Two armed guards with tasers and guns strapped to their hips will search our packages and purses as we enter my synagogue to attend services on Rosh Hashanah. A guard will run a wand over all the men as they spread their arms. I will be accompanied by my two grandsons, who are almost twelve and ten-and-a half. Will they be frightened? I hope not. I am on hyper-alert.
“In Europe and the U.S., rising political forces on both the right and the left have revived old patterns that scapegoat Jews for society’s ills,” Yarolslav Trofimov details in his recent essay in The Wall Street Journal. Every week the news is filled with stories of Jews being harassed on university campuses, beaten or stabbed and in the past year murdered while praying in synagogues not just in Germany, France, or Sweden but in the United States—the country that gave my parents, both survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the freedom to start new lives without fear. That was the story I always heard. But now, writing my family’s history, buried memories surface.
On a bright Sunday afternoon in the fall before I entered third grade, my parents, my younger sister and I went house hunting in Riverdale, New York. We were dressed in our finest as if we were going to synagogue, “templom” as my parents called it in Hungarian. It was a time when Ike was president but Elvis was king and we lived at 1755 Clay Avenue in the Bronx. We called it “our apartment house.” The six-story, yellow brick, pre-war apartment building had black iron fire escapes, a creaky wood elevator and an intercom that no longer worked. The short ride to Riverdale brought us to a far tonier section of the Bronx: a leafy neighborhood of apartment complexes with doormen and large important-looking houses.
As my father slowed our car in front of a cream-colored brick house, he said to me, “Helgalè, put the Magen David inside your blouse.” I loved the gold necklace with the small Star of David encircled with blue enamel that he’d given me. I had worn it proudly every day since kindergarten. It was the first and only time he made this request. I didn’t question him.
A short man waited in front of the house. He shook hands with my father. The smell of fresh paint and plaster hit me as we entered the empty, new building. I thought it enormous as we all went from room to room. My parents exchanged looks. My father asked questions. The agent smiled as he patted my sister’s tow-head and said, “You’re lucky, today is our first showing. Don’t worry, Mr. Berliner, we don’t welcome Jews here.”
My father nodded, thanked the man and led us to our car. He seemed neither surprised nor frightened. I was.
I called him Deddy, even after I could speak English fluently. When I married, I called him Apu, “father” in Hungarian. So did my husband. He loved his new name. He felt it was a sign of respect. In my case, a matured love. He was tall and distinguished looking, always carefully attired in his custom-tailored suits with a starched white handkerchief finishing his breast pocket.
“In America, after the war, some thought I was a Nazi,” he told me when I could understand. His accent was a stew of several Eastern European languages, including German. From the time I was a child, he spoke to me as if I were an adult and expected me to behave as one. At the same time, he imposed draconian curfews and dating restrictions when I was in high school. My mother slept; he waited, wide awake with worry when I went out at night. I envied my friends’ freedom.
By the time I was in college, Apu had career ambitions for me and wanted to share stories. He told me about his business travels throughout the US in the 1950s. On two-lane roads he and a German mechanic crisscrossed America in a pickup with two motorcycles in the cargo bed convincing dealers to sell his Zundapp and later Ducati bikes. His English became fluent. He learned about “kikes” from men thinking he was not one. I heard about a famous roadway in the South where he was greeted with signs that read No Jews or Dogs Allowed. Growing up, I don’t remember his wearing a short sleeve shirt in public. I thought he just didn’t like them. By the ’70s, his summer wardrobe included short sleeves—a Band-Aid concealed A-6108 tattooed on his left forearm. I asked why. “I don’t want people staring. I don’t want questions,” he replied.
He understood that side of America. The message I received from him was that anti-Semitism was a part of life. He expected it from some people. He created a way, a mindset, to survive for the next round in life—and come out a winner.
I regret not asking him more questions. I regret not being able to listen to all he wanted to tell me, not letting him finish his stories about the war because I couldn’t stand to see my strong-willed, know-it-all, seen-it-all father crumble. I will never know what kept him going when his beloved brother died in his arms days before he was liberated by American soldiers in Germany. I never asked him how or why he didn’t give up looking for my mother, to whom he was married before the war, until he found her in Sweden six months later. And we never spoke about the children, my brother and sister, who were murdered.
He wanted me to understand how the “real world works” and that as he would say, “there will always be evil in the world. The kuntz, the trick, is to be able to find the good and make the most of it.”
A year after we went house hunting, my family moved to a spacious apartment in an area of Riverdale that welcomed Jews. That first Rosh Hashanah in our new home, the year Eisenhower was re-elected and Elvis recorded “Blue Suede Shoes,” we walked to a modern Orthodox synagogue free of guards armed with guns and tasers—my parents eager to build an American life.
They became American citizens practically the minute after they were living in the US for five years. I have my father’s passport as proof. He voted that year. He brought me to an Adlai Stevenson For President rally in the Bronx. Many years later, he donated specially outfitted motorcycles to the Peace Corp because as he often told me “The US gave me life again.”
My father taught me resilience and what it means to be Jewish and proud in America. I work with hope to pass on that legacy.
Helga Berliner Weinbach received her BA from NYU and her MBA from UCLA. She has taught history and pursued a career in banking and commercial real estate and written through it all. For the Shoah Foundation, she has also had the privilege of recording over 40 testimonies of Holocaust survivors and the American soldiers who rescued them. She lives in California with her husband. Her most recent essay is on hevria.com. She can also be found on Twitter @weinbachh.