The Long Riddle

There’s a great book, by the brilliant Jeanne Safer, that describes the many benefits of looking back at a deceased, problematic parent’s life for the excellent lessons we also learned from them [1].   It’s hard to see these valuable things while the difficult parent is still around.   After death, however, things become more clear.  Their life is now living in memory and visible for the first time as a whole: a character and a story with a beginning, middle and end. 

My father’s story is complex, on one level, but also brutally simple.  On the one hand, he was a brilliant, compassionate and complicated man.  He was also capable of monstrously abusive behavior towards his family.  

He would stipulate to “complicated”, by the way, he’d acknowledge that each of us has demons that pursue us, but that’s about as far he’d ever go looking deeply inward.  Until he was literally hours from  his death.  In those final hours he had terrible regrets about having seen the world as a black and white zero-sum war zone.  He lamented the lost richness of life, the colors, tastes and smells he had willed into nonexistence.  

My father’s life and death posed riddles large and small.  The most riddling of these riddles was how an intelligent, funny, humble, sensitive man could at the same time be a tyrannical brute to his family.   During lulls in the fighting we sometimes joked that sitting around the dining room was like being in a World War One battle, everyone crouched and angry in their stinking trench, machine guns firing, shells pounding away, bombs falling, chlorine gas rolling in…  

“At least it wasn’t mustard gas, mustard gas makes you blind,” said a man with few teeth, and then he gave a weird cackle.  “That’s what Hitler got a face full of before they carted him off to the hospital in Pasewalk right before the World War was ended by traitors.  You remember Pasewalk, that’s the little Pomeranian town where the smart-ass upper-class uber-patriotic Jewish psychiatrist lambasted the gas blinded Hitler as a malingerer, calling his blindness hysterical and “cowardly” — blah, blah, just another story to explain why Hitler was so happy when he finally got the machinery up to start mass killing Jews.”

My father would never drive a German car.  He could tell you, for every major German industrial product you might mention, exactly how they profited from the Nazi regime.  One maker of world-renowned automobiles built the pressurized tanks for the poison gas used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, which was also the site of an immense chemical factory employing death camp inmate slave labor, owned by a huge outfit that now owns Monsanto as well.   That pharmaceutical giant paid the SS $1 a day for each slave worker marched over from Auschwitz, a nice deal for keeping production costs low and profits high.   

I can see my father’s life now as a whole.  It began in dire poverty, in a small town, with a father who had no work during the Depression, Jewish immigrants in a town where the Ku Klux Klan family ran the hardware store.  He experienced extreme trauma regularly during his infant years, being frequently whipped in the face by his tiny, angry, religious mother.   His father kept out of it.  Liberated by World War Two we see him, beaming, fit, dark hair and flashing eyes in a series of black and white photos.   He smiled for the first time in his life in those army photos we found after he died. They’d never made it into a photo album, there was a small pile of them to be assembled from a shoebox of other photos. 

He had, or had not, been at the Paul Robeson/Pete Seeger concert in Peekskill back in 1947.   Within a few years both of his parents would die young, be buried in the pauper’s section of the First Hebrew Congregation cemetery and he’d be working for the NYC Board of Education, as a history teacher with a bent for social justice, and married to the woman who would become my mother and his wife of almost 54 years.

Starting in 1956 I had a front row view of the long riddle that was his life.


[1] Death Benefits by Jeanne Safer

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