Monday, May 20, 2013

Opa’s bequeathing “with warm hands”

My father recently sent this ring to Peter…

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…accompanied by this letter:

“Dear Peter,

I have decided to pass on to some of you grandchildren things that mean something to me, and that come with a story that must be told. As “Muttchen,” my pseudo-mother used to say: I want to do so “with warm hands.”

It was in March of 1945, just weeks before the end of the war.  I was 16.  My mother had already died.  I was put into a slave labor camp for “half-Jews,” as they called us.

Now Chemnitz, my home town, had just gotten the same kind of “terror attack,” as the Nazis called it, as Dresden had suffered weeks earlier.   My boss, where I had been assigned from the labor camp, was most understanding, if most secretive, about it.

“Go,” he said.  “Check out what happened.  Just be back by Tuesday at the latest.”  Of course there was no telephone, no other news, no transportation.  Only chaos everywhere.  One just had to make do, somehow.

Our house had been burned out, turned from a burned ruin into mostly rubble.  I found my father’s body in the boiler room, caught in the space between the floor and the furnace, one leg dangling, clearly broken.

My father’s body was the only one in the big ruin.  I was told later that when the house was on fire everyone got out, including him.  Then he had to crawl back into the basement to retrieve a small suitcase with Romanticist art that he was working on.  His whole life now had been his art collection; he just HAD to get those pieces.  In that moment an explosive bomb hit the house, ending his life, making the three of us orphans.

After escaping the Nazis for a dozen years, now, two short months before the final defeat of Nazi Germany, he was killed by an Allied bomb.  Just what the Nazis had always wanted.  But any war does that: produce tragic ironies like this, a thousand times over, everywhere.

My dad was wearing a suit, vest, and tie.  He was a very formal person and would not be seen in anything but “proper dress,” not even at night in the air raid shelter in his own basement.  When I found him, he still had his metal-rimmed glasses on, one side broken.  His fingers were apart, indicating that he had not suffered.

I knew there must be one thing he was forced by law to always have on him – his ID card, with the big letter “J” to identify him immediately as a Jew, with the forced name of “Israel” added.  I took it and I still have that infamous ID.

He was wearing his diamond tie pin so that his tie would be orderly and in place where it belonged.  I took it.  Years later, in Munich, in peace, I designed a ring for myself and had the diamond of my father’s tie pin mounted in it.

That ring is what I give to you today.  Today, when wearing it, I know that what had meaning to me was not my father’s dying as much as his death.  I knew then that his most romantic, often-quoted motto would somehow follow me: Goethe’s most utopian idea that “life, however it may be, is good.”  He, a Jew under the Nazis, persecuted, with two sons in Nazi slave labor camps, through all the chaos, kept this idealized faith.  And for years it gave me the strength I needed to shape the path of my own life, without parental guidance.

With love,  Opa”

I read the letter first because Peter happened to be in Munich, of all places, when the package arrived.  As I read the letter to Tom, tears welled in my eyes and a lump in my throat, and I couldn’t finish it, handing it to Tom to read the last paragraph for himself.  I could tell that when Peter read it upon his return from Germany, he was equally, though less overtly, touched by it.  Later Aleks said to Peter, “I think Opa gave you the diamond from his father’s tie because you’re someone Opa would have been really proud to introduce his father to.”  The lump returned to my throat when I heard that.

With the ring and the letter came some official documents for me, as the executor of my – perfectly healthy (for an 85-year-old) father’s will.  Maybe it’s his own very formal, very organized, very…well, German father coming through in him, but my father’s almost obsessive attention to “getting his affairs in order” have been somewhat annoying to me.  Once every few weeks he sends another document for me to read and file, many focusing on his adamant wish to be allowed to die without any heroics when it looks like the time is coming – and to let him go if the time comes suddenly.  “I have stared death in the face repeatedly as a young man,” he insists,”and I have no fear of it now. But I DO fear being kept alive by those damn doctors…”  I think some of that comes from watching my mom go through something like 28 separate chemo treatments and slowly wilting away in front of us.  He doesn’t want that for himself or for his family.  I’d be honored to be at his side for any length of time, just as I was for my mother.  But I only visited as my mom died slowly over four years while my father spent what he refers to as “a thousand sleepless nights” during those years, and he doesn’t want that for Lou, his adored new wife, or for us.  I respect that.  But please, Dad, don’t be so busy organizing and preparing for your death that you forget to live your life! 

(It feels good to write again.)

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2 comments:

Margaret said...

What a treasure that letter is! Your dad is a wonderful writer. I would have cried too. My husband told me he didn't want to live like his mom in her last six months of life; in his case it was a still agonizing couple of weeks.:(

Goofball said...

wow, this gives me chills, thanks for sharing that bit of your family history with us too

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