A memorial story of optimism

The world commemorated Yom Hashoah V’Hagevurah this past week, also known as Holocaust Memorial Day, to honor the six million Jews among the thirteen million who were killed at the hand of the Nazis only a few decades ago. I was asked to speak to my son’s middle school as the child of a Holocaust survivor. Here are my words:

When I was asked to speak to you today as the child of a holocaust survivor, I realized that growing up, I never considered myself the child of a holocaust survivor because I never considered my dad to have been a holocaust survivor. After all, he never spent time in the concentration camps, didn’t have a tatooed number on his forearm, and didn’t have personal horror stories to tell that many of my friend’s parents and grandparents shared. My dad’s story is a different one – which may have led him to be perhaps one of the most optimistic and grateful human beings I have ever met to this day.

My dad was born in 1937 in Bucharest , the capital of Romania, two years before the start of WWII. His parents, my Bubbie and Zaida, were wealthy merchants in downtown Bucharest. My father attended Jewish Day School and lived a relatively normal life for the first years of the war.

It’s important to know that almost all the Jews of Romania were killed during the Holocaust outside of Bucharest. However, Bucharest was different: the Jews living in the capital city of Bucharest were spared, and my research showed that about 75,000 Jews lived in Bucharest before the war. My grandfather’s sister (my father’s aunt) and her family did not fare so well. They lived in rural Romania where they were murdered along with the rest of their village.

That’s not to say my father doesn’t remember there being anti-semitism in Bucharest: My father would be taunted on his way to school by older boys bullying him because he was Jewish. The worst of the war that he recalled to me was spending days on end in the bomb shelters while the Allies were bombing the city.

Perhaps it’s because he didn’t remember the details, or he was too young to remember, but my research also showed that in January 1941, 120 Jews in Bucharest were killed. Furthermore, “antisemitic legislation downgraded the identity of Jewish citizens to second-rate status: they lost the rights to education and health care, their property was confiscated, and they were forced to perform humiliating hard labor. In September 1942, approximately 1,000 Jews were deported to Transnistria. Despite such treatment, most of Bucharest’s large Jewish community was spared the worst horrors of the Holocaust.” (Wikipedia)

My father recounted to me that in Bucharest, the chief of police was sympathetic to the Jews. He told the Nazi regime that he would take care of the Jews himself. Although the Jewish schools and businesses were eventually closed down, most of the Jews of Bucharest survived the war. Compared to most of Europe, the Jews of Bucharest fared well. For this, my father felt lucky.

After the war, his life resumed to normal for a few years. The Jewish community in Bucharest actually grew because many survivors flocked to the city.

When the communist regime came to power in Romania in 1948, however, when my father was 11, it closed all religious schools. My father’s parents’ store was taken away, and his father was sent to a forced labor camp for several months. He was released only because my grandmother went every day to plead with the police to let him free.

It became clear once the Communists came to power that things for the Jews were going to get worse – and my father’s family didn’t want to stick around as they didn’t think they’d be so lucky a second time. My father’s family applied to emigrate to Israel, then a newly established country. They were asked to pay money to government officials several times, which they did, but heard nothing. in 1950, five years after the war, my father’s cousin was Israel’s delegate to the World Communist Congress being held in Romania that year. Romania’s Communist party leader was Ana Pauker, a Jew, and my father’s cousin pleaded with her to let my father’s family leave. The next day, my father’s family received a postcard stating that they had 72 hours to leave the country for Israel, could only take with them one set of silver candlesticks, one suitcase each, and a very limited amount of money or jewellery. They left virtually everything behind. And yet, for this, my father felt lucky.

They arrived poor to a very new country in Israel, and in 1952, my father celebrated his bar mitzvah in at a make shift synagogue held in a bunker. He used the tallit (prayer shawl) borrowed from an old rabbi because he did not own his own. After services, his parents hosted a small group of people for tea and cake in their small home. For this, he felt lucky.

Although the United States did not permit entry to my father’s family, the next year my father emigrated to Canada with his family to be closer to his relatives then living in New York. He arrived in 8th grade, around your ages, without knowing the language, and very poor. He worked hard, being grateful for this new opportunity, and by the end of the year was first in his class in several subjects. From there, he made a fine life for himself through education and a positive can-do attitude. He became an electrical engineer, married my mother, had three children, became a partner in his consulting firm, held numerous volunteer positions, and all the while felt so so lucky. As an adult, he became relatively observant, thankful to God for having spared his family from the devastation so many others came to during the Holocaust.

I tell this story because his story is one of hope. While he died over 20 years ago (after being on dialysis for 15 years, and still feeling lucky that there was a way to keep him alive!), it’s only recently that I realized he was a holocaust survivor. Who’s to say why one person survives the holocaust while atrocities were being committed only a few miles away? But what I do know is that holocaust survivor stories can be stories not just of suffering but of tremendous luck and optimism. This is what shaped my father’s life – and how we all remember him years later.

May his memory be for a blessing.

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