On Jan. 14, one less Holocaust survivor remained to tell his story. That was the day my father, Joseph Fox, peace be upon him, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, a proud partisan, loving husband, father and grandfather, passed away. He was 89.
He was rarely ill until the end and had his full faculties until the very end. He worked until three years ago and could still talk politics and sports with opinionated authority. Fortunately, his illness was short and he did not suffer very much. This was in stark contrast to when he was a 16-year-old, and was forced to join fellow Jews in building the Warsaw Ghetto’s walls.
He escaped the ghetto and made his way home to the small Polish farming village of Zdzhilovice, Poland, near Lublin. In September 1942, the Nazis murdered all the Jews of the village, including my father’s mother, sister, and five cousins. My grandfather, my father, and an uncle of mine were not in Zdzhilovice at the time, but when they returned and realized what happened, they searched for a mass grave, but could find none. They had no time to mourn, my father told me years later; they had to focus on surviving.
Despite too many close calls and two bullet wounds, my father emerged from the war a victor and not a victim. He had joined the Stalin Brigade of Russian Partisans and spent the last two years of the war blowing up supply lines and attacking Germans in the Carpathian Mountains. He said the first time he chased a Nazi with his gun in his hand, he was amazed that the soldier was scared of a Jew who could run and bleed like anybody else. This realization gave him the strength to continue the fight.
My grandfather did not survive the war, but my father and his brothers did. They made their way to the United States where their uncles had an established sewing machine business. After a few years with them, my father opened his own sewing machine business in the Garment Center and helped big-name designers – Halston, Calvin Klein, Anne Klein, and others – get started in New York. He also created specialty dress forms that were used in factories, colleges, and television and theater productions.
Although he was a Shoah survivor, my father was determined to give his family a normal life. He did not transfer his scars to us, but believed strongly that the next generation had to be taught never to forget. He became a board member of the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization (WAGRO) and for 40 years helped organize large commemorations of the Shoah.
At the annual gathering in April 2011, in the final year of his life, the first of three significant events took place. Organized by the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants with the Museum of Jewish Heritage, our family was chosen to light the first of the six candles to commemorate the Shoah. In the past, only one family member was allowed to accompany the survivor, but our entire family joined him on stage. Despite overwhelming odds, three generations stood together to show the fruits of his life.
A few weeks later, a fellow survivor in Israel called to tell him that the mass grave in which his mother and sisters and the others from Zdzhilovice were buried had finally been located. My father could not make the trip. Instead, he sent my brother, my son and me to participate in the ceremony with members of the Israeli family, 150 Israeli students on the March of the Living, and government officials and students from the village. Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, presided. This was the belated funeral for my father’s family. After 69 years, my father finally had closure for that terrible part of his life.
Finally, two months before he died, my father was one of 55 Jewish partisans honored by the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. He was excited that he and fellow partisans were being recognized for their courage and strength. At the end of the evening, when they sang the Partisan’s Hymn, he appeared taller than his 5’7″ frame.
My father’s chesed, his righteous ways, quietly extended to family and friends. He was successful, had a great sense of humor and was a smart, well-rounded person. He was my mentor, my friend, my inspiration, and a role model for my children and for me. May his memory be for a blessing to all of us, and may his heroism and compassion be an inspiration to all of Klal Yisrael .