My dad was one of the lucky ones.
Together with his parents and his sister, they made it through the war. They left their home outside of Paris when the Germans attacked France in 1940. My grandparents took my dad and aunt, all of age 5 and 6 respectively, on the backs of their bicycles and traveled to Toulouse. Their original plan was to get to the Pyrenees mountains go over the border into Spain, head for Portugal and get a ship out to the US, where my grandfather’s two brothers were waiting to welcome them with open arms.
It was a long shot at best and in the end it wasn’t to be. Upon arrival in Toulouse my grandfather learned that the escape through the Pyrenees was too risky as robbers were there, killing people for their valuables. He and my grandmother decided it was just too dangerous to try with two young children. After talking with a friend in Toulouse, they decided it would probably be safer if they would try to live in obscurity somewhere in the Free French zone of Vichy, France. My grandfather, thanks to his brother in the US, who in the build up to the war sent money to my grandfather to enable them to leave France, was able to buy gold Napoleon coins part of which he used to get forged identity papers which concealed their Jewish identity.
Through this friend they found a house to rent in a very small remote village and they stayed there until the war was over. It was not an easy life, concealing such a secret and always fearful that at any day they could be discovered or that someone might turn them in, but they were together and most of the time lived a relatively normal life. My grandfather, a chemist by trade started his own cottage industry during the war, making soap for the local villagers and trading it for bread, milk and other food to supplement what they were able to grow in their small garden.
After the free French zone lost its sovereignty things became increasingly difficult. German soldiers showed up from time to time in their small town, mostly to hoard supplies from farmers.
There were a few close calls.
My dad worked for a local farmer in the summers, helping to harvest peaches in exchange for milk and eggs. One day a group of German soldiers arrived with 6 lorries, the farmer, although not specifically aware of my dad’s Jewish identity, knew enough to know that a Parisian family’s sudden appearance in their village probably meant that there was a good reason why they didn’t want to be discovered. He told my dad to go out into the orchard and make himself scarce. My dad did what he was told, an hour later one of the farmhands came out to find my father and tell him that the Germans had filled up their trucks and had gone.
He was 9 that day.
Still, comparatively they were very very lucky. They survived, they were together and compared to so many others, endured much less.
Five years after the war, they left France behind for America and started a new life.
It was a good life.
My dad learned the language, he loved everything about America. He graduated high school, went to Carnegie Mellon (in those days Carnegie Tech), he joined a Jewish fraternity, got a degree in Mechanical Engineering, met my mother, they got pinned and 4 months after graduation they got married, built a house and started a family. They were active in the Jewish community, they had friends, they went on vacations. Eventually my dad went back to school and got his Ph.D. and became a college professor.
Still, even as a child, I always knew that just under the surface, something lingered.
My suspicions were confirmed a few months shy of my 10th birthday. We were getting ready to move to Miami, Florida, where my dad had gotten a teaching job. I was helping my mom pack and she asked me to get her wedding album which she kept under her bed. I ran to get it, excited to be able again to see their wedding photos, to see how beautiful, young and happy they were. I reached under the bed and felt around without looking. I felt something retangular, but it felt heavier than a photo album. Curious, I pulled it out from under the bed.
It was a box of canned food, fruit, soups and vegetables. I went to my mother and she asked me where the wedding album was. I told her what I found.
She told me to put it back and tried to rebuff my questions of why it was there, why she would keep food under the bed instead of in the kitchen or in our pantry. Finally, when she could put me off no longer she answered curtly, “it’s your dad’s and don’t ask him about it.”
What’s the first thing I did? I asked him.
He was open about it, actually more open than my mom was. He told me that he kept it there so that he could fall asleep at night. I asked him why on earth he needed cans of food to fall asleep and he told me that when he was a kid, he lived through a war and that for part of the time they didn’t have enough to eat and that because of that, he was always very fearful of not having food, so he kept food under the bed so that he had nothing to be afraid of.
I knew that there were scars and I knew that they were deep but most of the time he was fine, he was happy, he joked around, he enjoyed life. There was darkness under the surface (and sometimes it bubbled up) but most of the time he was okay. I think in those years he was able to focus on his life, his family, his career and was able to push his bad memories and his fears to the farthest corners of his mind.
But, it never left him, it didn’t fade like other memories as he got older and farther away from that time in his life. As he aged, as his children grew up and made lives of their own, as he approached retirement, it was harder and harder for him to keep those memories at the far reaches of his mind.
As I became an adult I started to understand how deeply his experiences shaped who he was and I started to understand why it was that he had such rage within him and why he always had trouble sleeping. Of course I could never understand what it must have been like for him, to experience what he did at such a tender age. How living through the daily fear of being discovered by the Germans must have shaken his fundamental need for safety, how spending that last winter of the war being hungry must have upset something so primal in him, something that is nearly impossible to put back together.
As the years went on, I began to understand that he was depressed but like so many of his generation, getting help wasn’t an option. He lived in denial, his demons getting larger and larger and taking up more space in his life. His depression took the form of anger and sometimes even rage and he spent the last decade or so of his life pushing away all of those people that were close to him, he isolated himself and withdrew.
My dad was a survivor and I think that he tried his hardest to outrun the demons that took up residence in his heart all those years ago in France. I think my grandparents, experiencing the war as adults, had their share of sorrow and fear connected to their experiences during the war, but also to the loss of their families back in Poland where they grew up. Because they were not children though, they were able to build a life after the war and keep their sorrow in in some kind of perspective.
My dad, 10 years old when the war ended could not. There was just something too fundamental which broke inside him and although he was able to push the broken pieces to the corner of the room, there came a time when he had no where to walk but on top of that broken glass.
He committed suicide 59 years after the war ended, and although, unlike the six million, he had the opportunity to live his life and the end of his life was at his own hand so many decades later. It was his own choice.
Still, when the siren sounds, I will be remembering my dad and counting him among the victims of the Holocaust.
He was both survivor and victim.