Saturday, June 14, 2008

An American Father

One night in 1968, my father was in a Manhattan ballroom for the first time in his life, watching Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. hand me an award. The expression on his face was the essence of "nachas," the word immigrants used for the joy and pride their children give them to redeem a lifetime of suffering.

I had been six or so at a Fourth of July parade when the colors came by and my father’s hat went flying from his head, knocked off by the beefy hand of a red-faced man behind us pointing at the flag. Shame and rage rose in me, but my father only smiled sweetly, nodded and bent to pick up the hat.

Years later, I read that, as a child, Sigmund Freud was told by his father that a man had grabbed his new fur cap and flung it into the mud, shouting, “Jew, get off the street.” Freud recalled angrily asking, “What did you do?” His father answered calmly, “I stepped into the gutter and picked up my cap.” In dreams, Freud would later note, a hat may stand for male genitals.

My father never talked about the past. I knew him only as a man who went to work early, came home late, ate his dinner, kissed me goodnight and went to bed. We did not play ball or go to games or listen to them on the radio. He told no stories and passed on no fatherly wisdom. He expected nothing, envied no one. He just slaved sixty hours a week to put food in my mouth, and he loved me without words. What I learned about his life came later and not from him.

He had had no childhood. From birth, he was fated to serve others after his own father died soon after he was born. From then on, he was harnessed to a mother who tended store and, as soon as he could, was hauling sacks and crates.

They lived in Podhajce, one of those small cities in Galicia constantly being overrun by Turks, Tatars, Austrians, Poles and Russians, who in passing would rob and slaughter some of the local Jews. In 1943, the Nazis would finish their work, declaring Podhajce "Judenrein," cleansed of them all.

When my father was sixteen, an older sister sent her six-year-old son, Bernard Kleinrock, to live with his grandmother. Most of what I know about my father's life came from him.

In 1914, the Austrian Army fled town amid rumors that approaching Russian soldiers would rob, rape and murder. My grandmother packed what she could onto a wheelbarrow and tied the rest into bed sheets, which my father slung over his back. They spent two days and nights on clogged roads before the Austrian Army herded them into the fields so as not to slow down their own retreat.

With no food left, my grandmother decided to head back home. "Thank God for Izzy's stamina," Bernard wrote years later. "He wheeled us for miles in the wheelbarrow past dead and dying soldiers and horses beside the road."

The Russians came and went, and the Austrians retook Podhajce and drafted my father into their army. He served four years and came back in 1919 after nine months in the hospital with wounds suffered on the Italian front. He took Bernard to Warsaw and, after months of waiting for visas, for a month-long trip on a cattle ship to America.

My father's sister, 21 years older, married and living in Manhattan, took them in and brought the boy to a doctor to find out why at 16 years old he looked ten. The answer was malnutrition.

At the age of eight, I was dazzled by Bernard's wedding to Anna--the glowing bride in white, the two of them under a canopy, his foot smashing the glass to the cries of "Mazel Tov!" In years to come, they would visit, bringing food from their grocery and gifts for me, once a briefcase along with a loving lecture about the value of education.

In 1983, after their golden wedding anniversary, Bernard and Anna Kleinrock went back to Europe to see the King of Sweden present its highest scientific award to their son Leonard for his achievements as "The Father of the Internet."

Nachas, squared. And my father, who thought of himself as most insignificant of men, by saving his nephew had helped change the world.


Anonymous said...

A beautiful story. So much for the "great person theory" of history.

Anonymous said...

the best of america, and of what america is.