had some impression that he had blown up bridges or committed acts of sabotage against the Nazis. I can say that even as a 5-year-old, my understanding of what had occurred was not that 6 million Jews had died, but that 6 million survived and that the Nazis had been defeated.
My father conveyed a sense that, having survived as he had, having accomplished what he had, there was no challenge he could not meet. And no goal that, as a native-born American citizen, I could not achieve. I sensed that my father was an important person. Along West End Avenue, I recall people stopping my father and greeting him with respect as "Herr president." On occasion at the Ãâ°clair pastry shop on West 72nd Street, the cashiers would not accept payment from him - he would insist - or they would make him a gift of some extra pastries. A woman told me, "Your father saved my life."
But my father did not talk about his life, his experiences. His parents and brothers and sisters were "lost" in the war (no one called it the Holocaust yet).
Later, when I was in high school, he started to speak to students in public high schools and in colleges and would take me along. There, sitting in a classroom, was how I first heard about his wartime experiences (I also often typed up or helped him write those speeches - those were some of my first writing assignments).
My father tended to talk about the war in generalizations ("In 1939 Germany invaded Poland") and with sweeping conclusions ("there was resistance - in every place; in small places, small resistance; in large places, large resistance").
His message was that the Jews did fight back against all odds, under impossible circumstances.
He would tell of the ghettoization of Lvov, of how people were sent to the "East" never to return, their families duped by postcards saying all was well - which they later learned had been signed moments before the families were murdered. He told of how he escaped from Budapest and fought with the partisans; how at every step they were betrayed. How no one wanted to believe what was to occur; how no one wanted to help, and yet how they fought back as best they could. And he would always say, "There are no heroes; the heroes are all dead."
He offered little in the way of personal details to his audiences or to me for that matter, just the historical facts as he experienced them. He did not talk about his family members - never mentioned the names of his brothers and sisters, never described them. Those details were taboo.
Every father is a hero to his child. Every parent is also an oppressor to his child. In my case, the two were complicated by my father's heroic status and the notion that his suffering demanded that we ignore or excuse his anger. Imagine thinking that your father, the Holocaust hero, was behaving like a Nazi - that was the worst, most transgressive thought that ever flashed through my young mind.
My father, having been right about so much, having survived by his certainty in every situation, remained certain about everything. Worldly as he was, he had a narrow, very pragmatic prism through which he viewed every situation, and our normal parent-child differences were repressed, at least on my part, by my need to please him.
My father had nightmares - while sleeping, he often talked in foreign languages, and, on occasion, he shouted or let out a wail. This was just a fact of my childhood, something frightening and strangely haunting - never really explained, just sort of dismissed.
I understood that this was the residue of my father's experience, and it was not to be discussed. Similarly, although my father had a dry sense of humor and was generally upbeat, in private he sometimes erupted into rages, hurling insults.
Other times when he was angry, he would just turn off and go silent. This, too, was written off - excused or explained by the past he didn't discuss.
To some extent, I felt that having lost his parents so young, so traumatically, he did not really know how to be a parent - he was not the sort to play ball with me or do many of the typical father-son activities. This was my theory for many years, but it was not really based on the facts - one day I realized that my father had already reached his 30s when he last saw his parents.
Still, at a remove of several decades and as a parent myself, I wonder about my father's anger and about his guilt. And about the guilt the rest of us shared over what he had endured.
My father was close with his family, but clearly he was rebellious. Even before the war, he rebelled to play soccer on Saturdays, and eventually he rebelled against the strictures of their faith. He was not the son who worked in the business with his father. He went off to do something else. And when the time came, he was the one who fled the ghetto. Did they approve? Were they supportive? I was never sure.
The Nazis murdered his parents and brothers and sisters - using his escape as their excuse - most likely they would have been murdered a few weeks later with the rest of the Jews in the Lvov ghetto. Nonetheless, did my father feel guilty? Did he feel in some way responsible? Or was he just angry and repressing the anger over their deaths? I can't tell you.
I can remember that we always had to tread lightly on those days when he lit the Yizkor memorial candles for his family. He was in a funk on those days. Those candles glowing in the dark spooked me.
I also know that he sought to protect me. He felt the adult working world could wait - he was against my having summer jobs or doing part-time work when I was in school - I should study, play or do sports instead. Although he was a businessman, he didn't really want me to learn about business from him. He wanted me to be a leader, an elected official perhaps, certainly a lawyer. He didn't want me to work for others - better to have my own office and not be beholden to others. For my father, being a real estate broker, builder and manager was work - that was his business. His spare time was spent working for the Democratic Club, helping his local synagogue, working for Jewish charities - that was what he loved. He continued to work with the Joint Distribution Committee and ORT, as well as the Anti-Defamation League.
Although my father could be warm, loving, even tender, he was also stiff and formal, somewhat cut off. There was not a lot of discussion of feelings. In fact, as an adult, my father would often call to have lunch, saying he had something important to discuss. I would go feeling anxious, with some concern about some revelation - only for us to place our order and sit silently through it.
I would ask: "Was there something you needed to tell me?" He would answer that he just wanted to see me, see how I was doing.
Just as archaeological digs must first excavate the more recent civilizations before getting to the older ones - interest in my father's history seemed to proceed in reverse chronological order. At first, journalists and historians were interested in his work in the Briha, and many of the Holocaust survivors knew him because of his position in Vienna and his work at the Rothschild Hospital. Later, when Wallenberg became a known figure, interest surged in my father's underground work in Budapest.
As early as 1947, he was approached about writing his memoirs, but he couldn't quite do it. Over the years, he was interviewed by prominent journalists, including I.F. Stone, Meyer Levin, Ruth Gruber and Elenore Lester, and historians such as Yehuda Bauer and Randolph Braham.
He tried to dictate his own memoirs, and at a much later date I tried to help him organize and write them. He gave oral and video testimony for archives. However, he could never really describe the details of what he experienced - they didn't seem important to him, he couldn't recall them. His talent was to organize - to deal with the problems facing him, to lead the people surrounding him, to help others, to do what needed to be done.
Nonetheless, he appears in the accounts of almost a dozen works of history, including Braham's "The Politics of Genocide," (1981); Bauer's "Flight and Rescue" (1967); and Thurston Clarke and Frederick E. Werbell's "Lost Hero: The Mystery of Raoul Wallenberg" (1982). In 1985, NBC broadcast a miniseries, "Wallenberg: A Hero's Story," written by Gerald Green ("The Last Angry Man"), starring Richard Chamberlain as Wallenberg and featuring Ralph Arliss as Teicholz, one of the Jewish resistance leaders.
My father died in 1993. In 1995, I traveled to Lvov, now part of Ukraine. While there, I was able to see the street he lived on, the apartment building he lived in, the Jewish community hall where he attended meetings, the headquarters of the Judenrat, and the entrance to the ghetto.
I visited the Janovska camp and saw the field where his family was most likely murdered and said Kaddish there; I also saw the train transport from which others he knew were sent to their death at the Belzec extermination camp.
At the entrance to the former ghetto, there is now a Holocaust memorial. I arranged to have a memorial plaque placed there in the names of his parents and siblings.
While in Lvov, I also visited the municipal archives, where I found a 1936 business directory listing Izak Teichholz as kupciek (merchant) and Josef Teichholz as working at the same address (there was also a listing for Wolf Teichholz working there, who I would later learn was a cousin).
I also found the 1939 municipal voting records. To my amazement, there, in clear type, in ordered columns, were my grandparents, uncles and aunts - and my father.
There were surprises in that list. I learned, for example, that though we had always celebrated my father's birthday on Feb. 20 - turns out it was in July (so much for thinking he was a Pisces!). His passport said he was born in 1914; turns out it was 1908 (he always said that the passport was a few years wrong, but he never said how much). Imagine being so unsentimental about your birth date as to celebrate it on a completely different day and never tell your wife and children the actual date.
Moreover, the list included only four Teichholz children, including my father.
My best guess, and it is only that, is that his sister, Adella (or Bella), was already married and living in Tarnopol, so she didn't appear. As for the missing sibling - my father mentioned a sister who was married and died in London during the war - I had asked my father several times how he knew she had died, but he just dismissed my questions.
Finally, the document said they all arrived in Lvov in 1930, which would mean that, in fact, my father didn't grow up in Lemberg, as he said, but arrived there as an adult. So that, too, is a mystery.
In recent years, I've also recovered transcripts of interviews my father gave to the American Jewish Congress as part of its oral history project, as well as to Bauer and Braham. In each, I found details not found elsewhere, small slivers of his story he had not shared elsewhere in a cohesive way.
Today, I know more about my father's history than I did when he was alive. Sometimes, I wish I could interview him now, but I fear that although my questions might be more informed, I still would not get better answers from him.
A few years ago, I had a rather surreal experience. While doing some research on the Web, I discovered Hebrew University in Jerusalem had in its archive an interview with my father - Bauer had donated his papers, including his interview with my father for his book on the Briha. I e-mailed them asking them for a transcript, and they sent me one.
Almost every third word was marked "unintelligible." I e-mailed them again, to ask for an audiotape of the interview and to offer to correct and complete their transcript. Several weeks later, a manila envelope containing a cassette appeared in my mailbox.
I then had the strange experience of hearing my father's voice again, some 12 years after his death, and the even stranger experience of finding myself frustrated by his maddeningly opaque manner of talking and irritated with his Polish circumlocutions, pauses and nonanswer answers. I understood every word he said, and in the end, the transcript was no wiser for it.
My father's heroism, his altruism was not, I believe, a matter of any conscious philosophy. It was part of who he was, part of his DNA. He was active in relief work before the Nazis entered Lvov, and he continued to be involved in charity work throughout his life in the United States.
As for his Jewish identity, he didn't keep kosher, he wasn't Sabbath observant, but as I have often remarked, he never breathed a breath that wasn't Jewish. He supported Israel before it was a state, traveled there often and was totally committed to its existence and its support, but he chose not to live there.
Am I the product of nurture or nature?
My father's experience in Poland and Hungary, his work in the underground and later in Vienna at the Rothschild Hospital and in the Briha confirmed his self-confidence and his belief in his own abilities as, he put in one oral history, as having "a genius for organizing." He had tremendous self-confidence and certainty. At the same time, he had the quality, shared by many successful businessmen, of having little attachment to the facts beyond the opportunities they present in the moment - and a great ability to move on to the next question.
By contrast, what my father did not give out - I seek out. I want to know the details. I see the complexity of every situation, the good and the bad. I empathize with each story. I find myself attached to facts and to the past.
Eager to search them out, nail them down - yet they remain awash in the gray zones. Yet I have a sentimental side and a desire to please and be liked that would be alien to my father. He would just do. I don't like confrontations and prefer to organize my thoughts on paper.
In my writing, I am the translator of experience, the witness, the reporter of stories, seeking to place them in context and searching out meaning. This is part of my reaction to my father's experience. But is this so different from so many other Jewish writers born after the Holocaust?
Do I support Israel or do charitable work only because of my father? No. Is doing so part of my DNA, part of my personality? Yes. Is doing so part of my patrimony? Yes.
In my professional life, I have consistently written about Jewish subjects regardless of the publication or the ostensible subject of the book or article (literature, fashion or retailing for example), and I have consistently found a home writing for Jewish publications.
But my father did not encourage me to write about "Jewish" subjects. To the contrary, this is a world I created for myself, out of my own interests. I won't say that my father was not supportive of my being a journalist or writer. He just didn't think being a writer was a good business. He wanted me to go to law school, and I did. But I also went to journalism school.
What I know for sure is that my father gave me a sense of Jewish history - a direct connection to the history and fate of the Jewish people that feels very personal to me. At the Passover seder, saying that I was in Egypt is something I feel deep in my soul. The Purim story is part of a chain of events that I recognize, a chain linked to my father's experience, and that continues to this day. And, yes, I feel a sense of obligation, as well.
At a certain point, one becomes an adult, or at least an individual separated from one's parents, able to see them as human, imperfect, with faults. It doesn't lessen the respect, just creates different boundaries.
It is difficult to grow up the son of a famous father, just as it is sometimes difficult for plants to grow in the shadow of another plant that receives so much sunlight. One struggles to forge a separate identity - yet.
Yet. Here I am, a grown man, married, in middle age, father of a daughter, still writing about my father.
In the last year, I was asked to write about him for a Wallenberg Web site and to contribute a page about him for the 100th anniversary of the New York synagogue to which he belonged. I also updated and expanded his entry in the new edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica. And I have written this essay.
I am a writer. I witness. I put my words on paper to inform but also to prove that I exist. I am all this, in spite of - but certainly because of, my father.
My father was Bruce Teicholz who, given that he is dead, I can say was a hero.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.