Today, October 6, 2014, is Jack Pavony’s real birthday.
When he came to America and presented his papers to the immigration officer at Elis Island, the officer read Jack’s birthday as ‘month and day’ as is customary in the United States instead of ‘day and month’ which is how Europeans write their birthday. So for the next 60 years, Jack celebrated his birthday on June 10th instead of on his actual birthday of October 6th.
But this never seemed to bother Jack.
I suppose that when you survive six years of hard labor, starvation, torture, and the murder of your entire family in Nazi concentration camps – celebrating your birthday four months early every year falls under the ‘inconsequential’ category. I am sure that as a refugee with no home, no formal education, no job, and no immediate family, Jack was more than happy to ignore this seemingly innocent clerical error in exchange for survival and a path to a new life.
Jack learned five languages – Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, and English. His Yiddish was lyrical, poetic. But his other four languages were conversational at best. And yet, he never really forgot any of his vocabulary words in Hebrew. In fact, he could recall with dizzying clarity most of his six grades of Hebrew school teachings including how to read and write in Hebrew and douzens of Zionist youth movement and Jewish holiday songs.
Jack spent his adult life instilling two primary life-lessons in his family and friends.
The first – always stay together. As Jack’s father clung to him during the first weeks that they arrived in Auschwitz, he kept repeating to his son – “We must be together. Together. Do you hear? Stand with me. Wherever I go, wherever you go. We must be together.” Ensuring that his son understood the importance of family would allow Jack’s father to continue living. That is, until Jack’s father was singled out by Dr. Mengele and sent to the gas chambers. Jack would grow up clinging to the importance of always staying together with the strength and conviction of a lion protecting his young.
The second life-lesson, Jack wore on his left arm. “We must never forget what the Nazis did to the Jews,” he would say to anyone who asked him about the blue tattoo on his arm showing the numbers 7-6-5-5-9.
Jack would never forget – he couldn’t forget. But what terrified him more than anything was that one day he would be gone and it would be up to the world to remember what he and has family had gone through. Had he done enough to ensure that people knew what had happened? Had he told the stories about his family enough times? Had he spent enough hours recounting his experiences to the Steven Spielberg Holocaust Video Archives?
For Jack, Israel played a central role in ensuring the world never forgot about what the Nazis did to the Jews. The Yad Va’Shem memorial was a powerful reminder – a memorial that told the truth and screamed out to the world that the Nazis had not killed all the Jews and that he, Jack Pavony, had survived to tell his story.
But the State of Israel and her ability to not only defend herself but to instill fear in all those who would seek to harm her citizens – this evoked a very different emotion in Jack. Pride. And knowing that there was an army dedicated to the safety of the Jews gave Jack something he had never had – security. He watched as the Israeli Defense Forces fought back against those who mercilessly attacked Jews around the world. He listened to Israeli leaders roar with conviction at all those who would threaten the Jewish State.
No, the world would never forget what the Nazis did to the Jews – Israel would not allow it. Israel will come to the aid of Jews everywhere and protect them. It did not matter that Israel had not existed when Jack needed her protection. It did not matter that Jack was scheduled to emigrate to Israel after World War II but went to America to be with his relatives instead. All that mattered to Jack was that Israel was here now and that she would protect Jews around the world so that what he and his family had endured would never happen again.
Jack never complained about the brutal and cruel hand he had been dealt. He had survived for a reason. That reason was to tell his story and to pass on the only two things that matter when everything has been taken from you – that you must always stay together with the ones who matter most to you and you must survive so you can tell your story to others and ensure that they never forget. And his personal relationship with Israel was equally pure – home for our people and defender of the Jews.
In all the years I knew him, Jack never forgot my birthday. No matter where in the world I was living, his cards would always find their way to my mailbox, magically arriving exactly on my big day. Jack would decorate the card with hand-written block letters in Hebrew and Magen David illustrations.
You see, birthdays were important to Jack. And the fact that they had made a mistake identifying his own birthday really didn’t matter – everyone who had been at his birth was gone. But he always made sure I felt we were together. And he never ever forgot.
Jack is my grandfather. He has been gone for six years and I think about him every day. Especially today, his real birthday.