Bernice Lerner
Author and speaker, former dean of adult learning
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Lessons from my father, a former slave laborer

The human capacity for boundless cruelty and for kindness, the importance of dignity and of gratitude, and the mind as one's most precious asset
My father, Sidney Mermelstein, in front of his first butcher shop (Brooklyn, NY, 1950) (Courtesy)
My father, Sidney Mermelstein, in front of his first butcher shop (Brooklyn, NY, 1950)

In October 1942 my father was conscripted into Hungarian Forced Labor, a brutal system of wartime enslavement. Given wooden shovels instead of wooden rifles, having to wear yellow armbands, Jewish men, serving the Hungarian Army, performed dangerous and arduous labor – building roads, railroads, and defensive ditches; clearing mines, felling trees and carrying heavy equipment. Some assignments were Sisyphean, with no purpose other than to inflict pain and misery.

In the early years of this program, the men were given uniforms. By the time my father was called up to service, they wore their civilian clothes—soon threadbare and little protection against bitter cold winters. Emaciated, with but rags on his feet, my father was lucky he didn’t succumb to starvation or disease, or to severe punishments at the hands of Hungarian officers. He was lucky he was not shot in the head, which happened to anyone who stepped out of line, or, according to an officer’s whim, to “every tenth man.” Even after the winter of 1943, when Hungary realized Germany’s inevitable defeat and sought to extricate itself from the Axis alliance, most labor company officers continued to torture their Jewish slaves.

When my father fell into an agitated slumber on the muddy ground, he prayed he would not wake. But on one auspicious day, he did, only to find that the men in his company had moved on. Left alone, he escaped.

Fast forward to the war’s eventual end and its chaotic aftermath. Fast forward further, to the years in which my father, an immigrant to the U.S., built a butcher business, married, and had two daughters. Like all parents, he could not help but convey – by his actions and reactions, by his words and deeds – his values and his fears. Here are six of my “takeaways” from his experience of depredation:

  1. The easier your life is, the harder it can be. (The more pampered and comfortable you are, the tougher it will be to handle adversity.) When a group of Romanian boys joined his company he took one look at their shiny shoes and knew they had no chance of surviving. Indeed, these privileged young men were unable to bear the hard labor and harsh treatment.
  2. In a land of opportunity, you can have something to show for your efforts. My father barely survived forced labor; before that, fascists deprived the Jewish inhabitants of his Carpathian mountain village of basic rights. Here, in the United States, he worked long hours, skimped and saved, and was enormously proud when he was able to purchase a car and a home.
  3. The human capacity for cruelty knows no bounds. But if you one day have the opportunity to retaliate against oppressors, you may not have the will or desire to do so—it is just not in you to act that way. After the war, my father worked with German women in the kitchen of a displaced persons camp. They were fearful. And solicitous. He could have done anything to them. But even if they had supported Hitler, he would treat them humanely.
  4. It is undignified to run to the buffet. (When gustatory reflexes rule, civility breaks down.) When a passerby threw a piece of bread to a group of starved forced laborers, pandemonium ensued. Having witnessed the scramble to get to the bread, and men fighting over it, my father would forever be reminded of ferocity born of desperate circumstances. Years later, in times of plenty, he would hang back when he saw people rushing to food-laden tables.
  5. Once a slave, forever grateful. Decades after experiencing hardship and trauma my father delighted in simple comforts—a warm blanket, fresh food, clean clothes. No matter his ambitions for better or more, nothing was taken for granted. When he was sick and dying, my father expressed pleasure in being able to lay on a worn couch, with an old afghan to cover him.
  6. Your mind is your most precious and only secure possession. Everything can be taken from you but what you know. While in forced labor, my father traded the last personal item he had on him, a leather wallet, for a bowl of soup. Material goods meant something only insofar as they could get you food. But what knowledge you possessed was inviolable and could, in certain circumstances, be helpful.

There were other dimensions to my father’s personality and his perspectives were born of a host of experiences. He knew joy. He lived long chapters that were not marked by pain, suffering, and a constant state of tension. But had he not been a wartime slave, he would not have carried—and transmitted—wisdom born of the extreme.

About the Author
Bernice Lerner, former dean of adult learning at Hebrew College and a senior scholar at the Center for Character and Social Responsibility at Boston University, is the author of All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, a British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020). She holds a doctorate from Boston University's School of Education and a master's from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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