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Learning to Appreciate My Family’s Holocaust History

Elderly man and teen boy lighting a candle_14180370 (photo: IFCJ)

I remember growing up in the United States and feeling embarrassed by my Eastern European parents. My mom and dad were born and raised in Romania, spoke English with a thick accent, ate foods I struggled to pronounce and didn’t particularly care for, and were both baffled as to why their son cared at all about sports, baggy jeans, and MTV.  

I recall being so jealous of my friend’s parents – how they spoke English effortlessly and how my friends’ dads could carry on a conversation about baseball or hockey. Looking back, these details seem trivial. But at the time, as an adolescent trying to figure out life and what type of person I wanted to become, these issues seemed like life and death for me.

To my parents, whose childhood was cut short by WWII, life was about survival. Earning a living and keeping your family safe was all that mattered; everything else – like music, sports, and video games – seemed trivial to them, and to a large extent, excessive.  

Fast forward two decades, and my attitude towards my parents has radically shifted. Today, my father is 84 years old – my mother passed away years ago – and my relationship with him, and how I view my dad in general, is completely different from how it was when I was growing up.

I’ve been blessed with four kids of my own. And it’s possible that because I myself am now a father that I can relate differently to mine. I am no longer ashamed of my father’s thick accent. I now appreciate the world that he came from, the experiences he had as a child growing up under the dark shadows of the Holocaust, and the wisdom he has gained from experiencing both the darkest side of humanity as well as the brightest light in the rebirth of the State of Israel.

My father was born in Romania very close to the border with Hungary. In fact, the distance between his house and the border is about the distance I hope to be able to jog by the end of my pre-summer fitness training. However, for my father and his immediate family, those few kilometers paved the way for their escape. They’re the reason I am alive to write about our family still today.

The area where both my parents grew up was part of Austria-Hungary prior to WWI. After the war it became part of Romania. Both my parents spoke Hungarian – which was their secret language when they didn’t want me to understand their conversation – and they also spoke Romanian.

My father was ten years old when Hitler rose to power. He recalls the fear that swept over the entire Jewish community when he was a young boy, and he always tells me, usually on the way home from my local synagogue, of how fervently they prayed each Sabbath in his childhood synagogue in Romania during the war. I always interpret that as his nice way of saying, “You call that praying? You should see how we once prayed!”

However, not everyone in my family survived. My father’s grandparents, his aunts and uncles, and all their children were wiped out in Auschwitz. Hungary was closer to Germany, and the SS managed to round up and exterminate Hungary’s Jewish population before the end of the war.

Living just a few kilometers from the border, my grandfather did not sit idle. My father recalls how my grandfather would walk to the train station regularly to find Jews who had somehow escaped. He would sometimes bring an entire family he had found at the train station, scared and uncertain of their next move, back to his home.

My dad recalls how his parents hid these families in their basement, and how my father’s job was to bring them food each day. The Jews my grandfather found at the train station had escaped towns and villages where Jews had been rounded up for concentration camps. They would hide out with my grandparents until my grandfather managed to get them papers to escape to Russia, and in some cases the U.S.

Towards the end of the war, the German Army broke through the Romanian-Hungarian border. At that point, my father and his family began to flee eastward towards Russia. Often caught in the crossfire, my father’s family miraculously escaped, and managed to stay alive until the war ended.

Today, when my dad speaks to my children with his thick Eastern European accent, I am filled with pride and gratitude. I feel blessed that my children, two generations removed from the horrors my father saw as a kid, can hear firsthand accounts from their grandfather about what took place in the Holocaust and how fortunate Jews are to have a state of our own.

My father is a living memory of a past our generation cannot afford to forget. I no longer feel any shame or embarrassment because my father doesn’t know or care about who won the Super Bowl. As an adult, I realize there are things which are far more important, and I thank God for the blessing of the parents He gave me.

-by Ami Farkas, a Fellowship writer in Israel


This Holocaust Remembrance Day, pledge to stand with Israel against another Holocaust.

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