(above, my Great GrandFather)
I rarely felt the warmth of a family connection, except during major holiday celebrations. During these times, my brother, sister and I could relax and just be ourselves. Compared to the rest of the year, we weren’t expected to behave like little soldiers. Christmas was my favorite holiday, for obvious materialistic reasons. Yet, May Day, a barely recognized holiday in the US, held a special place in my heart.
Every May Day, my father would reminisce about his free-spirited years as a young man in Europe. His intimidating facade vanished and his posture softened as he went int greater details of a May Day celebration. Decorating the Maypole took hours of work and the entire community sang and danced late into the night.
I relished these short-lived moments with my father, because I was able to see his soft side. He rarely talked about his happy youthful years. Perhaps, he didn’t have a happy childhood. His funny May Day celebration stories were a welcome relief from his usual somber stories of nearly escaping the Nazis.
In 1942 WW II Czechoslovakia, there weren’t many reasons to celebrate. Since my Grandfather worked in Germany, therefore making him a German citizen, the Nazis considered my father to a German citizen as well. The SS solders arrived at his house, demanded that my Grandmother release my father to them, in order to join the Nazi Youth Camp. After my Grandmother did some fast talking, the soldiers left, promising to come back for him. For his own safety, my Grandmother told my seventeen year old father that it was urgent to leave the county immediately and live with relatives in New York City. One minor problem: my father didn’t have a passport. My Grandmother asked the Mayor, who was her childhood friend, to help her out. Although the Mayor couldn’t obtain a passport, her gave her a letter, telling her that letter would be in lieu of a passport. My father recalled that he couldn’t make sense of the letter, suggesting that it was perhaps a message written in code. Whenever the Nazi soldiers asked for his passport, he handed over the letter he carried with him. He stood perfectly still as the soldiers read the letter. Shrugging their shoulders, they told him to keep moving on.
I shuddered every time he told us of the mandatory train stops by the German soldiers. Every man was told to line up on the train platform and drop their pants. If a man was circumcised, a German solder would shoot him with a machine gun on the spot. My father was one of the few lucky survivors who trudged back to the train, continuing his long journey to freedom. The chilling images of horrifying violence stayed with me for years. I can only imagine how it felt for my father.
I loved seeing the softer side of my father. He smiled and laughed with his entire heart and soul. Just watching his stern expression melt into a big smile, made me feel as if he was giving me a giant warm hug. He always seemed to have a lot on his mind. I still wonder what was written in the Mayor’s letter. If only he smiled more.