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Thinking about the Holocaust — and My Father’s Health

Richard Klin
September 22, 2013
by Richard Klin SurvivorMy father, in his early eighties, is not aging well. His health is gradually, steadily diminishing. Walking is almost impossible for him, and there are growing issues with acuity. As of now, he is still able to live in his modest little house — with a good deal of assistance — but as his health-care needs continue to grow, so will my concerns about his self-sufficiency. Doctors’ visits and medication are enormously expensive, as are food, mortgage, utility bills. My father is not of means. We will soon face the classic, dreaded dilemma that so many are grappling with: What to do when an infirm parent is unable to live on his or her own? Sadly enough, there is nothing exceptional about this quandary in a society that doesn’t have much interest or regard for the elderly. My father is also a Holocaust survivor, and although this is certainly exceptional to me, there are many elderly who bear the added scars of war, violence or oppression. Objectively, there is no reason to insist he merits special treatment. Luckily, he is not completely without resources. There is some support via the regional Jewish agency, some of it specifically allocated to survivors. For this I’m extremely grateful. But, as I’ve quickly discovered, assistance is limited. Interestingly, though, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum appears to have an enviable array of resources, including its own gift shop ("Members save 10% on purchases!" the website excitedly announces) and café (tuna with havarti dill cheese; spinach, brie and pear on walnut raisin bread; latte). Elaborate, visual documentation on a myriad of topics can be accessed, including one on the special plight of hidden children during the Holocaust, my father’s exact slot. Like-what-youre-readingHolocaust museums and memorials certainly are popular. Los Angeles boasts its own, as do San Antonio, Atlanta, Boston, and many other locales. New York City’s Holocaust museum claims to be a “living memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust,” which seems ironic, considering there are living, breathing survivors like my father in need of immediate assistance. The Shoah even merits its own special, designated memorial day, which appears right on my calendar: Holocaust Memorial Day. There must have been quite a bit of effort to add this to the calendar, crowded as it is with Groundhog Day and National Boss Day. It would be logical to assume that there are deep pockets when it comes to all things Holocaust. Museums and first-rate latte, after all, don’t come cheap. The big exception is the actual care of the survivors themselves. The museums and memorials wax rhapsodic about the six million. Judging from their own rhetoric, my father deserves to live in a palace. Perhaps the problem is that real, flesh-and-blood survivors rarely possess Elie Wiesel’s articulate magnanimity. And hidden children like my father lose their innocent appeal as they age. Were he to address a school assembly or participate in some sort of the “outreach” so prized by the Holocaust establishment, he would no doubt discuss how the war ruined his life, or what a monster his own father was. With embarrassing candor, he might very well describe how, in his mid-forties, he lost most of his teeth, a by-product of wartime malnutrition. These stories, lacking any comforting platitudes, aren’t considered very edifying. My father was born in Brussels in 1931. His parents had emigrated from Poland the year before. Around 1939, as Europe was about to be plunged into war and genocide, my grandfather — a skilled tailor — packed his bags for New York City. In due time, he would send for his wife, his son, and his daughter — my grandmother, father, and aunt. The next part of the family history, like Rashomon, depends on who is doing the telling. To my grandfather, his good intentions were destroyed by the outbreak of a world war that he could in no way have anticipated. And after the war’s end, he did indeed send for his son and daughter. But to my father, it was not simply a case of too little, too late — which is bad enough — but of outright desertion. He is still filled with deep, abiding hatred for my late grandfather. From every angle, this does not jibe with the peppy rhetoric of the Holocaust establishment. Belgium fell to the Nazis in 1940. As the net drew tighter and tighter, my grandmother, who spoke no French, managed to place her children with a woman who ran some sort of home for troubled youth. Under the very nose of the German occupiers, she replaced each of her charges with Jewish children, who were passed off as gentiles. These Jewish children were actually converted to Catholicism, and my blond, blue-eyed father — less Jewish-looking than the others — served as an altar boy. When I was around 11 or 12 he recited a portion of the Latin Mass for me, which he still remembered. The official version of events I heard all my life was that one day my grandmother didn’t show up for her usual visit and was never seen again. She disappeared forever. In hindsight, especially in light of the Nazi zeal for meticulous record-keeping, the story doesn’t make any sense. In 2000, as a treasure trove of accessible documentation became available on the web, there appeared definitive proof that my grandmother had perished in Auschwitz. My father must have, on some level, known his mother’s fate and by extension probably had a fairly accurate understanding of what lay in store for him and his sister had they fallen into Nazi hands. The import of this story is more powerful than any cluster of Holocaust commemorations. My father was only able to come to terms with how his mother died a good five-and-a-half decades after the fact, when he was almost seventy. Some time ago, after hearing a particularly harrowing wartime story, I asked my father how he had felt at the time. "Scared shitless" was the succinct, profound answer. I doubt "scared shitless" or its equivalent has made it into the official, sanitized Holocaust narrative, which casts the Shoah as a sort of civics lesson and is almost completely indifferent to the aging survivors themselves. But he must have been scared shitless all the time. Meanwhile, like so many people grappling with their own parents’ aging, we’ll hunt for available resources, monitor my father’s health, and hope fervently he can at least stay in his own home. He views the very real prospect of winding up in a poorly equipped nursing home as akin to the coming of the Gestapo. A true, living memorial to the Holocaust would be increased assistance to my father and those dwindling band of aging survivors. Their vulnerability is a shame — a horrible, horrible shame. Richard Klin is author of Something to Say (Leapfrog Press, 2011), a series of profiles of artists discussing the intersection of art and politics. His writing has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in numerous magazines.