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
(Page 3 - Previous Page)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.