A German cannon is shown rolling through a street in Danzig, Poland, shortly after the Reich forces took over the city and began their invasion of Poland, Sept. 18, 1939 (AP)

Not exactly bedtime stories: My father, the Holocaust and a moment of bravery he'll never forget

When I was a kid, my dad didn't talk about surviving the Nazis. But now he shares a story of defiance with my sons


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Amy Yelin
January 28, 2017 5:00AM (UTC)

When the phone rang, I knew it was my 88-year-old father before I even looked at caller ID. My dad often called on Sunday evenings, although I only answered if I had at least 30 minutes to spare. This night I did. I grabbed my phone and went in my bedroom, closing the door so we could talk in peace and quiet. But as the mom of two boys, ages 9 and 10, I should have known it wouldn’t last long. Less than five minutes into our conversation, my children came barreling in, laughing and falling over each other like bear cubs and demanding to know who, exactly, I was talking to.

“Grandpa,” I whispered before putting a finger to my lips and adding, “Shhhh . . .”

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For my father was telling a story, a very old story, from when he lived in the free state of Danzig — now Gdansk in Poland — as a little boy. It’s the story about what he refers to as “his life’s greatest triumph,” a story he has shared with me many times now, about spitting in the face of a Nazi youth as child. But I have let my father tell it again — and again, whenever he wants, because for a long time he never spoke about his past at all. And for a long time, I didn’t even notice.

When I was growing up, my father was somewhat of an enigma to me. What I knew of him were the simple, one-dimensional details: He was a psychiatrist who smoked a pipe. He came from a mysterious land called Israel. He could be playful, like when he would tell me jokes, including the one that ended “Big chief no fart.” (To this day I can’t recall the rest of the joke). Or when he’d let me sit on his lap and slap his face with a pillow while screaming, “makeup!” — some silliness we’d picked up from watching "The Muppet Show" together.

But there was another side to my father, a moody side. Sometimes it presented as anger, although he was never physical. He could be impatient, however, and have a sharp tongue, particularly toward my mother. Yet mostly what I remember, what I even still feel sometimes like a dull ache in my body, was his silence. If he was upset with you, he could shut you out. Like the time we fought about a project I had to do for school in the fifth grade and he ignored me for several days after.

He was also inexplicably somber at times — like when he would watch documentaries in our darkened den on Sunday afternoons. He’d lie there on our brown suede couch, a paper plate of peanuts balanced on his chest. When I entered the room, he ignored me. If I tried to make eye contact, he’d look past me, at the television. For some reason it felt wrong to be sitting there on the shag carpet of our den just a few feet from that TV; for one, I always sat too close.

If my mother had been in the room, she would have told me to back up — that I was ruining my eyes. But I can’t recall my mother watching those programs with him. Yet I was there, at least one time, maybe more. And I recall wondering, Who were these people behind barbed wire? These people who looked like skeletons dressed in striped pajamas?  My father didn’t offer any explanations. And I didn’t feel comfortable asking for them. I certainly had no idea all this horror had anything to do with me.

My father’s family history remained buried for almost three decades. It was 1997 when I was 28 years old and my father 68 that a paper I wrote in graduate school for counseling psychology revealed something suspicious. The assignment sounded simple enough: Write about my gender, race and ethnicity. I’d fallen in love with writing in the fourth grade, so I had no qualms about the task itself. Yet exploring these topics — particularly the ethnicity piece — felt hard like trying to connect the dots in the dark. In the end, what I had was a paper filled with more questions than answers including why, with two Jewish parents and a father from Israel, did we never belong to a temple? Why did I know so little about my father’s side of the family? And why did I feel so much fear and shame about being Jewish rather than self-love and pride?

Still, I’m so grateful for that assignment. For as I wrote, it seems I tilled the soil in my brain until two ancient shards of overheard conversation rose to the surface like shiny objects demanding my attention:

“A young boy on a train alone.”

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“A sister who died in the place with the ugly name, Auschwitz.”

To this day, I’m still floored by the fact that we can know something, and not know it, all at the same time.

One might assume that after uncovering these clues, I immediately confronted my father. But I did no such thing. Such a conversation would require a level of intimacy that both of us were unaccustomed to. Our typical conversation topics spanned from my car and my job to the weather. I was also scared that if I asked him to talk, I would trigger a nervous breakdown in my father — not that he had ever had one before. But I feared it was possible. So I waited.

In the meantime, in response to my paper, my professor handed me back another with the title "Holocaust Trauma and Imagery: The Transmission into the Second Generation." Written by a social worker named Faye Schneider, this paper was the first time I learned of other children who, like me, grew up in homes where the past was murky yet one could sense some sad, unspeakable loss beneath the surface of everyday life. It was also the first time I learned that it might be possible for the pain and fear of one generation to seep quietly into the bones and heart and psyche of the next —a process Ms. Schneider called “psychic osmosis.” I was fascinated by this idea. More recently, science has provided another explanation for what is passed down. Called “epigenetics,” this new field identifies a link between our ancestors’ trauma and our genes. Either way you choose to understand it, we are no doubt influenced by what came before.

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Almost a full year after I wrote my paper, I finally found the courage to tell my father about it and share what I’d learned about this concept of psychic osmosis. We were on the phone, and after I finished speaking, I waited for my father’s response. None came.

“Dad?” I said.

“I’m still here,” he replied.

“I was wondering if you could answer a few questions for me . . . about your family history?” To my surprise, he agreed.

On that call, I learned that as a young child in Danzig, my father watched the Nazis march “in awe.” He told me that he “liked the thud of their boots as they walked in unison, and the songs that they sang, about “the blood of the Jews dripping from knives.” When I pressed him on that, asking him why he wasn’t horrified by those lyrics, he replied, “What did I know? I was a kid and it was such a sight . . . the music and the marching. I didn’t really know what any of it meant.”

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I learned about the day, when my father was 8, one of his older brothers took him out of school to put him on a train to go to Warsaw. (Ah, the little boy on the train alone!) His parents had already fled to the city that morning, as it was rumored that his father, a Jewish businessman, was soon to be arrested.

Again, I pressed, “Weren’t you scared?”

“Nope,” he said and laughed quietly. “Everyone on the train was so nice. They wanted to take care of me. They gave me candy.”

And he told me, for the first time, about his older sister, Luba. The girl who died in the place with the ugly name. She was supposed to go to the university in Jerusalem — to study humanities.

“But,” he had said, “her admission was revoked at the 11th hour — to go to another student, a girl in Germany who some administrator deemed in greater need. “

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Before we hung up that afternoon, I asked him why he had never talked about any of this when I was growing up. He paused. I heard the strike of a match, then that gentle sucking sound that makes me think of fish talking as he brought the bowl of his pipe to life.

“Well, they weren’t exactly bedtime stories,” he said.

* * *

For almost two decades now, I have listened to my father’s true tales again and again — sometimes bored and sometimes fascinated when a new memory or detail suddenly floats to the surface. At one point back in 2010, I began receiving old photos in the mail, unprompted. My father sent these on a weekly basis for a while, noting explanations on the backs of each in his messy scrawl. Most of the images were from his youth in Palestine and Israel. Here he was sitting with an old friend in an olive grove. There he was with my young mother, who was not yet my mother, at a party. Here he was on his family’s farm, dressed in military garb, holding a pistol. There were a few from my childhood as well, including one of me as a little girl in a nightgown, sleeping on a black leather chair. On the back of this one my father had scribbled “Amy” with a question mark.

The photo that I cherished the most, however, was the one of my Aunt Luba, my father’s sister, when she was maybe 16 or 17. In it, Luba’s face is round like my dad’s, her hair is short and dark, her expression serious. After receiving the picture, I immediately put it in a wooden red frame atop my writing desk. Luba would be my inspiration to write, to share my father’s stories! I would look at her photo and the words would just tumble out of me, from my brain through my fingers onto the computer screen, like butter. She would be my talisman. But perhaps I had granted her too much power. Or maybe we just get used to things. Pretty soon, I stopped noticing Luba’s photo at all.

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* * *

The first time I wondered if I might be repeating my father’s proclivity for silence with my own kids was in 2013. Evan was 8 then, in the second grade, and one day he arrived home with a massive Time Life book about World War II in his "Star Wars" backpack.

“Can you read this to me, Mama?” he asked as he pulled the book out of his bag.

I was a bit taken aback, my first thought a horrified "They have books like this in the elementary school library?" Perhaps I’m naive. But I couldn’t recall seeing similar books in my grade school library in Port Chester, New York, in the 1970s. Perhaps I simply had no interest in such topics and walked right by them. Or maybe they weren’t even there. I’m guessing if such books actually existed for kids then, a decision was made not to carry them in my mostly Jewish town. Like my father, many Americans remained silent after the Holocaust — after the atrocious extermination orchestrated by Adolf Hitler of 6 million Jews and hundreds of thousands of others.

I sat cross-legged on the floor next to Evan.

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“Let me have a look,” I said. I shielded him with my back while thumbing through the pages. I turned quickly past the familiar black and white images of the gaunt Holocaust survivors in the camps waiting to be rescued. My goal was to find something positive. I paused on the page titled “The Battle of El Alamein.” I’d first learned of this battle when interviewing my father nearly two decades ago. In my dad’s version, he had described how the Germans were in Africa, only a day’s drive away from Palestine, and the British rulers in Palestine then were talking about possibly evacuating the country.

“Everyone was very nervous,” my father had said. “But in the end, we stayed. Instead of running away, we painted over all the road signs — so if the Germans made it to Palestine, they wouldn’t know where to go.” He’d laughed when he told me this. I’m not sure why. Maybe at the absurdity that such an act could stop the enemy? Fortunately, in the end, the British army defeated the Germans at El Alamein, before they could even reach the Holy Land. In other words, in children’s words, the “good guys” won. And so this was the page I chose to read to Evan that afternoon — adding in the more personal history about his grandfather and the road signs at the end. When I finished, I shut the book.

“So whatdya think?” I asked.

He nodded and smiled slightly before responding, “Pretty cool.” Then he asked if he could go play on his computer. When he left, I slipped the book back into his backpack, where it thankfully stayed until he had to return it the following week.

And 2013 was also the year I had worked as a writer for an organization called The Family Dinner Project. There was irony in this — as I’m a terrible cook and rarely did my family all sit down to eat together. But this job was how I first learned of research showing that sharing family stories — even more difficult family stories — helps build resilience in kids. As someone who had been raised via a very different philosophy, I was intellectually fascinated and excited by this possibility. I mean who doesn’t want resilient kids? But talking freely about my family history ran counter to my programming. Still, it seems that after learning of this research, something was growing restless in me.

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For Thanksgiving that year, my family and I met my dad and his second wife at a hotel in White Plains, New York. We were sitting around a large table in the hotel dining room and, after having one glass of wine, I suddenly blurted out, “Why don’t you tell the boys about your life’s greatest triumph?”

He rolled his eyes.

“How about it?” I asked. “It’s such a good story. I’m sure they’d love to hear it.”

He sighed loudly. “Do you really think I want to talk about that now?”

“Maybe?”

He rolled his eyes and sighed once more.

I considering launching into the story myself, but I didn’t want to upset my father any further. Nor was I 100 percent confident that this was the right time to tell the boys. And so the moment passed

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I guess I’ve never really had a plan for when to tell my children anything about this part of their family history. I’ve pondered breaking silence occasionally, particularly if something reminded me of it, like when someone painted swastikas in our town’s middle school or when Evan chose to do a school presentation on Israel. But I only cautiously answered questions — until the day the when the boys broke the frame.

It happened on a Saturday last June. The boys had been tossing a football upstairs in our attic and they knocked over the red frame with Luba’s picture in it. This certainly wasn’t the first time — I’d seen the frame lying askew on the carpet before and each time I’d felt a pang of guilt thinking, Hasn’t she been through enough already? But each time I simply picked the picture up and put it back in its place. All the times they had knocked it over, my boys had never once asked me who the woman in the photograph was, and I had never thought to explain — until that day when they broke it.

Maybe it was because Evan was now 10 and I thought he was old enough to know more. Or maybe it was because of all the writing I’d been doing recently about the past and my father’s history. Whatever the trigger, something inside me, a certain voice, was getting louder, saying, “Enough with the silence!” For nothing good can come from it — only fear and shame. I have lived with this feeling almost my entire life — at least since the age of 11 or 12, when I stopped wearing the Jewish chai, the symbol for life, around my neck, and first felt disdain toward Jewish boys. I know this because of the times I’ve stayed silent when someone at a party shares an anti-Semitic joke, and the few times I have even lied about who I am, leveraging my freckles to tell people that yes, you’re right, I’m Irish.

So that day when Evan came down with the broken red frame in hand, I surprised myself when I asked him, “Do you know who that young woman is?”

He shrugged. “Your mom when she was young?”

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“No. That’s Grandpa’s sister — my Aunt Luba.”

“Oh,” he said and nodded.

“She died at one of Hitler’s concentration camps.”

He looked a bit more closely at the photo now. “Really?”

“Yes.”

I waited a moment, not sure what else to say and giving him a moment to ask any questions.

“Oh,” was all he said. And “sorry about the frame.”

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“It OK,” I said. “We can glue it back together.” He nodded and went back upstairs to play.

* * *

Only about a month or so later was that evening when I was on the phone with my father and the boys came barreling in. My first instinct, besides shushing them, was to kick them out. But my dad was in a good mood. So I thought, Why not try again?

“Hey, dad,” I said. “Why don’t you tell the boys the story of your life’s greatest triumph? They’re right here. They’ll be interested.”

“Nah,” he said, pushing back gently. “Another time.”

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“The boys know about the Nazis now, Dad. They even know about Hitler.”

Meanwhile, Evan and Jason looked at each wide-eyed, as if the mere mention of that name from my mouth was taboo.

“You can tell them,” I assured my dad again while putting him on speaker phone without his permission. “They’re waiting.”

To my surprise, my father didn’t hesitate this time. He started sharing his stories, and as he did, something strange happened: My rambunctious, impatient children settled down. Jason lay on top of me, like a slightly squirmy blanket, while Evan snuggled in on my left side. Both of them remained completely quiet. Both of them listened.

“So there were these mean boys who used to follow me home from school sometimes,” my father said. “This was when Hitler was coming to power . . . and I lived in a place that no longer exists called Danzig. So one day, these boys followed me and one of them, the leader, was teasing me about my big Jewish nose. Of course I didn’t like that so I turned around and spit in his face . . . and then I ran like hell!” He giggled a little, as he always does when he shares that part of the story. “Yeah . . . I was just a kid; I couldn’t fight the Nazis. But that moment was like my own little war.”

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The boys looked at each other, seemingly impressed. I tried to imagine what they were thinking — or rather what I hoped they were thinking — that their grandpa was a hero. That if he could stand up to a big  bully, they could too.

When we got off the phone, I asked my still calm and quiet children what they thought of my father’s tale.

“Cool,” Evan said, nodding his head.

“I liked it too,” his brother added.

That night, for the first time, my father’s stories were, finally, bedtime stories. And my children slept just fine.

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Amy Yelin

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