It is truly amazing to consider that if my father were alive today, this would be his 113th birthday.
He was a teenager when World War I broke out and always said that it was the dissolution of the monarchy of Austria-Hungary (eerily reminiscent in hindsight of the Kennedy assassination(s) that marked the end of one America and the beginning of another) – and that end to the monarchy in Vienna and of course the Communist revolution in Russia shaped the techno-corporate world of today.
He first came to the United States from Prague in 1934 as part of a trade delegation – he worked as an economist and bank executive as Hitler rose to power in Germany. He raised a family (my half-brother, his first wife) and prior to that, as a bachelor, travelled to the French Riviera with his best friend, the famous German actor Curt Goetz, and Valerie von Martens, a Czech actress whom he introduced to Goetz and who became his wife; they eventually spent the war years (WWII) in Hollywood before retiring in Lichtenstein. I remember vaguely meeting him and spending a Christmas at his home.
My father was imprisoned by the Germans and survived the war in Therezienstadt with his first wife and son, and his mother, my grandmother. After the war he divorced his wife and gained custody of his son (draw your own conclusions) and met my mother. At the time Prague was under the occupation of the Communists and when my mother was pregnant my father managed to get us to Vienna without governmental permission.
He was set to join us just before my birth, when my brother ran away to his mother and my father asked his own mother (my grandmother who I never knew) what he should do. She told him to go – that he had a new family – and he left his son in Prague to join us in Vienna.
We arrived in New York after six years waiting for papers in Vienna (where he was terrified of being abducted and returned to Prague as a defector – we always remained in the American sector).
My father had no job and went to night school to learn English. Neither his sister nor brother could or would really help and he worked as a ski salesman at Macy’s at age 55, lacing boots on his knees, the only job he could get because he was from Austria and they assumed he knew skis – my father of course never skied a day in his life. He played billiards and smoked cigars in cafes.
From this background my father eventually became the treasurer and confidant of the CEO of a large international incentive travel company, so that he was able to see me bar mitzvah and attend Tufts University. In 1971 when I graduated college, he arranged for me to go to Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco as a tour guide. I kept that “job” for 7 years, while he encouraged me to travel the world and ride it out because I would never have such an opportunity again.
During this period we returned to Vienna for a few days where my father reunited with his first son, Hansl. As one might imagine, it was a terribly emotional time and the only time I can remember my father crying – which he maintained was due to my brother’s poor health. My brother returned to Prague where he worked as a manager of musicians, and my dad was proud of his survival skills.
During college I remember coming home and going to religious services to please my father, and getting into political and philosophical arguments. I once said to him, “I don’t need money. Money doesn’t matter to me,” and my father carried those words to his grave hoping that he had taught me that financial responsibility was a requisite for safety in an unsafe world.
From these beginnings my father managed to win a settlement in a ten year struggle with the German government for his pension and my mother’s pension, and when I moved to Los Angeles he assured me that if I was “settled” he would retire.
Since my father had taken the subway every morning for about 25 years and worked harder than anyone I ever knew, I took this with many grains of salt. However, after I lived here in L.A. for a year, my parents visited and we went to La Jolla for the weekend. That Monday afternoon when I spoke to my father, he informed me that “just like that” he had put down a deposit on an apartment “near the tennis courts” and he was retiring and they were moving to San Diego.
He survived one of the earlier heart bypass surgeries to take daily walks and play bridge in his beloved La Jolla until his death about six lovely years later in 1986. My mother would say lovingly that “he is retired, but I’m not,” when he returned form the bridge club where other widows clamored for his company and attention.
As I write this I am tearing up because besides all of this, my father was incredibly kind and very affectionate and I can still remember driving into La Jolla and he would pretend to just be out for a walk, but we both knew he was out waiting for me, and when he saw my car he would raise his walking stick into the air with glee. He had a rich mane of white hair through which my mother and I loved to run our hands.
We would sit for hours talking about everything and anything (even women, believe it or not) and he was the wisest and most intelligent man I ever met. He was also my best friend and I miss him every day.
But today the scale of the span of his life, the wisdom he accumulated, and the depth of his achievements and love, are known to me in a way I could have never imagined.
I suppose we will be reunited in due course.
A sweet memoir. Was the woman in the cropped photo your mother? If so, it would not have diminished the story to have “pictured” them both.
No she was a family friend. Thanks for the comment and for noticing.