My father was raised in Oradea, Romania, on the border area of Transylvania that runs between Hungary and Romania. His parents were religious Jews, and my grandfather, my dad’s father, owned a small business.
The Nazis came late in the war, rounded up the Hungarian Jews (though Oradea today is in Romania, it was considered Hungarian at the time. It was called Nagyvarad in Hungarian, or Grosswardein in Yiddish (the German-Hebrew lingua franca of East European Jews). Twenty five thousand Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.
Most perished. My grandparents were gassed in Auschwitz-they were old people whose only “sin” was being Jewish. They were murdered.
My father survived. He was a slave laborer in several camps, including Dora-Nordhausen, where slave labor was used by the Nazis to help build the V-2 bombs that rained down on England.
After the war, my father was liberated by the British Army, in the spring of 1945, from the death camp at Bergen-Belsen. He had been shot by a Nazi guard during the war, surviving his wound to the chest. When liberated, he had literally nothing. He had lost his family, did not know if anyone he knew had survived. He was 22 when he was liberated.
He had been a bright student in school prior to the war, and went to classes in Europe after the war. Relief organizations convinced him to come to America to continue his studies. He found out he had a few cousins who had survived the war, or had gotten out prior to it, and the two families of relatives were in St. Louis, MO.
He went to school first in Lincoln, Nebraska, Univ of Nebraska, and then later to Purdue and finally, Washington University, in St. Louis. He earned undergrad, master’s and finally, a Ph.D in microbiology, and became, later on, world-renowned in his field. He taught in the medical school at Washington U., and headed the microbiology lab at a St. Louis area hospital, until his death in 1984 from cancer.
That is the simple biography.
My father loved America. He loved the freedom. He never got over the fear of hearing sirens, or loud noises, though no one at work knew this. He appeared to have NO fears, but he could never fully get over what happened to him. This made him appreciate what the United States stood for more. He knew history, understood what had happened in 1776 and beyond. He had no illusions, was not a starry-eyed person about anything (besides his family!), but understood that an America even with some imperfections was infinitely better than any country in the history of the world. He FULLY understood what the lack of freedom meant; this was a man who literally, in 1944, had been a slave in conditions as bad or maybe far worse (I hate to get into comparisons) than slaves in the American South in the pre-Civil War days. We can’t really begin to imagine that literal slavery, but he lived as a slave.
He came here with nothing. He had some minimal assistance from the relief organizations, but at an impoverished level of subsistence. When he was in Lincoln, he was completely alone. He spoke broken English, with a heavy accent (he would become fluent, and lost much of his accent. The one “European” aspect of my dad was a total inability to understand baseball! He, a genius in everything, except he could not figure out what the point was, or how baseball “worked”; where did the players go when they had gone ‘round the basepaths?! In most ways, however, he was a proud AMERICAN, who adopted this country and gave back to it.
I have one memory that I think illustrates how my dad understood about what this country and its greatness was. It was when Richard Nixon resigned from the Presidency.
Why did this mean something to him, and what was it about those times that filled him with even greater love for this country than ever?
We were on a father-son weekend, in the Lake of the Ozarks. I disagreed with my dad on just about everything, and we fought a lot. So we had gone away together to try to bond better, with him trying to break through to his angry angst-filled teen son. Obviously, he did get through, as I have never forgotten this.
Nixon gave his resignation speech, and my father sat down at the edge of the hotel bed, and he started crying. I didn’t remember him having any special affection for Nixon (though my dad, to his credit, broke from the Left and the Democratic party at a time when the vast majority of Jews…and of academia…were OF the Left, as they are today. Dad was pretty prescient about a great deal of things; I can look back and give him incredible credit for seeing what might be). In fact, he believed Nixon to be guilty of the cover-up, but thought the Dems were just as crooked.
This is what he told me, though, that stuck with me. When he started crying, as Nixon stepped down, I was incredulous. Why, I asked him, would you cry for this thief, for this criminal in the White House? It was clear the White House was crooked, and even if as bad as previous administrations…they had been CAUGHT, and that was the end of the story for me. Incompetent if not morally reprehensible. Stupid AND low.
Dad told me, he wasn’t crying in sorrow, and he wasn’t crying for Dick Nixon. He was crying because he was in a country where the sitting “ruler” could be forced out of office by the WILL OF THE PEOPLE. The transition was orderly, carried out by rule of law. It was a tremendous national trauma, a time of terrible divisions, but my dad said that I needed to understand what was happening; no one was being murdered. No one was swinging from a lamppost gallows, there was no bloody putsch. The freedom of Americans was preserved. There was no strongman taking over to impose a dictatorship on us. In fact, the man who many accused of BEING dictatorial, of wanting to rule us, Richard Nixon, was forced out of office because of the threat of being found guilty in an impeachment trial in Congress.
There were no guns.
It was on TV. The ruler voluntarily gave up his power. Yes, it was under duress, but what it proved to my dad was that the idea of America, a land run under a rule of civilized laws, laws made for the betterment of its people (as opposed to say, the totalitarian “rule of law” of Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, where the courts and laws were made and run by those at the top to suppress and oppress those under them), existed in the world and operated as it was supposed to. It was…and is not…a perfect place, but my father had lived in a Europe that even before World War Two, was a continent of violent revolutions and putschs and coups, where violence was more often present than not, and a continent filled with countries ruled by those who gave little mind to the will of the people.
So my dad cried. He had survived Bergen Belsen, had lived through slavery, and felt privileged and happy and full of a kind of joy that he could live to see this transfer of power, one in which all the STRENGTHS of America were on display. He appreciated what America stood for, realized those ideas were alive and well in his time, not just back in the days of the Founders.
He knew what NOT having freedom meant. He knew what a gift to Mankind that this country was.
I’m far from the first to notice this, but sometimes, it’s those who have lost their own freedoms that viscerally understand and appreciate what America’s promise is, what Reagan’s vision of the “city shining upon a hill” speech was about.
I was told this a couple of years ago, by a Polish émigré’ in a bookstore in suburban Chicago. He saw me browsing and looking at a book about socialism. He saw I was a religious Jew (I was wearing a yarmulke, a skullcap), and engaged me in conversation about the war. He had lived under the Communists…and he told me the same things as my dad here. The man admired America in a way that HE felt few, if any, born here, could understand or feel.
I’m not sure that’s true, but it has been both the memory of my father…oh, and as an aside, my maternal grandparents were from Russia, and I was lucky to have grown up with them. My grandfather’s father had been murdered in the 1905 Revolution. He was shot down, murdered in front of my grandfather, who was a young boy at the time. Need I say that my grandfather had similar feelings to my dad? My mom’s parents loved…LOVED this country. They, as had my father, came over with little or nothing. Because of the freedom of opportunity here, they too, succeeded, with almost no help. They went into business, worked from early in the morning until late at night, week in and out…and had made a life for themselves. They were truly IN love with this country, as was my father.