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 4 - Previous Page)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.