He sits in a chair on the balcony of his Miami Beach condo, watching the sun set over the bay. The evening’s shadows nestle within the folds of his worn face, a face that has borne witness to the passage of time, cataclysmic events, loss and, yes, some joy. He is silent as he sits back, closes his eyes and remembers.
The town in Poland, where he was born, in 1908. His father owned a leather shop, a family affair. He was the next-to-oldest in a family of four sons and one daughter. After finishing the sixth grade, he had to leave school and join his father in the business. His first regret, as he keenly felt the lack of further education. To compensate, he became a master craftsman, taking great pride in his work, producing the best in handbags, wallets, saddles and belts.
As the days progressed, so did he. Success came, and with it, a business reputation and a shop of his own. He married and had a daughter.
With Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, everything changed. The first Jewish ghetto in Poland was created in his town. Thousands of Jew were crammed into a small sector of the town, with the specter of daily “selections” and deportations a constant fear. The Germans had need of his leather goods, so his shop and his family were spared. He was able to use his good fortune to save countless individuals by telling the Germans he needed more staff and by hiding people in his back rooms.
Until the fall of 1943, with the liquidation of the ghetto and a final deportation of all its remaining inhabitants. All herded into railroad cars headed to a concentration camp, Blizyn.
He survived, driven by the hope that his wife and daughter might be alive, that he might still be reunited with them. To avoid getting ill, he would scrub snow over his frail body in an attempt to stay clean. Sent from camp to camp, he somehow managed to stay alive, to be liberated by the Americans in 1945. By that time, though, he had contracted tuberculosis. Weary and sick, he was sent to a displaced persons camp to recover. While there, he counted the dead in his family – among them, his wife and child.
That was where he met my mother, a nurse in the DP camp. They had grown up in the same town, and so had known each other in the general way that Jews knew each other in the town. She and her two small sons had hidden in his shop in the ghetto until the final deportation. She had survived the camps, but her boys and her husband were gone. These two were dead souls who found a small measure of comfort with each other. And so, they married, a daughter was born, and they were granted entry to the U.S. as refugees.
They arrived in 1950 and struggled to make a life together. They started a cafeteria and catering business, a grueling livelihood. A second daughter was born. The mother woke up early each day to do the cooking at work, so, as the girls grew older, the father was the one who woke the girls up for school, braided their hair, prepared their lunches. This was in the 1950s – before it was fashionable for men to do so.
And as his two daughters grew, his goal was for them to have the education he was denied. And more – that they have a career, a profession, be respected, be self-sufficient, and, so, never suffer as he had. The daughters grew up believing they could do anything, strive for everything, and, hopefully, in doing so, save the world from itself.
He had a strict moral code. He was painfully honest in his business dealings, often to his own detriment. He witnessed so many cultural and societal changes during his lifetime – and tried to understand them. His daughters would make mistakes, as children do, and this confounded him. Until he eventually learned to accept and not judge.
So he sits in his chair and dreams of the future his daughters and their children will have.
A man is the sum of his actions. My father endured man’s depravity but never became depraved. A quiet man, his conduct spoke volumes. My father was a hero. On this Father’s Day, I remember and salute him. And wish for my children to emulate him.
Most of all – how can I forget his mile-high sandwiches he prepared for my school lunch? God forbid I should ever go hungry.
Mendel’s Pastrami Sandwich
Two thick slices of rye bread
Half-pound of the best pastrami
Sour pickle on the side.