“I want to do something with my life,” I told my father. “I want to accomplish something. What have you ever accomplished?” It was an awful thing to say, cruel and smug and snotty. My only defense is that I was 14, and like every adolescent, the one thing in this world I could see with crystal clarity was my father’s clay feet.
No man is a hero to his valet, the aphorism runs. Perhaps no father is a hero to his adolescent son. But even at 14, I should have known better than to ask what my father had ever accomplished. He had made a good marriage to a good woman, with whom he was raising five children in a home filled with love, laughter, and integrity. Pedestrian achievements? In my father’s case, they were nothing short of heroic.
On the day after Passover in 1944, my father and his family were rounded up by the Nazis. Along with other Jewish families from their region of eastern Slovakia, they were transported to a ghetto in the nearby Hungarian city of Satoraljaujhely. For six weeks they were kept in the ghetto, which grew increasingly crowded as more and more Jews were brought in. Then it began to empty, as Jews were taken out.
They left on a Thursday. With only the belongings they could carry by hand, they were marched to the waiting train. As each boxcar filled, its doors were chained and locked. There were no seats inside, no windows, no water. The only toilet was a bucket on the floor.
For three days of suffocation, thirst, and stench, the train moved. When it stopped, David and Leah Jakubovic and their five youngest children—Franceska, Markus, Zoltan, Yrvin, and Alice—were at Auschwitz.
The doors opened. There were blinding floodlights, shouting S.S. guards, snarling dogs. The Jews were forced off the train and onto the platform; men and women were made to line up separately.
“Raus! Raus!” they heard. “Out! Out!”
In the noise and confusion, they made their way along the platform at the end of which Dr. Mengele waited, performing the “selection.” Some Jews he waved to the right, some to the left. My father, a strong 18-year-old, was sent to the left. His clothes were removed, his head was shaved, and a number (A-10502) was tattooed on his arm. My father’s mother and father and his youngest brother and sister went the other way. Later he learned that they had been taken immediately to the gas.
Within a day or two, my father’s other brother, Zoltan, was also killed. His sister Franceska lasted a few months longer. Of the seven members of the Jakubovic family who were rounded up by the Germans in the spring of 1944, only one—my father—was still alive in the spring of 1945. By then, he had been through four concentration camps. At the end he was in Ebensee, a satellite of the grim Mauthausen camp near Salzburg, Austria. He was 19 years old, weighed 65 pounds, and was dying of typhus and starvation. When the Allies arrived at Ebensee, my father was nearly a corpse. He would spend the next month in a delirious fever in a field hospital. Later he would learn that he had also contracted a form of tuberculosis.
His trials didn’t end with the war. He made his way back to his native village in Slovakia, only to discover that strangers had helped themselves to his family’s small house. He struggled to support himself—buying this, selling that, smuggling something else. Making a living would have been a daunting prospect for anyone in war-blighted Eastern Europe in 1945. What must it have been like for a young death camp survivor with no family, no property, and no home?
In 1948, the Communists seized control in Czechoslovakia. My father, desperate not to be trapped again in a totalitarian dictatorship, got out. He managed to procure an American student visa and to raise the price of an ocean crossing. He got off the boat in New York on May 14, 1948—and was robbed on his first night in America. It is almost literally true to say that my father started out in the New World with only the shirt on his back.
He went to work as a manual laborer, nailing window sashes in a carpenter’s shop. After a while he tried his hand at sales: mattresses first, then appliances, then furniture. In time he opened a furniture and appliance store of his own. His visa authorized him to stay in America for no more than one year. He has been here, so far, for 52.
In all my years growing up in my father’s house, when money was often very short and luxuries were few, I cannot recall ever hearing him complain about his circumstances. It is as if he decided that, after Auschwitz, no setback or misfortune was worth even a moment’s self-pity. Nor can I ever recall hearing him boast—about anything. Perhaps he was never one to blow his own horn. Or perhaps he lost the urge to brag once he saw the utter degradation to which human beings can be reduced.
My father makes a point of giving some money to charity every day. I once asked him, after watching him slip a few dollars to a panhandler who clearly had no good excuse to be scrounging for handouts, why he gave money to somebody so patently undeserving.
“It’s not my job to decide if he’s deserving,” he told me. “A man came up to me with an empty hand. When somebody asks for help and holds out his hand, you don’t turn him away.”
That was, for him, a long speech. He is not an especially eloquent man and to my knowledge he has never spoken before an audience. He still talks with an accent and sometimes garbles his syntax. But actions speak louder than words, and those who know my father have always known what kind of man he is.
His store was never a great success. He is not a born salesman and never learned the art of talking uncertain customers into buying something they weren’t sure they wanted. Nor was he much good at leaning on customers who had taken delivery of some furniture or an appliance, but couldn’t be bothered to keep up their payments. Nevertheless, he earned a name for himself, as he would learn during the “long, hot summer” of 1968.
When race riots erupted in Cleveland that year, my father’s furniture store stood at Ground Zero: St. Clair and 103rd, in the heart of the city’s Glenville neighborhood. For days, the area was wracked by pillaging and arson, the violence made worse by the mayor’s order for white police officers to stay out. To deter looters, signs reading “Soul Brother” appeared in the windows of black-owned establishments, but there was no such sign in my father’s window, and by the time it was safe enough for him to venture back into the city, he expected to find his store reduced to a burnt-out shell.
He found it untouched. The pawn shop next door had been gutted, and the rioters had ransacked the A&P across the street, but Mark’s Furniture & Appliance Company hadn’t suffered so much as a broken window.
At the height of the riots, my dad later found out, a group of tenants who lived in the apartment units above the store had come down to the street and formed a human chain in front of the entrance. “Stay away from this place,” they told the looters. “It belongs to a good man.”
Once I asked my father if anything had been uppermost in his mind when he was in the camps. Was there something he always concentrated on, a goal he always kept in mind?
No doubt I was hoping for something lapidary. Something like the exhortation of Simon Dubnov, the renowned Jewish historian, whose last words before being murdered in the Riga ghetto were, Yiddin, schreibt und farschreibt—“Jews, write it down, write it all down.” Perhaps my father would tell me he tried to remember everything so he could one day bear witness to what he had seen. Perhaps he would say he always looked for ways to sabotage the Nazi operations. Or that he never stopped dreaming of revenge. Or that every morning and night he recited the Sh’ma, the Jewish credo: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
This is what my father told me: He was always careful to watch his shoes. He slept at night with his shoes beneath his head, he said, because if you lost your shoes you wouldn’t survive for long.
It was hardly the answer I had imagined. I had expected something inspiring, something courageous. Shoes? In the middle of the most evil hell ever created on earth, my father was thinking about his shoes?
But I have come to understand that my father was right. If shoes were essential to his survival—and when you are force-marched from Poland to Austria in the open in January, they are—then shoes were precisely the thing he had to think about. The Jakubovic family, awash in blood, was nearly extinct. My father had to survive. The Jews had to survive. Somehow, despite everything, they had to go on, and if shoes could keep this Jew alive, then nothing was more important than shoes.
Some Holocaust survivors emerged from their ordeal embittered and angry. Some came out cynical and untrusting. Some survivors, furious with God for not stopping the slaughter, turned their backs on faith and became enemies of religion. Some sank into black depression. Some slowly lost their minds.
If my father had done nothing but survive the Holocaust, his life would be worthy of note. That he survived as a decent man and a believing Jew, that he can still laugh and love and look on life’s bright side, is nothing less than magnificent.
My father, God willing, will turn 75 this year. He has five children and—so far—15 grandchildren. He keeps the Sabbath and fasts on Yom Kippur and eats matza on Passover. Every morning and every evening, he says the Sh’ma. He is a Jew who survived and who survived as a Jew. His life is a continuing defeat for Hitler, who had hoped to rid the world forever of men such as my father. In an age thin in heroes, my father is mine.
What did he ever accomplish? I never again asked such an insulting question.
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe.