Graduation 1979, the author with his parents and brother

Graduation 1979, Dr. Rotbart with his parents and brother. Photo courtesy of NYT.

Read a really powerful essay this morning in the New York Times and thought I’d share it with you.

Poised to attend his daughter’s graduation from NYU this month, a man named Harley Rotbart, M.D. was reminded of his medical school graduation in May 1979. His father, a survivor of Auschwitz who was orphaned in the war, was never able to get a proper education past middle school. When he came to the states he made his living as a fruit peddler:

He was the most brilliant fruit peddler in the history of fruit peddling, the smartest man I ever knew,” writes Dr. Rotbart.

Yet, he had a crushing inferiority complex and felt he stood out for all the wrong reasons, mainly his lack of education and thick Polish accent. He was intimidated by all the accomplishments of those around him. But at his son’s graduation a curious thing happened. Dr. Rotbart describes the emotional scene that occurred immediately after the ceremony:

After hugs from my brother and Mom, I moved on to Dad. What happened at that moment I will never forget. Crying loudly, Dad fell to his knees in what can only be described as a total emotional breakdown. He shook and shivered and sobbed. People all around turned to stare, but he didn’t notice or didn’t care. The usual self-consciousness was gone. As I dropped to my knees to face him, he held me like never before. Everyone backed away to give us space; a few applauded. Strangers took pictures. Dad and I stayed on our knees, crying and hugging for a long time, until we both had the strength to stand up. Then, holding onto each other and to my Mom and brother, we made our way out of the auditorium. We didn’t stop at the reception for cookies or punch. We just kept walking until we felt the rain on our faces.

Only later did I fully realize what had happened. On that day, and again in a similar scene at my brother’s journalism school ceremony the next year, Dad was liberated from Auschwitz. He was no longer “142178,” a Nazi victim. My father could now stand face to face with doctors, journalists and other accomplished Americans. Although uneducated himself, he had educated his kids, and that was plenty good enough. Better than good enough: it was great. No longer bound by the restraints life had forced on him, he reveled in what this new country had given him. He reveled in his family and in his fruit truck. He reveled in personally defeating Hitler. At his sons’ graduations, he graduated to freedom.

I am so touched by this man’s capacity for love and understanding for his father.  The bittersweet release that his father felt, which took more than 34 years to occur, was certainly a long-time coming. It’s sad but it’s also happy. Many, perhaps most, survivors never get (or got) a sense of closure and freedom in their lifetime. But his father did, and it happened twice. Must’ve been a beautiful scene to happen upon. And I love Dr. Rotbart’s ability to tell it in such a sweet and loving way.

Oh, Dr. Rotbart is a pediatrician and author of several books about parenting, one of which is called, No Regrets Parenting. Sounds like he learned a lot from his dad. If you click through to the essay in the Times, you’ll see several photos of his dad. Take a close look at his smile in the two fruit-related pictures. It’s genuine and gorgeous. The best kind of smile.

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