by Mike Schwager
My father’s name was Owen, a name he gave to himself upon coming to the United States as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Though he was not a concentration camp inmate, Dad was nonetheless a Holocaust survivor and a decorated war hero. He was a strong man, and yet a kind man, and I learned from him that strength and kindness were not incompatible bedfellows.
I remember as a child watching a movie starring actor Bob Cummings. His character made a statement I never forgot: “Never mistake kindness for weakness.” He could have been speaking of my Dad.
My Dad was born “Oskar” in a poor section of Dortmund, Germany – in the Ruhr Valley, in the north of the country. My mother Sonny, born as “Sophie,” was from the same city, though she lived in a wealthy community on the “opposite side of the tracks.” We are Jewish, but to have been Jewish in my father’s and mother’s time and place – in the 1930’s and 40’s in Germany - was perilous and often catastrophic for those whose only “crime” was their religion.
My father and his brother Ellis somehow escaped the wrath of the Nazis, and fled Germany through Holland and Belgium. They were often persued by the SS, and as they fled through the Belgian Forest, were chased by Nazis with growling German Shephards at their heels. Dad somehow got onto a ship in Antwerp headed for New York. He was virtually penniless.
When the ship arrived in New York, Dad slept on benches in Central Park, as a hobo. He had no family in this country, and he didn’t speak English. He had left behind his mother, father and six brothers and sisters. His intention was to earn money to bring them to the USA. But good intentions were not to be realized.
The first act of kindness my father experienced in this country was from the Salvation Army. Dad heard about a halfway house they ran at the time on Tenth Avenue and 23rd Street. There, he was provided room and board at no cost until he could find work. He did - in the Garment Center - where he made enough to survive.
Not much later, Dad received word that his mother had been murdered back in Germany. During a sweep of the Jewish sections of Dortmund by the Nazis, as Jews were rounded up into trucks to be transferred to the freight trains destined for places like Auschwitz and Treblinka, his beloved mother Henny had been bayoneted and killed in the street in front of her house. She refused to board the truck and tried to fight off the assailants. To a painful and tragic end.
Henny was a short woman, less than five feet tall. She was slightly plump, with black hair and strong shoulders and a cherubic face. She and her husband – my grandfather Sam – were poor people with a large family. Often, there wouldn’t be enough food on the table, but somehow Henny made food stretch, as the time when a skimpy chicken embellished with homegrown vegetables would constitute the evening meal for six days in a row.
My Dad loved his mother with all his heart – and it broke his heart to see his Mom work as hard as she did in the kitchen and in the house, with so few resources. Henny was a feisty woman, but my Dad only remembers her kindness and her love for her family.
How devastating for her to bear witness not only to her own attempted capture, but the capture of her children on the same day. Four of them had been grabbed by the Nazis alongside her, and word came back that they perished in Auschwitz. No doubt that her attempt to fight off her attackers was motivated by a vain attempt to save her precious offspring.
But growing up, I rarely heard Dad speak of that time and of those events. Years later, in a place called Fleischmann’s, New York, a rural town in the Catskill mountains where my parents often vacationed during the summertime, I found myself sitting with Dad on the porch of the cottage that he and Mom rented each year.
It was early evening, about six o’clock. The sun was beginning to set. The sky was lit a pale orange with hints of faded blue. The air was still save the sound of birds chirping gleefully in the background.
I asked my father, “Tell me about your mother. How did she die?”
From nowhere, a wale erupted from inside him, as if the pain of what he had endured, and the deepest part of his grief around the loss of his mother, had suddenly released itself after more than thirty years. Dad was not a crier, but this cry encompassed a pain held for decades. After sobbing relentlessly for nearly ten minutes, Dad finally looked at me and said, “She refused to board the truck. So they bayoneted her in the street.”
I held Dad’s hand, and simply sat there with him as we looked out at the setting sun from that back porch. Just the song of birds filled the air now. Then, Dad said, suddenly, “I should have saved her.”
I realized in that moment that he carried a guilt, a guilt that had lived inside him for years. I continued to hold my father’s hand, and gently whispered into his ear, “It wasn’t your fault, Dad. You could not have saved her. You could not have foreseen what would happen. You have to know that.”
Dad whispered back, “Thank you son.” Then he held my hand harder, and declared out loud, as if not only to me, but to humanity: “Kindness, son. Kindness is the only answer. Kindness towards each other. Tolerance for each other.”
This declaration by my father had not only been shaped by the oppression of the Nazis, but by war. During World War II, as if what he endured in the Holocaust was not enough, Dad chose to serve in Patton’s Army and as a soldier in Darby’s First Ranger Battalion. He and his buddies hit the beaches of Anzio on the first wave assault (he was one of only a small number who survived that landing). Interestingly, Dad always used to talk about how The Salvation Army were the only ones who were in the foxholes with the GI’s at Anzio. “They were there,” he said. “For the second time in my life, “they were there to help.”
Dad knew that tyranny must be fought. He detested war, especially after his own experience, but he also knew that sometimes war was a regrettable but necessary option. He did once, however, say, “Wars must be chosen very carefully and only when there is no recourse.”
I once videotaped an interview of my father, asking him about his war experience. When he reminisced about that Anzio assault, he cried again. This time it was for his buddies, many of whom were killed at his side as the Rangers made their way up the beachhead. “They fell all around me, and I never understood why I was saved. I could even hear the bullets whiz by my ears,” he said. “There but for the grace of God…”.
With all this, Dad chose to see the glass of life as half full instead of half empty. He was always one with a deep appreciation for life, in spite of the horrific tragedies he personally suffered through. I remember him as a grateful man, who while he recognized and sometimes grappled with life’s bittersweetness, also viewed that same life as so very precious.
I never remember my Dad saying an unkind word to any person he ever met, irrespective of his or her race or religion. I actually even think he had ultimately forgiven his persecutors and the slayers of his family – and that would be a mastership that one can only view with awe. In my Dad I remember a man who bestowed his kindness and unconditional love and acceptance towards everyone he encountered.
That he inculcated these values in me is undeniable. And when it came time for my father to leave this Earth, I remember how hard he held onto the life he regarded as so precious. He fought the ravishes of a blood cancer that ultimately took him, which perhaps on a metaphysical level had transposed physically into the manifestation of all the cruelty he had borne witness to. For Dad, while strong, was also a deeply sensitive person.
In the hospital, on the last day I saw him alive, I recognized that he had surrendered to his fate, but I also remember that he was bathed in an aura and glow that I can only call sacred. He could not talk. I whispered to him in his ear, “I love you so much Dad.” He mouthed the words “I love you.”
I feel that my Dad departed this world with a deep reverence for Life, a reverence that had been deepened by his ordeal. I could see in his eyes a sadness, too, for he had lived through much, and seen much of man’s inhumanity to man – both during the Holocaust and then during war. Perhaps the most painful memory he held onto was the loss of his Mom and the cruelty that had been heaped upon her.
It was perhaps because of his losses, and his hard-earned lessons of life’s fragility, that he understood that this same life was a rare and utterly valuable gift: a gift worth embracing in a world that so desperately needs healing and deep reconciliation between its many peoples.
This web portal, Enrichment.com, is dedicated to him; to the memory of my late sisters, Susan and Heddy, who were an inspiration to me while they were here; and to my mother Sonny, still with us, who survived the Nazi onslaught and who has taught me many lessons, especially the lessons of grace and courage.
Mike Schwager is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Enrichment.com