God finally answered Dad’s determined summons on a chilly February morning in 2010. For over 70 years Dad prepared for the eventuality in which he would finally be able to challenge the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in court. “Why did you allow this to happen?” he would ask. “How could you have forsaken your ‘chosen’ people?” “Where were you?” He had no doubt that one day God will succumb to his plea to be heard. It is, perhaps, for this reason that Dad feared no living authority. No academic, religious leader, philosopher or historian could offer a reasonable answer to Dad’s unwavering questions. To him, nobody was more or less worthy than he. All were equal before God. All were God’s subjects, servants, and even victims. For Dad it was personal.
Never did Dad question the existence of God. Once I had presented this possibility to him. “What if there is no God?” I asked. What if the Holocaust happened without divine intervention? What if there is nobody to blame, challenge, or dread?
“Oh no, David; There is a God,” he would say. But to Dad God was not who we expected him to be. He was not the kind, forgiving, and just being that watched over us from above. To Dad, God would remain a cruel, unforgiving and unappreciative power – until proven otherwise. He could not understand how people blindly offered their prayers to him after all he has allowed to happen. “What do I have to thank him for?” he would maintain.
Perhaps it was Dad’s relentless anger at God that provided him with the stamina to survive. He was not bitter, but angry. Only now did I begin to realise the vital importance of this anger in Dad’s life. The few weeks before his death, Dad sounded appreciably more complacent, easy. Our weekly telephone conversations became warmer, dynamic, more relaxed. He complained about nothing, but the loneliness. Dad looked forward to our upcoming visit and openly expressed his love for everybody. It was weird, but comforting.
God, if there is one, finally chose to accept Dad’s challenge when both were ready. Dad often wondered why he was still alive while all of his peers have already succumbed. “Heaven must be a beautiful place,” he maintained. “Perhaps God is punishing me by keeping me in this world and out of the gates,” he suspected. But, in the end, Dad was not taken unfairly. He was 86. He did not die while ill in hospital: weak, drugged, and in pain. Dad did not die while unaware in his sleep or confused in a stupor of Alzheimer’s. Neither was Dad taken suddenly while occupied with something else, like driving. Dad had apparently woken up in the morning, arranged his clothes neatly on a chair, walked into the revitalising shower as he did every morning. He was clean, refreshed, alert and ready to face whatever challenges would be put before him that fateful day. And then, as Dad stood proud and erect, his legs simply gave out. It is almost as if he was beamed up to the Star Ship Enterprise. At least that is how I choose to picture it.
Our immediate challenge was to decide whether to comply with Dad’s expressed wish to be cremated and to do away with the religious funeral. At least that is what he said. But, when asked, he did not oppose the possibility of a traditional burial in Israel, but simply said, “Don’t put yourselves out for me,” almost sounding apologetic. After careful deliberation, we decided to listen to his spirit, rather than his anger, and made the complicated arrangements to have him transferred to Israel for burial. In contrast to his lifestyle, everything went amazingly smoothly. Sara, Mike and my son, Tal, spoke dearly of our fond memories of Dad as a loving father, grandfather, Jew, and American. As I stood before his wooden coffin, draped with a beige banner that was embossed with a blue Star of David, I felt, somewhat embarrassingly, calm, determined, and clear headed. In contrast to my mother’s burial, I was prepared with a short eulogy. This is what I said (in Hebrew):
One cannot think of you without thinking of survival. You were a survivor, a fighter, a hero. You survived the Holocaust: the Ghetto, the camps, the Death March, and the liberation. You contributed bravely to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. You survived all of the challenges of later life in the USA and in Israel. And, in the end, you fought with illness and loneliness yet maintained your self-respect and independence.
But, you also gave us many precious lessons in life that will stay with us and comfort us forever. From you, Dad, we too learned to survive. We learned to be proud of our heritage and actions. We learned to be independent in our thoughts and actions. You taught us never to be afraid to speak our minds and to try and do the right thing. From you, Dad, we learned to cope with problems as challenges and not obstacles. We learned to keep a sense of humour and to be compassionate and engaged.
Now, you are on a journey towards your biggest challenge – one that you have been waiting for your entire life; It is with God. We know you will stand proud. You will ask him to explain, apologise, and repent for the horrors that he allowed to occur. We are with you in spirit, in our hearts. We hope that you will get the answers that you deserve to hear. We hope that you will find justice and peace.
From all of us who have been touched by your presence.
Your children: Sara, Mike and David. Your grandchildren: Tal and Zadok. Those who have already gone: Mom and Noam. And all the rest of the family: Rina and Flo; friends, neighbours, and fellow survivors.
We will miss you always.
Upon my return from Israel to London, we were charged with the heavy responsibility of securing his meagre, yet personal, assets: an unpleasant task but helpful distraction that allowed me to cope intermittently with the familiar nothingness that lingered. Friends, family and others helped to deflect the pain, or to express it. Sometimes, both. My first big cry erupted unexpectantly following a brief phone call from Tony, the funeral home director in Charleston that arranged his transfer to New York City for the international flight to Israel. Tony confirmed that Dad’s personal items (wallet and keys) were being sent to me and that I should receive them within ten days. “I hope you don’t mind,” he added, “I googled you.” Tony discovered that both my father and I had written some books. He had just finished reading my father’s book; I Summons the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to Court. “The words just came out of the page very powerfully. It really touched me. I hadn’t realised who your father was,” he said with a noticeable quiver in his voice. I could discern a subdued whimper, hesitation, shortness of breath that I was familiar with as a psychologist struggling to maintain professional distance. Tony, the undertaker that deals daily with death and loss, was apparently crying. I offered some supportive comments and thanked him for his service and interest.
I have witnessed some unique and surprising events in my life. I was present at the birth of a dolphin, experienced a surreal hail storm in the desert, saw a fatal car accident, and viewed sworn enemies shake hands. But, I never thought I would hear an undertaker shed tears. I felt that I needed to write a poem about this, but didn’t know how. So, I cried.