My father was an honorable and a decent man.
I still remember the first advice he gave me. “Don’t lie,” he said. “It’s so much easier to live your life when you don’t have to remember each version of the story you told different people.” He was honest to a fault. Never tried to manipulate others. Lived the simple life and left worrying about the more complicated decisions in our household to my mother.
My father grew up in a village north of Warsaw, in a place still bearing our family name. I remember visiting that place while a preteen. The kitchen, bedroom, and storage area were complemented by a chicken coop, all under a thatched roof. The grandparents covered clay floors with straw for easier cleaning, since the chickens wandered everywhere. There was a well in the middle of the yard, and a wooden outhouse behind a barn. His father, whom I ever met, and his mother, whom I remember well, used to live there together with his two brothers and two sisters.
From the youngest age, my father’s interests strayed away from the typical family farm activities. No physical labor for him. Instead, he buried himself in books. For my father, it was not enough to finish elementary school, which at that time was already unusual. He applied to, and graduated from, the prestigious gymnasium in Ciechanów, the county seat.
My father didn’t stop there. He wanted to be a lawyer. In those days, in-between-war Poland, besides the will to study, one had to have money to pay the tuition. So, his father, in a complicated land-for-money deal with his neighbor, made it possible for my father to go to the nation’s capital. A humble country boy became a proud law student.
I often think how bold it was of me to move from Poland to the United States, and to start my new life here. I know it was even more audacious for him, in the early years of the 20th century, to move from a deep country dwelling to Warsaw, and become a leading lawyer for the big Polish corporation, ‘Społem’.
After the war, and the Russification of Polish political and economic systems, the population was more or less forcefully persuaded to join the Communist party. He never did. The system, in his opinion, was corrupt, and, in all honesty, he didn’t want to have any part of it. But the corporate management still valued his skills and respected his views, and they let him function outside their party structure. He often told me that all Poles should join the Communist party, no exceptions. It wouldn’t be any difference between us, and no reason for discrimination of the non-members.
But, having achieved so much in his professional life, his involvement in my life was rather passive. He taught me by example. Honesty and integrity were his hallmarks. He knew how to dress, and each time he visited the place he was born, my father presented either a new suit, coat, or hat and shoes. He was the eldest among the siblings, but the family labeled him as a brainiac, and shielded from the mundanity of everyday life. Somehow, they thought his heart was fragile, so they didn’t bother him with everyday stress. When their mother died, they decided not to tell him—not to weaken his heart.
But I still remember the beginning of Virgil’s Aeneid, the Latin verse he taught me before I started my elementary school. Like playing my violin, he asked me to recite “Arma virumque cano” at many family gatherings. It came handy when In high school Latin class we discussed the epic poem, and he introduced me already to this classic. Or when he showed me how to shave, when I still had a clear face.
My father was a bright man. His classical education included Greek and Latin. He also knew German, and that saved him from the gates of Auschwitz, when, after the roundup, the occupant sent him to that hell on earth.
My relationship with my father is the inspiration behind my writings, covertly or overtly focused on a father-son relationship.
I saw his minimal engagement in raising me even more striking after seeing how my friends interacted with their fathers. So, when our two sons were born, I made a point of taking a more active part in their lives. We also have two daughters, and I had to balance the parenting time between all four. Fortunately, my wife could spend time with the girls, while I devoted more time to our sons.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
From generation to generation.