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"Never In My Lifetime"
copyright 2007 by H. Paul Shuch

The vehemence in my father's voice was, frankly, shocking. I had always considered him rational, flexible, open-minded. But here, he had drawn a line. "Never in my lifetime," he exclaimed firmly, "will I set foot in Poland again."

His road to America (where the streets were paved with gold) was not a smooth one. In the 1930s, the Golden Door, guarded by Lady Liberty herself, had slammed shut in the face of Eastern Europe's Jews. So, Dad had followed a circuitous path. From his native Kielce, in southeastern Poland, he had worked his way north to Danzig (now Gdansk, but then a German port). Sailing on a British ship, he reached Liverpool, where he stayed long enough to teach himself English (practing by conversing with the dock workers, which explained his colorful vocabulary), and to become a subject of His Majesty's empire, the one on which the sun would never set.

As a British subject, father was free to sail for Canada. Upon his arrival in Toronto, he learned that the border South was open and unguarded. So, he boarded a train for Chicago -- and nobody checked his papers. I learned early in life that not all illegal immigrants speak Spanish.

By the time I came into the world, Dad had gained US citizenship through the expedient of military service. Though I was born under the Sign of the L, I had the good fortune of not having to stay long in Chicago. The Army had sent Dad to Florida, and when the Second World War ended, he opted not to face another northern winter. So, he moved my mother, my toddler sister, and my infant self to Miami, where I grew up surrounded by another generation of refugees (and these ones did speak Spanish).

Many years later (with Dad still residing in Miami), I journeyed from my Pennsylvania home to Germany, to visit my own son Andrew, who by then was living in reunified Berlin. The collapse of the Iron Curtain had personal significance for us, and Andrew and I decided to seek out our roots. Before we left for Poland, I rang up my father and asked him if he might care to join us on our journey. I'd send him a ticket, I offered.

My father was emphatic. "Never in my lifetime will I set foot in Poland again," exclaimed my father with a firmness of voice that startled me. Yes, he had made the monumental effort to assimilate, to belong in his adopted country, to become a "true Yankee." But, I suspect, it was bitterness surrounding the Holocost that played the strongest role in his vehemence. In any case, Andrew and I honored his wishes, and journeyed to Poland without him.

Fast forward to my father's death, just over two years ago. I had the opportunity to spend some of his final days with him, and in his lucid hours, we discussed his wishes. As is our family custom (and contrary to Jewish law -- my dad was always something of a rebel), he wanted to be cremated. As I had done for my stepmother and my uncle (from my airplane), he entrusted me with scattering his ashes.

Only, my father had a rather warped sense of humor -- so I think you can guess what happened next. I carried his ashes to Berlin, so that my son and I could scatter them in Poland -- thus honoring the letter of my father's wishes. He never did set foot again in Poland, at least not within his lifetime.

To this day, across the gulf that divides this world from the next, I can still hear my father laughing.

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this page last updated 14 June 2007
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