To My Dad

Happy 80th Birthday Daddy.

Having spent a total of over 22 years living abroad, and on this, your 80th birthday I take a moment to reflect…on you… on my Dad

For all of my life, when having been at home with you or in our local Shul, I’ve simply been known as ‘Joe’s boy’

As I’d return from my extended trips abroad, I’d hear again and again, the coo-ing and ahh-ing of people saying “you’re the spitting image of your father” or “the acorn didn’t fall far from the tree, did it?

Even Ziggy Shipper (survivor of the Lodz ghetto liquidation) did it this last Yom Hashoah, at Frances’s memorial Holocaust Remembrance Service at Bushey Shul.

It’s always made me smile.

I’ve always admired your strength, Dad.

You’ve walked the earth with a quiet, inner energy, an indomitable, unannounced power and clear strength of character that I watched and marvelled at, as a child and ever since. You always created a powerful presence wherever you went. In a room full of a hundred people…. without making a flourishing entrance, nor loudly speaking nor wildly gesturing, everyone felt your presence.

I’ve seen you on TV, in the papers, listened to you on the radio and watched as you’ve recited Kaddish standing next to Benjamin Netanyahu, before 40,000 thousand, gathered at the pro-Israel rally in Trafalgar Square in 2002. I’ve seen you light candles of remembrance in Westminster Cathedral on the 60th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz- Birkenau with Her Majesty the Queen of England, other dignitaries and fellow survivors, have watched you on the big screen making anappeal for funds to support the work of HET and chatting to The Rt Hon Gordon Brown in 2006 and watched the video of you an enjoying cream cakes in the garden of Buckingham Palace at one of Her Majesty The Queen’s renowned summer Garden Parties.

I’ve watched you stand taller than those with great wealth or wide influence; I’ve watched people from all walks of life, defer to you, humble father of mine, and through it all, I’ve been silently in awe of both your mental fortitude and your inner strength.
This is as it should be.

I have also heard things from under your breath that still brings tears to my eyes, today (even as I write this). Things that you rightly choose not to weave into your stories. Horrors that you’ve left for others to record. Haunting things another son should, I hope, should never hear from a beloved father again.

I have lived with some of your unique mannerisms and that it has only been in later life that I came to understand what they meant and where your mind and memory had wandered, that made you have those reactions. I realised that though a lifetime has passed the memories are fresh. That though the edges of the pictures have curled in quiet archives, the frenzied sounds of barking dogs and the metallic click of cocked weapons (and much worse), can never be quietened across the years.

In watching you, as you told your story, and in reading many 1,000’s of the letters sent to you by the many learners (most of which we are not, unfortunately, permitted to show here) I struggled to understand why the link between you the children was so strong? In a ‘sound-bite’ driven, modern world, where attention spans are seriously diminished, why was your story so impactful? Why did listeners become so engrossed? Why was it such an emotional experience for them and why did they make such long lines and patiently queue after your talks to shake your hand and hug you?

What was that magical silver thread that invariably wove itself like a hypnotic web between you and even the most angry and challenging of the kids (and there were always several of those in a room)?

Beautiful to see, though it was, the ‘why’ begged an answer.

I read many of the letters that they sent you afterwards, in my own attempt to try to understand this question. They recounted shockingly frank, open, highly personal and extremely emotional outpourings. Some contained examples of sexual, physical, financial and emotion abuse. Some of bullying. So many told of fear and of isolation and a good few, of despair.

Most, though, spoke of gratitude to you; and of relief that your story had given them the strength to carry on.

Many, showed the wisdom (unbelievably) to forgive.

And mostly all spoke of renewed courage within them to go forward in the knowledge they could overcome whatever obstacle lay before them, with a straight back, an outstretched chest and an indomitable spirit.

Genius, Dad, genius.

And then, I think, I understood.

I understood that irrespective of the enormity of the challenge, whatever is the biggest thing to have hurt a person, it is, simply, the biggest challenge they have faced. There’s no comparison between their pain and yours – there is, if you’ll please excuse this, a parity. Whether that be parents in divorce, a bully’s punch or the sharp sarcasm and demeaning comments of a thoughtless peer. If it’s that thing which has, in their short lives, caused them pain, it is, for them, the same

I grasped it.

It was all so very personal.

I realised that the majority of those you had spoken to, with varying degrees, experienced sadness, fear, isolation and loneliness in their normal daily trials of life.

In your story, they saw their own. In your survival, they saw their own pathway through the mists of their own fears and concerns. They found hope. They realised they were not alone…They clung tightly to that silver thread that bound them to you, they regain control of their lives and worked their way back to a warmer, sunnier place; with your help.

Your story of over 65 years ago transported itself relevantly to these young students and gave meaning and empowerment to them, now, not just a retelling of history, from then!

What greater gift can one give another, than hope and the strength to carry on in face of their greatest trials?

On a recent retreat lead by Thomas Power, friend and mentor, and supported by a wonderful group of 10 people, many of whom I now call friends, and after a good few hours of searching, I was able to define, in two words, my own core process.

It is Unleashing Courage.

That’s what I try, within my interactions and endeavours, to do for others… Clearly the acorn didn’t fall too far from the tree after all.

It was those letters that got you out of bed to drive miles and miles to school after school around the country. From the high and mighty at Eton to the rough inner city schools, daubed in graffiti and dominated by young thugs.

On those occasions when you felt too tired, I’d hear you say “ I must go!” “If I can help just one more child…..I cannot simply not go!”

Darling father of mine, I hope that I too have something in my life, at 80, that drives such passion within me and gives such purpose to my life. I hope I can manifest your indomitable resolve.

Even in these,your twilight years, you are a giant amongst men, Dad.

Which is why Frances and I wanted to create this blog for you.

  • To celebrate in joy that you are here with us on your 80th birthday
  • To be able to tell you, with the sun shining on your face, that we love, honour and respect you
  • To tell you how proud we are of what you have overcome and what you have achieved
  • To tell you how proud we are of you, for giving hope and help to all the thousands of young learners you have inspired

Too much of your life is held in silent archives and darkened boxes. Too much will never again see the light of day. Too much will remain merely as historical record.

We wanted you to proudly and powerfully stand, as a survivor, in the virtual world, forever

We wanted this page to live on, in deferent respect to the memory of your family that was lost and to all those countless others whose lost lives must not fade from memory and to the one a half million children who lost their lives and weren’t able to bring their contribution to humanity

We wanted your voice to be able ring out, forever, on the web, to recite Kaddish for your lost family and for all the families, long after we have all returned to Hashem.

In 2007, at a report back session by some students who had been a part of the Lesson from Auschwitz Project, an evening put on by the Holocaust Education Trust at the Imperial War Museum, I asked, in light of everything that had happened related to The Shoah over the last decades, if it was enough?

Was it enough that so much has been done by so many to ensure that those lost in the Holocaust will never be forgotten; that its lessons will be always shared and taught into the future. That it will not all have been in vain and that it cannot be denied nor ignored?

Was there anything more that you felt needed to be done?

You mentioned that despite all the days of remembrance, sadly the one outstanding day, yet to be established, is a remembrance day within our own Jewish, religious calendar and written into our own prayer books and enshrined as a part of our own story, for generations tocome.

…And then you simply gazed into infinity and, with a half smile, and that indomitable twinkle in your rheumy eyes, said, to no one in particular…..

“Buchenwald to Buckingham Palace… quite a journey…”

————-

Even though we’ve lived apart,
I do not love you less.
There’s provision in the heart
For storing tenderness.
There’s a love that like a star
Must reconfigure space
To turn the far-flung wanderers
Towards some predestined grace.
Time matters not, nor pain, nor death,
Nor fate as hard as stone.
This truth needs but a single breath,
And that we now have known.
Ah, Father! What a joy to live
With love at last expressed!
Life has no greater gift to give
Than that with which we’re blessed.
-unknown

————-

A bouquet for Mum

Behind every successful man….

In creating this page to Dad it would be highly remiss not to mention our wonderful Mum, without whom, none of Dad’s trips around the country would have been possible.

Sylvia is just one of those rare gems…..

As kids, if the snow had fallen, she’d have a pressure cooker of hot chicken curry and a pot of basmati rice in the boot of the car & we’d find ourselves in the New Forest, building snowmen with our friends and noshing hot curry in the car park- what fun.

Better than any Scout master, she’d have mugs filled with chicken soup and buns loaded with steamy viennas on cold fire work nights and she’d often pick us up from school, with a change of clothes in the car, to head off, immediately, hundreds of miles, to visit friends and family for busy weekends of fun.

And when I’d come home, from my early years of clubbing, at 2am, there would be my Mum, with baking trays freshly out of the oven, or pots of food cooling on the cooker, because this person was sick, or that person needed some help at home etc.

She has always been a giving helper.

She has always thought of others, before herself.

She’s always been busy.

Over these many years of working with HET and travelling to schools scattered around the highways and bye-ways, Mum has made phone calls, hotel reservations, chased correspondence, planned routes, packed the car full of Dad’s books, managed hectic schedules and simply oiled all the essential activities needed to enable Dad to have travelled so widely and spoken so often.

For all you efforts, Mum, you know that everyone is so grateful.

Frances & I, and our respective families send you all our love, today, too, as we celebrate together, this wonderful milestone.

We hope you enjoy these flowers.

Josef Perl's book,
Faces in the Smoke

A letter from Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks.