Areas of Unrest
20 June 1999 - A Memorial For My Father
[This is a story I have been telling for some time. I've had to modify it slightly to write it, instead of performing it, but I think it still works reasonably well. I will note that it is not strictly factual, although the errors lie in areas where I have added details I am unsure of in order to make a coherent story.]
There was no institution to which my father was more attached than the
City College of New York. From my earliest days, I often heard him sing,
loudly and off-key, a song he claimed was the CCNY alma mater:
I had gone to work full-time while also trying to finish my Ph.D. and I was depressed over my lack of progress on my dissertation. It didn't seem very important to the work I was doing, but I wanted something tangible for my suffering through graduate school. My company shut down over Christmas and, since the computers would be shut down and I wouldn't be able to work on the dissertation anyway, I figured I might as well go to New York and visit my mother.
Now, one thing I always do at my mother's house is go through her closets. Part of this is an attempt to keep her packrat tendencies under control, as I throw out the half-used rolls of contact paper and tiles from three playroom ceilings ago, and so on. But I am also always looking for ways to feed my packrat tendencies. I can usually find a few goodies to bring back with me. This trip was particularly profitable as I decided to tackle the closet in my Dad's study. One folder was labeled "CCNY" and I eagerly examined things like his final transcript, which indicated that his grades had not been quite as good as he had always led us to believe. But, more importantly, I found an essay he had written in his freshman composition class.
The essay was titled "A Memorial For His Mother" and, while he fictionalized some details, I knew he was writing about himself. It told of a time, the eve of Yom Kippur 1944, the first Yom Kippur his name was 81250. He was working the night shift, along with another boy. It was a cold, rainy night and they were carrying pipes uphill. The other boy told him that was one of the easiest jobs at Dachau. That night they were particularly fortunate as an air raid warning sounded after they had worked just a few hours. They found a dry spot to sit on and told each other their life stories.
Dad told his friend how, when he started school, his mother told him that she would see to it that he always got an education. When she was taken from the Kovno Ghetto to the Ninth Fort, a trip that everyone knew always ended at the cemetary, the last thing she said to him was, "You will find a way to get out of this alive. And, when you do, the nicest memorial you can built for me, is to get yourself a good education." He explained how those words had given him hope, how they gave him a means to think of a different future.
They had to go back to work soon after that conversation and, while they sometimes worked together again, they didn't speak any more of what they'd do if they got out alive. When Dachau was liberated, Dad's friend was in the hospital suffering from typhoid fever and not expected to pull through. Dad was occupied with his journeys through a succession of Displaced Persons' camps and, eventually, to the United States and thought no more about his friend.
One day in 1949 Dad was taking a walk in the Bronx when he saw a fellow who looked slightly familiar. He hesitated to stop the other man and ask him his name, but then he rminded himself that in America one can't be arrested for asking a question. He walked over to the other man and said, "Excuse me, but were you in Dachau or Landsberg in 1944 to 1945?" The other man waited a moment before replying quietly, "I was in Landsberg". Dad then asked him his number and introduced himself, saying "I was 81250."
They went out to lunch and discussed their lives over the past few years. His friend said "Ah, Ephraim, it is the most wonderful thing! I am a student at the City College of New York. It is all free and they say it is the best school. They call it the Harvard of the Proletariat. But, tell me, surely you too are a student?"
Dad explained how he was not sure what he wanted to do. He had an uncle who could arrange for him to go to Detroit and go to high school, but all of his friends from Europe worked in factories and they lived so well. And he was engaged so it would be nice to have money to support a family. The choice seemed so difficult.
"But what about making a memorial for your mother?" said his friend. "Surely you must have survived so you can do that."
While it made the choice easy, following through on the decision could hardly have been so. Dad worked hard in Detroit and finished high school in just two years. He came to New York and found work as a clerk at the United Jewish Appeal. He worked all day and then went to night classes at CCNY. When his fiancee decided she didn't want to wait for him to have enough money to get married on, he met a secretary at the UJA who also studied at CCNY. Their relationship grew on the subway rides to school and, in 1956, he married her. A year later, my brother was born and Mom dropped out of college. Another year and a half later, I came along. By then he was working as a surveyor for the New York City Housing Authority. Work and school were exhausting, but he had heard how important it was to read to your children. He figured we were too young to know or care what he was reading, so he studied out loud, our bedtime stories coming from Introduction to Electronics and Principles of Cost Accounting For Engineers.
When I was three, there was a very strange day when Dad put on a weird black outfit and Aunt Frieda came to watch us while he and Mom went to City College. All of the grownups told us that now he was a college graduate and he could get a better job and we could move to a real house. Back then, all it meant to me was how nice it would be to have my own bedroom. But, when I read his essay, I thought about my father's life and how easy my own education had been in comparison. I went to good public schools and had my undergraduate work subsidized by "The Nadel Foundation Scholarship and Loan Program". Dad actually carried the joke through by having stationery printed, listing his name as President of the Foundation and Mom's as Vice President, and sending Elliot and me annual letters announcing the renewal of our grants.
I continued to think about Dad's essay throughout the rest of my vacation. When I got back to California, I buckled down and it was just a few more months before I finished my dissertation. The last words I wrote went on a page just after the title page. They read "Dedication: A Memorial for my father."
Copyright 1999 Miriam H. Nadel
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