If you were to ask me when exactly I knew about my father’s experiences as a survivor of 1940s Europe, I couldn’t tell you. Though I was too young to know the facts, the war’s impact on my father—and by extension, on me–was unmistakable.
As I was growing up, I came to know my father as a determined worker, single-mindedly fixed on making a living for his growing family as a design engineer. He loved us, sure, but kept himself on the emotional periphery. The war years had trained him in the practicality of survival. Feelings had no place in his fight to get out alive. They needed to be suppressed, pushed way down. Vulnerability was too risky. His life and that of his mother and sister were at stake. Emotional release, in whatever form, would have to come later.
Dad’s formative years in Debrecen, Hungary were steadily defined by the growing victimization of that country’s Jewish residents by Hungary’s fascist government. His father had been conscripted into Hungarian forced labor service in 1942 and was separated from the family. His Jewish grade school was closed down. All Jews were required by law to wear the yellow Star of David as they went about life in their town.
By the time he turned 16 in 1944, 70 years ago, the Nazis had taken over Hungary and began to apply their “final solution” to the area’s Jewish population. In June of that year, Dad, his mother and sister were herded, along with thousands of other Jews, onto one of Adolf Eichmann’s trains to Auschwitz headed toward likely death. Instead, in a stroke of circumstantial luck, a politically connected negotiator, Rudolf Kasztner, successfully secured the train’s new destination (Eichmann, a major Nazi leader and organizer of mass murder, proposed trading Jews for Allied trucks. That plan failed). The Auschwitz-bound train was then sent to Strasshof labor camp near Vienna where he and his family were put to work until liberation in 1945.
I’ve summarized my father’s story into a basic sketch, leaving out immense detail. There’s so much more to know (see: tinyurl.com/oqtg6da). As a teenager held at Strasshof, he suffered beatings, risked his life in ghetto escapes for food, and once daringly fought back by sabotaging ammunition production. Miraculously, Dad’s immediate family survived intact. My grandfather survived as well and was reunited with his family. Most of Dad’s extended family, aunts, uncles and cousins were killed.
In many ways, my father’s story isn’t a new one. We’ve all, no doubt, heard countless first-person accounts, read books and seen movies. The common thread here is the impassioned plea Holocaust survivors have made to the world to not simply “not forget”, but to remember what evil can do. Over the years, Dad has expressed fear that history could repeat itself–anxious that the lessons taught by bigotry and discrimination would be lost. Dad wonders if he, his family and 6 million other Jews will have suffered in vain.
Thirty-six years ago I volunteered to have Dad talk about his experiences for a college class I was taking on the Holocaust. My professor never let him go. Dad was subsequently connected to the then-burgeoning Holocaust Resource Center (now named The Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center and Archives) at Queensborough Community College (CUNY) in Bayside, New York. He’s been a sought-after speaker ever since.
Prior to his becoming involved in public speaking Dad’s emotional safety valve had been weakening. He had no outlet to express this part of his life. The opportunity has been, ironically, a lifesaver. He feels heard. He thrives on feedback he receives from the schools and the students. Their rapt attention time after time has given him hope. He’s made a difference.
There is a concept called muscle memory–a continuous repetition of motor tasks we may engage in until we are able to automatically repeat the movement without thinking, like playing a piano, punching in a phone number and my favorite, choreographed dance. It’s far easier to embed when we have had first-hand experience. The age-old question is, how do we transmit the lessons of history effectively? Is it even possible? There are many different ways to repeat a lesson. Books, movies, museums and survivors’ accounts are important. However, we receive the information passively. All theory. Practical application, I think, is our big test: Have we sufficiently impressed upon our youth the importance of using our own actions to counter hate? What structures have we put in place?
On a more basic level, we’ve got to wonder if we’ve planted seeds of compassion deeply enough for empathy and grace to take root, where goodness not only becomes second nature but becomes the ultimate memorial.