Family

My Father’s Secret Past

And how it shaped my own search for my Jewish identity.

father nazi past.
As the author grew up, he felt a desire to connect with his Jewish heritage, which alienated his father.

khorzhevska/Thinkstock

When I was growing up in Manhattan, my late father, a Romanian-born Jew, used to enjoy singing German songs in the shower. As a kid, I had no idea what the words meant. But after I began studying German in college, I was in for a big surprise. That’s when I figured out that among his favorites was “das Horst Wessel Lied”—the Nazi party anthem, which to this day is banned in Germany. The first two verses go like this:

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Die Fahne hoch! Die Reihen fest geschlossen!
SA marschiert mit ruhig festem Schritt.

(The flag high! The ranks tightly closed!
The Storm Troopers march with a calm, determined step.)

I suspect that there are not too many other Jews for whom these chilling lyrics bring back memories of a singing father.

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My late mother, a first-generation American and a housewife, was also Jewish; her father, an immigrant from Poland, was a rabbi. Yet my father managed to ban virtually anything to do with the Jewish religion—say, a copy of the Haggadah—from our Upper East Side apartment. My mother’s niece once asked my father about our plans for Passover, and he turned both white and mute. At his insistence, our family celebrated Christmas. Every year, my parents, my older brother, and I would haul out our fake tree from the basement and watch the Yule log on WPIX. Nothing about my family’s religious identity was normal.

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My father came to America in the early 1950s and carved out a successful career as a Wall Street executive; one of his first jobs was at the trading desk of F.M. Mayer next to another Transylvanian refugee by the name of George Soros. When I was little, he used to tell me he was Catholic. When I was in my early teens, he let it slip out that both his parents had been Jewish and had converted to Christianity around the time of his birth in 1925. And that’s when I learned that he had been forced to erase his Jewishness in order to survive the Holocaust. He had attended a Jesuit high school in his native Romania; when the Germans marched into town in the early 1940s, he was conscripted into the Nazi army. As a teenager, he served as a translator for Friedrich von Paulus, the German general who lost to the Russians at Stalingrad.

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As an adolescent, I was moved whenever I thought of my father’s tragic past as a secret Nazi Jew. But I was troubled by his insistence that I also sever my ties with the Jewish heritage of both my sets of grandparents. A somewhat overbearing person, he could not easily differentiate between his needs and those of other people—on religion, or on anything else for that matter. On the matter of our Jewishness, he thought his instincts were protective. As he saw it, even in late-20th-century America, any hint of Judaism could lead to annihilation. And if I did not agree, I was naïve, maybe even a little crazy. Whenever I had gone long enough without a haircut that my hair started to curl, he would threaten to disown me if I didn’t get to a barber right away. Style was not his concern. He was terrified that I might look too Jewish.

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My father died in the summer of 2014, just as I was beginning my book First Dads: Parenting and Politics From George Washington to Barack Obama, which is dedicated to him. He turned out to be a valuable point of reference as I studied how fatherhood has evolved over the past 250 years. The brilliant but self-absorbed second president, John Adams, likewise could not experience his own children as separate individuals who had a right to determine their own identity. In 1777, when Adams was toiling away at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he wrote to his youngest son, Thomas, “I must make a physician out of you.” At the time, the boy was 5 years old.

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* * *

In college, I developed a desire to be connected to my family’s Jewish heritage. As an undergraduate, I majored in German because I readily identified with the German-Jewish writers who thrived in the 19th and early 20th century: Heine, Freud, and Kafka seemed to speak directly to me. I too felt like an outsider who was estranged from the predominant WASP culture.

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But the more I embraced secular Judaism, the more enraged my father became. While I knew that he hated the Jewish religion, this I did not expect. After all, he had married my mother, who gave up practicing Judaism when they married but continued to immerse herself in Jewish literature. She read every new Isaac Bashevis Singer novel as soon as it came out, and in the summer of 1978—a few months before he won the Nobel Prize—even took me to visit the maestro at his West End Avenue apartment, where I got to take a peek at his Yiddish typewriter.

My father once told me that one of the reasons he married my mother was that she was WASP-y on the outside and Jewish on the inside; with her blue eyes and light complexion, she did not “look Jewish.” Somewhere deep within, there was a part of him that identified as Jewish, but he felt that he would put himself in danger if he showed it to the world. This Jewish part was often silenced by his other parts, such as the German soldier that retained some fondness for both Nazi songs and Nazi paraphernalia. When the dust jacket of his dog-eared copy of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich started to fray, he cut out the swastikas emblazoned on the cover. “I don’t want them to go to waste,” he told me, as he neatly filed them in a drawer.

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These contradictory parts often popped up when I would return home from college and begin to tell him of my emerging Jewish identity. He would become uncomfortable, to say the least, and had a few go-to responses. One was “You are just like Hitler who considered Judaism a race!” Another was “Judaism is a curse!” The former statement came from his Jewish part that hated Hitler; the latter came from his anti-Semitic part that still identified with Nazi aggression. Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out for myself what it means to be Jewish. Does it involve belonging to a race, a culture, or a synagogue—or perhaps to all three?

* * *

In my mid-20s, I joined a local Reconstructionist synagogue in Baltimore and began attending Shabbat services regularly; I also took a course in Hebrew. I enjoyed connecting with members of Baltimore’s Jewish community, and several became close friends. As a student of literature, I was intrigued by all the different interpretations of Torah that rabbis had argued for over the centuries.

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Due to my father’s countless admonitions to reject all things Jewish, though, I knew he would go ballistic if he found out about my activities, and I started to feel guilty—as if I had somehow betrayed him. Given the psychological dynamics of my family, simply to step inside a synagogue was a radical act. I felt a connection with other Jewish kids who had once rebelled against their parents by joining the Communist Party, or a generation later, the Republican Party. But I was not trying to rebel. I was just trying to be me.

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I haven’t been to a synagogue for years—God turned out to be the obstacle; a lack of faith proved unmovable—but I still look back fondly on the time I spent learning the ABCs of the Jewish faith. I feel more whole and less cut off from the world of my ancestors.

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Though my father’s lifelong obsession with running away from his past was extreme, there was something very American about it. This is the land of self-invention, where we are promised that we can become whomever we want to be. But I now realize that once my father immigrated to New York, he had little choice but to shed his Judaism entirely. To connect later in life with the terror that he had to endure as a child and adolescent—when the discovery of his true identity might well have led to death—would simply have been too painful. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to try on various Jewish identities until I found one that seemed to fit. My father never had that chance.

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