The tree I sprang from
My first byline in The Boston Globe appeared long before I became a columnist. A letter to the editor I had written was published on Jan. 2, 1986. It was just six sentences long:
I was moved by "The great divide," Alan Lupo's touching column on Dec. 14 about the way we react — and often don't react — to the destitute among us.
Years ago, my father — who knew poverty and hunger at first hand, and who makes a point of giving some money to charity every day — taught me a lesson. After watching him give a few dollars to a panhandler who had no excuse scrounging for handouts, I asked why he gave money to somebody so patently undeserving.
"Why do I have to decide if he's deserving?" I was asked in return. "A man came up to me with an empty hand. When somebody asks for help and holds out an empty hand, you don't turn him away."
My most recent byline in the Globe appeared two weeks ago, above a column headlined "The politics of an Auschwitz survivor's son ." Like that letter to the editor 35 years ago, it expressed values that I absorbed from my father's example and instruction. A few hours after the column appeared online, my father — who had tested positive for COVID-19 two days earlier and was in quarantine — began suffering respiratory distress. He was taken by ambulance to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, where my mother was already a patient in the COVID ward. Two days later, he took his last breath. My mother, in the bed next to his, was stroking his arm.
More than once, my father told me that he regarded as a bonus every day since May 6, 1945, when the US Army liberated Ebensee, the last of the four German concentration camps in which he had been imprisoned. By that measure, my father was blessed with 27,660 bonus days. He made the most of them.
To be sure, in his 95 years my father did not build up a great business, hold high office, or accumulate financial riches. He wasn't a noted speaker and he didn't write books. When it came to what the New York Times columnist David Brooks, in The Road to Character, calls the "résumé virtues" — the achievements we list on our résumé, the qualifications we bring to the marketplace, the skills necessary for a great career — my father's life was not particularly noteworthy.
But résumé virtues are only one yardstick by which a life is judged. There are also the "eulogy virtues." Those are the character traits that are recalled at your funeral: Were you kind? Were you honest? Were you faithful? Were you humble? "We all know," Brooks writes, "that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones."
In the eulogy virtues, my father excelled. And as that long-ago letter to the editor suggests, I didn't wait until his eulogy to acknowledge them.
In occasional pieces over the years, I have recounted something of my father's experiences during the Holocaust and afterward. Sometimes I have written to help keep alive the memory of the terrible evils committed during the Nazi nightmare; sometimes to draw broader lessons about the urgency of defending human rights and resisting tyranny; sometimes to express gratefulness for the democratic freedoms I have grown up with.
"Fifty years ago this week, the Nazis came for my father's family," I wrote in an early Globe column.
The Jakubovics — there were seven of them in the house — were awakened before dawn when the SS pounded on their window. Like the other Jews in Legenye, a village on the Czechoslovak-Hungarian border, they were ordered to gather their belongings and prepare to leave at once.
Thirty minutes later they were put on horse-drawn wagons and carted out of Legenye. In the nearest large Hungarian town, [they were] herded into a ghetto. The walls were still going up around it as the Jakubovic family arrived.
It was the day after Passover, the ancient Jewish festival celebrating freedom and redemption.
For several weeks the ghetto grew increasingly crowded as more and more Jews were brought in. Then it began to empty, as Jews were taken out.
About 3,000 at a time, they were marched to the train station. The waiting boxcars were filled with families. The 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, the train moved — three days of suffocation, thirst, and filth. When it stopped, David and Leah Jakubovic and their five youngest children, ages 21 to 8 — Franceska, Markus, Zoltan, Yrvin, and Alice — were in Auschwitz.
I described in that column how I had once attempted to chart a family tree, only to realize that the tree got narrower, not wider, as it grew. My family tree, I wrote, "has stumps where branches ought to be." One line after another ends abruptly, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins all murdered in the 1940s.
My father, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, made a happy marriage to a girl from Cleveland. They were together for more than 64 years.
My father rarely spoke about the Holocaust, but I pressed him to tell me what he remembered of his first day in Auschwitz.
"We arrived in Birkenau" — part of the Auschwitz complex — "on Sunday morning. It was still dark, so it must have been before 5 o'clock. All of a sudden the train stops. The doors open. People started shouting and dogs were barking. There were guards yelling 'Raus! Raus!' – 'Out! Out!'
"I remember going up the platform. We had to line up, men and women separately, and go in front of Mengele. He had a little crop in his hands and was waving, left, right, left, right. There were two or three other guys, and they were pushing you, whichever way he pointed with his crop.
"So my parents had to go to the right. Also my youngest brother and sister; they were not much more than babies, small children. What it meant — left, right — I didn't know. You just went where you were pushed.
"I went in the other direction. I tried to stay together with my brother Zoli. We had to get undressed, and they gave us the uniforms, and tattooed us. And that was it. But within a few hours Zoli and I were separated, and that was the last I ever heard of him.
"I guess they killed off my family that day, but I didn't know it until later."
Like many survivors, my father admitted that he felt guilty for having lived when virtually everyone he knew had been killed. But neither survivor's guilt nor the trauma of starvation and enslavement left him mean or embittered. Despite the cruelties he had endured, my father retained the ability to laugh and to love. He was never violent, never insulting, never harsh, never overbearing. He made a happy marriage and raised five kids in a home that was safe and stable. No one would ever have called my father an extrovert; he tended to be on the shy side, and was hardly the life of any party. Still, he was never unapproachable or intimidating — not to his neighbors, his customers, and his employees, and especially not to kids. In the days since my father's passing, my siblings and I have heard from people who were children 50 years ago, yet still remember my father's particular brand of gentle encouragement.
None of which is to say that my father was a Pollyanna, or that he was incapable of losing his temper.
One of my vivid teenage memories is of my father blowing up over a piece of bread. It was during lunch, and my sisters and brother and I were horsing around at the table. One of us flung a piece of bread at another. My father exploded.
"What's the matter with you?" he shouted. "That's food! Don't you ever let me see you treat food like that again!"
I was startled by his outburst, which wasn't typical. It wasn't until I was older that I finally understood that eruption of anger: To a man who has lived amidst hunger, seen those around him die of starvation, and nearly starved to death himself, a piece of bread is not a joke.
No doubt for the same reason, my father never complained about food. He ate what he was offered and never asked for something different. I couldn't tell you if he liked Brussels sprouts, if he preferred white bread or rye bread, or if his favorite ice cream was chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry. If he asked for coffee and was given a cup of instant lightened with powdered milk, he drank it with appreciation. If he asked me for coffee and was given a cup of freshly ground, freshly brewed Starbucks with light cream, he drank it with the same appreciation. I'm quite sure that, at some unarticulated level, my father would have regarded the very idea of a "favorite" food as a kind of ingratitude.
The classic illustration of my father's unfussy attitude toward food occurred during a visit to Boston a dozen or so years ago. My parents insisted on taking my family out to dinner, and we went to a kosher Chinese restaurant. When the waitress came to take our orders, each of us made a selection from the extensive menu. But when my father was asked what he would like, he answered, with perfect ingenuousness: "You may bring me anything."
"Dad," I said, "it's a restaurant. They need you to select something."
"Fine," he said, mostly, I suppose, to humor me. "In that case, I'll have something with beef." That was as detailed as he was going to get. He was simply incapable of being choosy about food. Even in a restaurant, where choosing your food is the whole point.
In all my years growing up in my father's house, when money was very short and luxuries were few, I cannot recall ever hearing him complain about his circumstances. It was 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.
Markus Jakubovic (later Mark Jacoby) in 1946, just a year out of the death camps. Having survived the Holocaust, he regarded every day as a bonus.
Some Holocaust survivors emerged from their ordeal furious with God for not having stopped the slaughter. Many turned their backs on faith; some became enemies of religion. Such responses my father understood only too well, but they weren't his responses. He didn't hate God for what he had lost and didn't abandon the Judaism in which he had been reared. On the contrary, he deepened it with observance, study, and prayer. He attended morning prayers faithfully — driving or walking when he was in good health, using a cane or a walker as his legs deteriorated, and finally being pushed in wheelchair when he could no longer stand on his own. His Jewishness went to the very core of his identity. In his retirement years, even at the very end when he could do little else, he studied daily. When the pandemic prevented his Talmud study group from meeting in person, he had study partners by phone or via FaceTime.
"He is a Jew who survived," I wrote about him once, "and he survived as a Jew."
On the Jewish calendar, my father drew his last breath on the 15th day of the month of Shevat. Also called Tu Bishvat, the day is a minor festival — the "birthday of the trees" — on which Jews traditionally celebrated the fruit trees of the Holy Land, and which to this day is widely commemorated by planting tree seedlings. For me and my family, Tu Bishvat will unavoidably have a bittersweet tinge from now on. I will mark the date each year by planting trees in my father's memory, and will reflect, with love and gratitude, on the opening words of the Book of Psalms:
1Happy is the man
Who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor taken the path of sinners,
Nor joined the company of scorners;
2 But his delight is in the teaching of the Lord,
And in that teaching he studies day and night.
3 He shall be like a tree
Planted by streams of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaves shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.
My father never had a byline, not in The Boston Globe or anywhere else. But his life, so rich in "eulogy virtues," has influenced my writing for more than 35 years. My father's formal education ended when he was just 13. But no man ever taught me more.
May his memory be a blessing, as his life most assuredly was.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --
Follow Jeff Jacoby on Twitter.
Discuss Jeff Jacoby's columns on Facebook.
Want to read more Jeff Jacoby? Sign up for "Arguable," his free weekly email newsletter.