My Turn: Hitler Killed My Father

By Shirley Paryzer Levy

I am approaching another anniversary of my father's death. It will be more than a dozen years since he passed away. I still don't agree with the cause of death on the certificate. The cause of death, according to the doctor, was cancer. That was not what killed my father. The cause of death was Adolf Hitler. My father was a Holocaust survivor. He lived and breathed being a Holocaust survivor. It defined him. It is on his tombstone. His whole life in America revolved around World War II. It was evident in his everyday life. I remember when we were in a hotel in the Catskill Mountains one summer, and there was a fly zapper in front of the lobby. My father heard the noise, saw the flies and mosquitoes get zapped and very quietly said, "That's how Hitler did it, too." There was no escaping his past.

I grew up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, a small community filled with European Jews. The synagogue where my father prayed was filled with men and women who were survivors as well. It wasn't until I was in the third grade that I made friends for the first time whose parents were American-born. I did not believe you could be Jewish and not suffer as much as my parents. They came to America, the "golden medina" (golden country), to enjoy the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech, and just to be free. They were not free, however, from their past and their nightmares.

I marveled at my parents' ability to live normal lives. To go through hell for four years (they were living in Poland, and the Polish Jews were the first to be shipped off to concentration camps) and still be able to go to work and make a decent living was beyond my ken. They celebrated bar mitzvahs and weddings with their friends and families, and went on vacations as if they were true Americans. I was miserable. I wanted to shout at them, "Why are you acting normal when I'm not?" I was afraid the Nazis were going to knock on our door and it would be my turn to go. Isn't that how they went off to the camps?

When I was growing up, my father never talked about his time in concentration camps (he was moved around to several). My mother, also a Holocaust survivor, did all the talking. I never knew who Dr. Seuss was, or even heard of Goldilocks or Rapunzel. My bedtime stories were about how my mother stole a potato and made it last for three days. My father's brother told us about how he cheated the Nazis by hiding under the bodies of prisoners they had shot and pushed into ditches. My father never said a word.

When the movie "Schindler's List" opened, my parents went to see it. I couldn't believe them. I yelled at my father, "Why did you have to see what you've already lived through? Why subject yourself to more pain?" My father answered that he had an obligation to go. He said the world had to see what it was like, and he had to go to be a part of it. He was so proud when members of the Shoah Foundation asked him to be recorded for the Holocaust Memorial Museum. He lived in Arizona at the time, and they went to his house for the interview. In front of the camera he told his story. He now lives on in the archives with other survivors.

When my father felt the end was near, he started to obsess about his past. He decided that if he didn't start talking about the Holocaust, who would remember? He made a series of audiotapes beginning with his life in Europe, leading up to the Holocaust and ending with his wedding to my mother in Germany in 1946. When he finished the tapes—there were seven in all—he mailed them to me. He would ask me at least once a week if I'd listened to them. I told him no; I just couldn't, because there was pain in his voice and I couldn't bear to hear it. A year after he died I tried to listen to the tapes. I could not. I knew he was no longer suffering, but I would not be able to tell him that I knew he was finally at peace.

I don't know if he felt the Nazis would rise again, but I know for sure Hitler never left him. A friend of mine who recently lost her mother told me that two weeks before her death, her mother started acting in a way that made my friend think she was hallucinating about being back in a concentration camp. She was once again being tormented by the Nazis. We agreed Hitler got her in the end. Just as he got my father. Hitler didn't end at 6 million. He is still killing the Jews. It is 6 million and counting.

Paryzer Levy Lives In Queens, N.Y.