When I was 10 years old, I had a class assignment to write a biography about someone I knew. I chose to write about my father. He had a funny accent, which as a budding writer, I thought would make for great copy. Little did I know that this assignment would change my life forever. As I sat and interviewed him, I began hearing words like concentration camp, ghetto, and Nazi. I can’t even remember if I’d ever heard those words before. If I had, they didn’t mean much to me. But at that time, not even trying any longer to take notes for the assignment, I was mesmerized.
My family would say I had my father wrapped around my finger, that I could get anything I wanted from him, a real daddy’s little girl. That may have seemed true to the outside observer, especially if you were hearing the story about my mother sending me and my dad for new school shoes and arriving home instead with the biggest, pinkest, most sparkling ballerina doll you ever saw. Stories like this are deceiving to the naked eye because despite episodes like this, the truth is, from that night sitting at the kitchen table as a 10-year-old little girl and up until today as a 56-year-old woman with two beautiful children of my own and nearly 14 years after my father’s death, I was and still am the one wrapped around his finger.
David Louis Einhorn, David Laibish, was born in Sokolov, Poland, in 1919, the fifth of six children. In 1945, at almost 26 years of age, he was an orphan in the grandest sense of the world. Liberated at 60 pounds, he survived several ghettos and five concentration camps: Puscoff, Dachau, Mathausen, Auschwitz, and Ebenzee—wanting nothing more than a piece of bread for his efforts. He already knew the fate of most of his family. His parents, Avraham Moshe and Etel Ester, were shot to death in the Sokolov ghetto. His oldest brother, Mayan, and his only sister, Sara, were murdered in Treblinka. His youngest brother Volk was burned alive in the Jezswa ghetto. The fate of his older brothers, Chaim and Leizer, in unknown to me.
My father didn’t talk much about his family, not because he didn’t think about them, but because he always thought about them. Like the eternal flame that burns above the ark where the Torah is stored, my father had an eternal tear in his eye. He especially mourned and longed for his mother, a seamstress and breadwinner of the Einhorn clan, and his brother Chaim, who, in 1938, when word of Hitler became commonplace, wanted to go to Palestine but couldn’t because his mother and father would not give him their blessing. The story goes that Avraham and Etel feared he would no longer wear a hat and that he would dance with girls. Apparently, in that place and time, it was a curse to leave without your parent’s blessing. Was it not for the seemingly irrational fears of a generation that seems foreign to most of us, my father might not have spent nearly 50 years asking, “Why me? Why was I the only one chosen to survive?” It was a question that could never be answered but it didn’t stop him from asking and from feeling like it should have been someone else.
When the war ended, my father thought his brother Chaim might be alive. After contacting foreign consulates and embassies, he found a Chaim Einhorn, but this one was from Hungary. His hopes of not being left all alone in the world shattered, he ended up experiencing his brother’s death and perhaps his entire family’s death all over again. And while other 12- and 13-year-old girls were fantasizing about first dates, I fantasized about my finding my Uncle Chaim in some faraway place and binging him to America to reunite him with his long lost brother. I would’ve traded that for a silly old first date any time but, of course, it was just a fantasy. It was one of a lifetime of fantasies I had about making it all better for my dad. Even when I reached adulthood and should have known better, it didn’t stop me from trying.
I remember sitting in a social studies class in junior high school, viewing a film about the war. There was a scene with cattle cars being packed with what would become more camp victims. I ran out of the room—did not raise my hand, did not ask permission, which was very out of character for me—and ran to my guidance counselor’s office. More than 40 years later, I still remember his name: Mr. Mazullo. I’ll never forget him trying to make sense out of a blubbering 13-year-old who could only cry out, “I have to call my dad, I have to call my dad. Please let me call my dad.” When my father answered the phone, all I could say was, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” After telling him what happened he began to console me. I can still hear his words. “It’s alright sweetheart,” which, of course, came out as ‘sveetheart,’ “I’m alright. Please don’t cry. When you cry, I cry.” I stopped immediately. I could never bear the sound of my father crying. He had cried enough, I would say to myself. Now I know that no amount of tears would ever be enough.
These stories aren’t limited to my youth. In our family, we were forbidden to buy anything made in Germany and I, of course, obeyed. But when I was in my late teens, maybe early 20s, I bought a small item—it was maybe $2—but it was made in Germany. I remember thinking, “I am an adult. I don’t have to follow those rules anymore.” Well, suffice to say, I ended up throwing the item away and feeling as if I had betrayed not just my father but my entire heritage. I was guilt ridden for weeks, so much so that I never told my father about it. Needless to say, I have never bought anything made in Germany again.
These memories are so indicative of the complicated relationship my father and I had. We loved each other so much but we were engaged in a cyclical dance that ended with both of us in tears. I was constantly trying to make up for the life and the lives my father lost. Why did I feel this responsibility when my two brothers did not? Was it because I was the youngest? Or the only girl? Or maybe it was because I was his mother’s namesake and spent as much time parenting him as he did me. I don’t know. The reasons don’t change the fact that, despite our efforts, my father and I danced our dance until the day he died. It’s like we were stuck. He, for sure, was stuck in a time and place that most of us only read about in history books or watch on the big screen.
My dad, in fact, was frozen in time. If he wasn’t engaged in an activity, which, unless he was working, was almost always, I would find him staring out a window or just off in space. He would sit, mostly at the kitchen table, flapping his legs together, as if to keep himself awake. Daydreams were bearable to watch. The nightmares were not. I would often find him running in his sleep, or worse, whimpering like a small child. And you could never wake him up without startling him. It’s not that he was in such a deep sleep since I’m not sure he ever really slept a day in his life since the war. It was just that he was always on guard, never calm, never at ease, never at peace.
My father survived but he did not live. He existed. Every special occasion was tainted with some kind of sabotage. He could not handle joy, knowing what he, his family, his people had been through. He had to lessen the experience. Nor could he handle pain, his or others. And because his experience as a survivor was the barometer by which I lived, I, too, inherited the truths of a survivor. Never draw attention yourself; especially as a Jew; be happy with what you have; never speak up; stay hidden; don’t make waves, someone might notice you; trust no one; and worst of all, nobody cares. These were his truths and dare I say, for good cause. They became my truths as well and I still battle those demons today so they don’t become the truths my children will have to live by.
My father arrived in New York in 1950, after traveling around with a passport allowing him to go wherever he wanted, his DP, or displaced person card, and the clothes on his back. It wasn’t much, but it was better than the paper suit he was forced to wear in the camps despite subzero temperatures. Imagine being able to go anywhere in the world you wanted but not being able to go to the one place you yearned for—home.
My father was liberated 71 years ago today, May 6, 1945. It was a Wednesday at 10:00am. He used to call it his second birthday. So Happy Birthday, dad. I hope heaven has given you the peace surviving on earth couldn’t.