Sometimes I find myself lying in my bed in the middle of the night thinking about what it must be like to lie there in the middle of the night, anticipating a pounding on the door that rouses you and your family from a deep sleep, to be gathered in the street with only the belongings you can fit into one or two bags.
What could you say to your children as you huddled with them in the street, along with other Jews who had been rounded up, people who had had one last night in their homes and who had been able to pretend that their world was safe and secure and that the Nazi nightmare would be held at bay for yet another night?
Sometimes when my six-year-old little girl cuddled in bed with me and fell tenderly asleep in my arms, I let my gaze fall upon her beautiful, peaceful face and suddenly imagined the pounding on the door that would intrude upon our peaceful existence. I imagined the terror that would grip that serene little face and forever change the course of our family’s life and, more and more, I found these thoughts creeping into my awareness at different times.
Once, when my wife and I and our two children were on our way to an afternoon outing in the city, and we waited together on a nearly deserted train platform, my eyes scanned the platform, and in my imagination I saw weeping and frightened people waiting to board windowless wooden cars that would take them to an unnamed destination far from their homes and families. Again and again, my mind’s eye focused on the fathers who vainly tried to comfort their terrified children, telling them that all would be fine. Only the sound of the metallic train pulling into the station snapped me back to reality.
On the train, I looked at my children and my wife. We were no longer on a comfortable passenger train heading for a fun-filled day in the city, but jammed into a crowded cattle car and, although I kept reminding myself that this scene was occurring only in my imagination, I felt a growing sense of fear, frustration, and hopelessness. What must the fathers who were really jammed into a cattle car have felt?
Another time, when we were on vacation, I took a walk alone into the countryside. It was a beautiful day and the sun felt warm on my face. A gentle wind whispered in my ears. I could hear the insects buzz about the meadow. I stood on a small bridge and looked out over a large field. Off to my right, I could see my children playing beside a large pond. To my left was a large open cow pasture, and straight ahead, beyond the field, a thick wood stood darkly. I smiled as I watched my two beautiful children run about on the shore of the lake.
But soon my mind began to create a new scene in the peaceful pasture. No longer was it an open meadow where children could run and laugh and play, but a barren smoke- filled wasteland. Thick acrid smoke filled the air, along with the shouts and screams of dying people. The pond was now a drainage ditch. Acid fear and frustration welled up inside me.
Only the gentle laughter of the children returned me to the reality of a fun-filled meadow, green with grass and blue with sky and water, gentle, billowing white clouds floating gracefully across the sky.
I thought of the camps. I thought of the survivors. I thought of my children. I thought of my father. He was not a survivor. I thought about the terrible frustration and failure he must have felt as he tried to protect his family from the encroaching nightmare he foresaw. Here I was, almost thirty years old, still not at peace with the fact that I had never really known him.
I was born in a small town near the German-Belgian border in the mid-thirties. We lived on the German side. As the increasingly harsh anti-Jewish laws restricted my parent’s life, my father decided to send Mama, my sister Judy, and me, the baby, across the border into Belgium and then on to America where he had an Uncle who would look after us until my father could settle his affairs and join us. He never made it. Mama heard that the Gestapo had picked him up. No one had ever heard of him, or from him, again.
I had only flickering memories of him. Perhaps a dark brown stripped suit. Some treats for his children in his deep pockets when he returned home from synagogue. I vaguely remembered running to him, searching the recesses of his deep pockets and finding peanuts or a bit of candy for each of us. It is still hard for me to tell whether this was a real memory or something I conjured up out of a story. But it was the only memory I had of my father, or Papa, as my mother always referred to him. I had always simply accepted the fact that I never had a father, a Papa, as a child. But as I grew older and became a father myself, I began to harbor tremendous feelings of anger at the Nazis who had deprived my family and me of a father.
A friend suggested that perhaps if I sat down and wrote a letter to my father, I could ease the pain and anger that gnawed away at me. For three days, I sat at my desk, trying to write. After starting at least five times, I was able to finish the letter and read what I had written.
I’d like to tell you about myself. I’m almost thirty years old, and after living all these years without you, I am only first realizing how much I have missed you.
We moved out of the city when I was about five, as I remember, and both Judy and I went to school. I went to college and married a wonderful girl, Joan. We have a nice house now in a small town, much like the town in Germany.
You have two beautiful grandchildren, Matthew and Rebecca, who I know you would have loved as much as they would have loved you.
But I’m angry, Papa. I’m angry that you are not here to see my house and my children. Why could you see how necessary it was for Mama and Judy and me to escape, but you couldn’t see how important it was to us that you also should have been with us? Why Papa? I ask myself that question all the time, and for the life of me I cannot come up with an answer.
I try to look at the bigger question of why — Why the Holocaust? But somehow the whole thing is just too immense to look at. All I can ever seem to focus on is the fact that I never got to know you, my own father, and you never got to know me, your son.
This is why I pain. I can only hope, somehow, through Judy and myself and through our children, that there will be an unbroken chain that will forever link us all together as a family and as Jews.
I’m angry, Papa. I’m angry that you will not be at the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of your grandchildren. I’m angry that you will not be there to share in the joy and the emotion I pass on to my children and to your grandchildren a part of their identity and a part of their heritage that has been passed on for thousands of generations. It is only now that I recognize and can cry over the fact that you were not at my Bar Mitzvah and how Mama had to stand alone. I cry for you and the millions who also had to stand alone. I’m angry and I cry for an entire generation of men and women, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers and children.
I miss you, Papa. Without realizing it, I have always missed you and I will miss you for the rest of my life.
I wish I could have just five minutes with you. Just five minutes so you could see my house and my wife, so you could meet your grandchildren, so you could see that I have made a good life for us. Just five minutes so that I could know how you feel about my family and me.
I miss you Papa.
Your son, Harvey
As I read and reread this letter, I felt a huge burden lifting from my shoulders. In one final gesture of catharsis, I put an envelope in my typewriter and addressed it to myself. I felt foolish, but I stamped the envelope and dropped it in a mailbox.
I began to watch for my letter to come back. Instead, a strange event took place.
One day, I took in the mail and like I did every day, set it down on the dining room table. I took off my coat and picked up what I thought would be the usual stack of bills and advertisements. As I flipped through the stack, one envelope seemed to jump out at me. I held it and stared at it.
It was old, obviously old, yellowed and weather-stained. It had been postmarked at least a dozen times over the foreign-style hand-written address. But it was the address that made me tremble.
It was addressed to the Family Kay, Manhattan, New York. It was the spelling that my uncle had used when he first came to America. The stamps indicated that the letter had originated somewhere in Europe and had passed through post offices in Belgium, Switzerland, and England. Somehow it had made it to America. Its journey, however, had taken decades. And somehow it had found its way from the New York Post Office to our small town post office, which had been able to deliver it.
I stood, staring at the envelope, fearing to open it.
Holding it tenderly and ever so gently, I opened the letter as if it were a frail hand extended out to me. I gently opened the old folds of the envelope that had protected its contents so faithfully.
I read through tear-swelled eyes. It was from my father, mailed so many years ago. It mentioned Judy and me by name. In what must have been his finest handwriting, my father had written one last letter and had it smuggled out of the country. There, printed in a neat and careful hand was:
My Dearest Family:
Mama, how are you? News is scarce, but I heard you and the children made it safely to Uncle Max. For that I will always be grateful. Now I can be at peace knowing that you, Judy and Harvey are safe.
I hope my babies are good, for it is you and the children that I miss the most. I am concerned that I will not be able to join you, so I have made preparations to go into hiding if I cannot get out. But Mama, just in case, G-d forbid, that I should never be able to get out, I want you to know how much I love and miss you and the children. It is not for myself that I will grieve, but for you, who will have to carry on alone. It will be a difficult task, but it is one that I know you have the strength to do. Do not lose your faith in G-d or in all that we have believed in for so long.
Grieve if you must, but then pick up the pieces and teach our children why you had to flee our home. Please, pass onto them our traditions, which are so important to us as a family and as a people.
Tell them what happened here, but also teach them not to hate or carry it as a burden. But most of all, tell my children how proud I am of them and how much I miss them. Tell them of the days they were born and how I greeted each of them into this world. It is a memory that I cling to, for it is through them that you and I will pass on our unbroken tradition. From our parents to our children we will pass the Shabbos candles.
Tell them of my, our, pride in them and for them, but most of all, tell them of my boundless love for them.
I still felt the loss, but it was no longer an ache or a void. Now I knew why it was so important for my wife and I to pass on our traditions and our heritage to our children.
I took comfort in the fact that at my children’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, neither they nor I would have to stand alone.