This year as we celebrated Father’s Day, my wife, children and I made one of our frequent visits to Brooklyn to take my parents out. Because they are both octogenarians, I always count my blessings when we get to see them, and as I celebrate Father’s Days with them, I can’t help but reflect about my father’s generation of Holocaust survivors, many of whom are no longer with us.
Joseph Fox and his son, Steve, and granddaughter, Aliza, are pictured at the Holocaust commemoration in Teaneck in ‘006.
Growing up as a child of a survivor had a profound impact on my life and my Jewish identity. Although my mother is American-born, her parents were European, and the language spoken by most of my parents’ friends was Yiddish. Their children, all born in the United States, shared a commonality with us, in that most of their grandparents were not alive. As children, we never heard war stories. My mother told me that it was too painful for my father to speak about the war, and whenever he watched a war movie, he would be sick for days. But unlike some of our friends, many of whom had parents who survived the camps, we weren’t given anything more than normal Jewish guilt growing up.
Eventually, as I got older, I would overhear him tell other adults about some of his experiences, and by the time I was a teenager, we started going as a family to Holocaust commemorations. My father was on the executive board of the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization, which under the late Benjamin Meed pioneered the largest Yom HaShoah observances in New York in the 1960s. These events became more and more part of his identity, and he made them an integral part of our lives. During those observances, many of my parents’ friends and relatives would gather as if this was their annual tribute to their parents and to all who fell in the cities and towns they once called home.
My father was a teenager living in Warsaw when the war broke out. The Nazis invaded Poland without warning, and when he was only 16, his whole world turned upside down. The Nazis torched much of the city, including his family’s apartment and storefront, and he, along with thousands of others, had to go to work building the now-infamous ghetto. As I learned more about my father’s experiences, I learned more and more to admire him. I sat in tears listening him tell others how his mother, sister, and her family were shot outside Zhilowitz along with 70 others and buried in a mass grave. It was probably the first time that I saw this otherwise strong person cry when he retold the story, and I beamed with admiration when I heard how he joined the Russian partisans and fought through the last years of the war. Our images of so many Jews being led to their slaughter were countered by how my father recounted the first time he had a gun and shot at Nazis who were running from his group. He said that it was the first time he realized that the feared Nazi soldiers bled like anyone else, and it gave him hope and courage to continue fighting. Two stories stand out in my mind. One day, while hiding in the forest, he came across a Jewish teenager lying on the ground and suffering from a gunshot wound. He carried her a few miles until they met up with her family and their group. My father stayed with them overnight and was told that if he stayed with them he had to go out with the other men to get water every night. He didn’t like the idea of hiding with a group that included women and children, for fear of getting caught, and left the next day. He later found out that all of the men that went out on the next night for water were killed by the Nazis. (Amazingly, he was reunited with this woman, who happened to be related to my mother’s cousin, 40 years later in Israel).
During his stint with the partisans, he was wounded twice by shrapnel and once shot in the thigh. He was taken to a Russian hospital in Lvov for treatment. The doctors, fearing that gangrene would set in on the infected thigh, decided to amputate. My father drew a gun on the doctor and told him that he would rather not live than go through life without a leg. The doctor acquiesced and was able to save his leg.
Listening to these stories made our youthful tribulations seem trivial and it made us look at my father as a real hero: a teenager who was thrust into the hell of war, and did everything from hiding under farmhouses to blowing up Nazi convoys in order to survive. He was someone who fought the Nazis, and along with so many of his survivor friends and relatives built new and productive lives after the war. What’s more important, he lives his life with optimism and a wonderful sense of humor. He exhibits the triumph of the human spirit and shows all of us that regardless of the odds, with determination and a strong will, you can succeed. At the young age of 83, my father still runs a business in Manhattan and is not only a caring father but a generous and doting grandfather. When our children were in the Moriah School in Englewood and participated in Holocaust programs, my father always came down to the school, and whenever any of our children or their friends wanted to interview a survivor, he always made himself available. The way he lives his life and enjoys every moment is an inspiration to all of us.
I grew up in an era when protesting for the rights of Soviet Jews took up much of our extracurricular time and Israel was always a top priority. As a high school senior, I, along with other students (and no faculty), organized a Yom HaShoah commemoration on the Lower East Side, which for its time was quite unusual. We got into newspapers and on the evening news and I felt that I was doing something on a small scale in tribute to my father and his fellow survivors. I spent my high school and college years in Bnei Akiva, a religious Zionist youth movement, all the while knowing that my father was in Beitar, a religious Zionist youth movement, in Poland and even once met Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of revisionist Zionism. While in college, I volunteered to help photograph archival photos from the YIVO Institute for a Holocaust exhibit that would tour shuls and schools in Brooklyn. Seeing those often-graphic pictures was enough to make you sick, and made you look at the survivors with even more admiration.
After the Yom Kippur War broke out, I took a leave of absence from college and volunteered to go to Israel to help. Knowing what others had sacrificed and what Israelis were going through at the time, it was the least I could do. All through my school years and beyond, the example my father had set was clearly a major influence on my activism and communal participation.
In 1981, my parents made their first trip to Israel for the World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors. I remember watching it on TV and being so proud. In 1983, my parents attended the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Washington. After each trip, my father told us how wonderful it was to see other survivors he hadn’t seen in years or whom he thought had perished. Every year, as we continue to go to the Yom HaShoah commemorations, my father (whose height peaked at 5’7") stands tall while singing the Partisans’ Hymn. Two years ago, my father, daughter, and I were chosen to light a candle at Teaneck’s Yom HaShoah commemoration. There we proudly stood, three generations, two of whom would not exist if not for my father’s heroism and determination. But as time goes by, and the generation of survivors becomes fewer, I think that it would be a great idea if each synagogue would organize an annual tribute to the survivors in their communities, not just to remember what Hitler did to our people but to give "Hakarat HaTov" to those survivors still among us.
As we celebrated this Father’s Day, I thanked HaShem that my parents and in-laws are still with us. I hope that we will celebrate many more occasions together. I know that my children have learned many things from my father (and, I hope, from us) about the importance of being a strong and identifying Jew. I hope that the lessons of Jewish perseverance, which we have seen from the survivors of the Shoah, continue to be espoused even as their numbers diminish.
Steve Fox lives in Teaneck with his wife, Chary, and children, Meir, Moshe, and Aliza, two of whom are going to study in Israel next year.