Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Auschwitz 70 years After

            Prisoners were forced by the Nazi Guards to stand before the gallows and watch as a child hung from a noose, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes.  And we had to look him full in the face.  He was still alive when I passed in front of him...
Behind me, I heard the same man asking,
"Where is God now?"   And I heard a voice within me answer him:
"Where is He?  Here He is--He is hanging here on the gallows."

Elie Wiesel

                              Growing up with a secondary survivor.

            My father, Bernard Wieder, 18, arrived in America in 1923 with big plans to bring his entire family here from the same small Hungarian town, Maramoros Sighet, where Elie Wiesel was born.  He worked in Miami Beach as a busboy and then as a waiter in 1923 at the Nemo hotel in the winters and gambled at the dog track and horse tracks. He bought some striped pants and promoted himself to headwater.   Miami Beach had only two policemen then and one of them was let go in the summer.  "Nothing for the other one to do." he said wistfully. Miami Beach extended no further north than 5th Street.  He met my mother, who was vacationing with her mother, in the 1930s at the Miami Beach Kennel Club on 1st Street.   Her family did not like him, because he was not formally educated.   He was self-educated, though, saying that he would read the New York Times, not the Forward when he first arrived to America "to learn English."  He moved easily between Miami Beach and New York, where he had various jobs, eventually becoming a successful hotel owner in Sharon Springs, Lake Mahopac, as well as in Miami Beach.

But I do not want to get ahead of myself.  

The US Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924, announcing "Jews Keep Out" a year after my father arrived at Ellis Island.  Dad had 6 brothers and sisters, conscientiously sending insulin to his diabetic father, until September 1939, when the war erupted with Hitler's panzers crushing Poland.  As it happened, Dad had married my mother in November 1938, planning to take her to Hungary to meet his parents.  Of course, that never happened.  All his family perished except two younger sisters who managed to survive Auschwitz.  They arrived in New York in 1946, and built lives for themselves, living in Brooklyn until they died in the 1990s. 

How that happened is a story of courage.
            In 1948, my father had returned to Miami Beach to live and became active here, participating in the construction of the louche Shore Club Hotel in 1950. I was an 8-year-old, swimming in the pool when the police raided the cabanas housing bookies in green eyeshades, who had always given me candies.  Banks of black telephones lined the tables. "Here kid, take this chocolate," they said, semi-annoyed that I was distracting them from their calls.  They knew I was the owner's son.  Dad was partnered with another much wealthier man, whose also 8-year-old daughter was my swimming playmate.  Her name was Priscilla.  We lived two blocks away, in an post-war modern two-story apartment house, and during the hurricane of 1950 a two-by-four board crashed through the window almost killing my sister, aged 3 or me.   I screamed, "Mommy! Mommy!," running in terror to her room.  Mom was an optimistic stoic, extremely comforting.

            My father was involved until the early 70’s in many Miami Beach iconic hotels, including the Martinique, which he sold in 1974.  My father had completely transitioned in post-war America to the hotel business, after working in Long Island City at the Sperry plant making Norden bombsights during the war and also working as a dress salesman for my mother's brother, a successful 7th avenue dress manufacturer and hotel owner who was connected to people, some of whom were characters of Damon Runyonesque proportions, later appearing before the Kefauver committee investigating the rackets in New York City.  One individual, particularly influential, was instrumental in helping my father achieve his goals of getting his sisters to America.  He personally knew congressmen and that was what Dad needed for his mission of mercy.   Mr. Al Cobb (name changed) had taken the 5th amendment a hundred times when called to testify before the Kefauver committee.  If you wanted to move a dress out of your stitching factory, you had to use his trucking company, its tentacles spread all over the garment district.

            It was through this connection that Dad was able to circumnavigate the American anti-Semitic immigration barriers to allow his sisters and 21 others from his home town entry into the United States, including posing as a Colonel in the US Army to get to Europe just after the liberation, and find his sisters.  How he accomplished that is a story rife with intrigue. Dad had managed to obtain a “commission” as a US Army colonel, involving a trip to Washington, DC and a visit to a congressman who shall go unnamed and the details of which involved an exchange of, shall we say, consideration.  Dad was introduced to some people at the War Department, received a brief orientation, a few uniforms festooned with eagles, and was told that if he was discovered, “we do not know you.” With his commission in hand, and MATS transit orders (military air transport command) he returned to New York, and headed to Roosevelt field to depart for Europe.  He boarded a C-47, later known as a DC-3, flying to Gander, Newfoundland, Shannon, Ireland and on to Paris.   At the time, no commercial air traffic was available from New York to France, where he was headed.  Arriving in Paris, he set up his headquarters at the Hotel California, on the Rue de Berri, across from the New York Herald tribune and near the Etoile.  It was from there that he needed to requisition an ambulance, a jeep and a driver to get to Hamburg and Bergen-Belsen.  How he did all this required huge confidence and an abundance of testosterone.  He knew that he did not want his sisters in a DP camp, where conditions were devastatingly filthy, and with many of the prisoners in near-death condition. Even George Patton had remarked that the Jews there were like filthy animals, the stench overwhelming.  Patton, despite his military genius, was in line with the fashionable Antisemitism of the time and the racist mien of America.  Dad knew that his two sisters could not survive much longer.

            On route to Bergen-Belsen, he made the mistake of dropping into an officer’s mess (Colonels and up) and was almost discovered, because he was not properly attired.  “I’m sorry, sir but I cannot admit you here in these clothes,” informed an MP.   He was in fatigues and dress uniforms were de riguer. He promptly exited, fearing discovery.  From then on, as he told us later, he stuck en route to enlisted men’s mess.

            Undeterred, however, he was going to get his sisters to America; they would not have to wait for a year or two for a visa.  Not his two sisters, 60 and 70 pounds each. Not the emaciated remnants of the young and beautiful sisters he had remembered, and in his mind, abandoned.  Not the sisters who suffered because he did not act earlier. Not the sisters who were still now, under British occupation living in squalor and the walking dead.  They told him about the gassing of their siblings and their mother.   My grandfather died before that of diabetic shock, in 1940.  “He was lucky,” Dad later told me.

            Dad was about 5’10, with black hair and green eyes.  Many people, especially women, said he was the spitting image of Spencer Tracy, and photographs reveal some of that, only Dad might have been a bit better looking.  He had an easy time with women.   While in Paris, he arranged for the Hungarian women in town who were there either through his efforts or some other means, to come to his hotel room for baths.  He had hot water, a precious commodity.  Through a common cousin and Auschwitz survivor, Olga Lengyel, (author of "Five Chimneys,") He met my future wife’s family in Paris and they housed my fragile aunts and his niece at their apartment while they were waiting for visas to come to America. Those visas were, I think, also provided through “the 7th Avenue connection.”   Twenty years later, when I travelled to Europe for the first time as a student, he told me to look up his old friend, a Paris physician, who later became my father-in-law.   My mother-in-law, still lucid at 100 years of age told me how charming and probably promiscuous my father was during those times.

            My first memory of him was as a three year old, with my mother calling me to the phone for, in those days, was a "transatlantic call." He had been gone 18 months, leaving my mother to tend to me alone.  

            So my father was a survivor also, even though he spent the war in America.  After the war, after he returned home,  he thought about Auschwitz every day, he spoke about it every day, read about it continually and until the day he died, carried that torment and guilt with him of being unable to save his family.  He cogitated in a darkened room, chain smoked, had his meals sent in, and at times, could not speak to anyone.  As I grew up, I did not nearly understand the depth of his despair.  He developed a schizophrenic relationship with religion. He popped Phenobarbitals. He wept for years. He spoke of a bloodthirsty God that he rejected because God was either "powerless or evil."  He never overcame his depression and he visited it upon my sister, my mother and me.  He needed us to be nearby, he was warm and financially generous to us, but emotionally he was not there. In the end we gravitated toward our mother who tried to protect us from his emotional storms.

            I did not have the skills then to talk to him, to convince him it was not his fault.  That only one in a thousand people would have had the courage to do what he did.  I think often how different it would be if I could just talk to him one time now and tell him it was not his fault, not my fault that his guilt should abate, that he could let it go.  But it was not to be. It is too late.

            As a child and now as a grown man with my own grandchildren, I still cannot reconcile my Holocaust-torn relationship with my father, the damage it caused to our relationship and the scars from it that I carry to this very day, 70 years after Auschwitz.