Laila's father and grandfather during a visit to Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Photo courtesy of Laila Friedman

Reflecting on Father’s Day

An Interview with the son of a Holocaust survivor.

Father’s Day is the one day Americans nationally show appreciation for all the fathers and/or father figures in their lives. Some of the most popular ways to celebrate are barbecues and family gatherings, giving gifts of tools or coupon booklets.

Since Father’s Day has already passed, I hope for you that this day was filled with joy and quality family time. However, I wanted to reflect on the importance of this day, especially to fathers that survived the Holocaust. By a miracle, they were able to survive under the Nazi regime and build a new family, a new life. As this generation, unfortunately, fades into history, we must remember and admire their strengths. My grandfather survived the horrific torture in the concentration camp, Mauthausen. He escaped from Europe with his sisters and settled in New York. After he married my grandmother, they raised my father in Brooklyn. In an interview, I asked my dad a few questions about having a father who survived the Holocaust.

How was your childhood growing up?

I think my childhood was overall, happy. My parents, although they didn’t have a lot of money, always made sure I had what I really needed. I was fortunate to have some good friends in grade school and then high school and that was really important. I also enjoyed spending time with my grandmother (on my mother’s side); she was the only grandparent I really knew. We had fun, and I enjoyed her English expressions (She was from Manchester, England).

When did you learn that your father survived the Holocaust? How did he tell you?

The funny thing is that I think until I was in third or fourth grade, he told me that he was a general in the Army! I believed him. I think he told me the truth around fourth or fifth grade.

Was he comfortable sharing what he went through?

Although he didn’t talk about it a whole lot, he always answered my questions with no problem. He was always matter of fact about it and believed that the Holocaust was, for reasons beyond us, what G-d wanted.  It was always amazing to me that, given what he went through, losing his parents, a sister, and many other loved ones at such a young age (17) and having his entire life disrupted in that way, he could still bring a sense of “reason” and faith to the subject.  We (Your mother and I) had the chance to go to his concentration camp with him. It was incredible to hear him speak so unemotionally about where he slept, what happened to him at the very place that caused so much pain.

How did the Holocaust affect his personality?

On the positive side, he had a good perspective on what is a “real” problem. So for example, if there was a minor issue with a friend, or maybe at school, he didn’t overreact; he knew first-hand that things could always be a lot worse. On the other side, certain things did make him really nervous and he didn’t always sleep so well. I think that is not uncommon among survivors. He worried about his family’s safety, which I guess is a good thing.

Did this affect the way you were raised?

Sure. I think just having parents who were not American (my mother was from the Middle East) made me different from the other kids in school. There were cultural gaps, but that was OK, and they didn’t do things that typical American parents may have done (like going on hikes, going to amusement parks). I was raised to be very cautious given what my father went through. Also, since my parents did not have a college education, and me being the oldest child, I was really dedicated to my schoolwork so I could get to college and ultimately get a secure job. I think there was, at least for me, the feeling that “my parents went through a lot, so you can’t mess anything up.”  On the flip side of that, though, I did tend to worry more than the average kid. As I got older, I really began to realize how much being the child of a Holocaust survivor impacted me in that way.

What is one important lesson you learned from him?

Never lose faith in G-d! I would also add the utmost importance of appreciating your life and your family. I went to graduate school for business and looked for employment opportunities that involved interesting and challenging work.  As long as I could pay the bills and had the opportunity to advance in my career, that was fine for me as long as I was home at a decent hour and had time to take care of myself and my family.  I think a lot of this comes from being the child of a survivor. 

Lastly, what did you appreciate most about your father?

Just the love and caring he gave me. It must have been very difficult to have faith in the world after all he went through…but he had enough faith to carry on, get married, and start a family. I also appreciate the sacrifices, especially to send me to a Jewish high school.  To qualify for financial aid, he had to work Bingo nights, (fundraisers for the school).  I am sure that he would have preferred to not do that, but a Jewish education and environment were vital to him. That was huge because the school (Flatbush) was really such a great environment in which I could grow and make a lot of friends.

Sometimes we are so overwhelmed or busy with our own struggles and duties that we fail to see what is done for us, even if it is a little obvious. But if we take only a small amount of time out of our day to acknowledge the sacrifices that were made by fathers, an act greater than ourselves, we will find that this is something we should be more openly thankful for.

Fathers have helped raise us into the people we are today, so it is important to consider viewing their lives from a different perspective. Every individual has a story, and our fathers are a part of that. Some have had a peaceful childhood, others, like my grandfather, did not. Yet, both acknowledged their past and pushed through the rough areas to raise us well. Some fathers even gave us what they were never able to have, such as my grandfather’s efforts to give my dad a Jewish education.

In retrospect, it seems insufficient that one day is reserved for expressing the gratitude we owe our fathers. It is even stated in the 10 Commandments to honor your father and mother. With that in mind, every day should rightfully be Father’s (and Mother’s) day.

Laila Friedman is a rising junior at East Brunswick High School.

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