‘I am a secondary Holocaust survivor’

My father, Bernard R. Wieder arrived in America in 1923, 18 years old with plans to bring his entire family here from Maramoros Szighet, the same small Hungarian town where Elie Wiesel was born.

My father worked in Miami Beach as a busboy and then as a waiter in 1923 at the Nemo hotel in the winters and gambled at the dog track and horse tracks. He bought some striped pants and promoted himself to headwaiter. He said that Miami Beach had only two policemen then, and one of them was let go in the summer. “Nothing for them to do,” he said.

He met my mother at the Miami Beach Kennel Club. She was vacationing with her mother.

A man enters the Sachsenhausen death camp through the gate on International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2016. Markus Schreiber AP

In 1924, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, discriminating against Eastern European Jews. Dad had six brothers and sisters. He sent insulin to his diabetic father until 1939, when the war erupted with Hitler’s panzers crushing Poland. Dad had married my mother in November 1938, planning to take her to Hungary to meet his parents.

That never happened. His entire family perished, except for two younger sisters. They came to New York in 1946 and built lives for themselves, living in Brooklyn until they died in the 1990s. My father died in 1990.

During the war, he worked in Long Island City, in New York, at the Sperry plant making Norden bombsights. Those bombsights were very accurate, taking control of an airplane to accurately hit the target. Unfortunately, Auschwitz was not bombed and the killing there continued. He returned to Miami Beach and transitioned into the hotel industry.

It was through my mother’s brother that Dad was able to circumnavigate the anti-Semitic immigration barriers to get his sisters into the United States, including masquerading as a colonel in the U.S. Army to get to Europe to find them.

I remember when I was 3, my mother called me to the phone for what was called, in those days, a “transatlantic call.” My father had been gone 18 months, taking an apartment in Paris where he could base himself for the search and make connections to bring his sisters to America. They had been transferred from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, outside Hamburg, in the British zone of occupation, which is where he found them — one was 60 pounds, the other 70 pounds. They carried with them tales of the gassing of their siblings and their mother. My grandfather, luckily, died before that of diabetic shock, in 1940.

Even though he spent the war in America, my father was a survivor, too. After the war, he spoke Auschwitz every day, read about it continually and, until the day he died, carried theguilt of being unable to save his family. “I have no family, he said.”

How agonizing for a son to hear that. He cogitated in a darkened room, had his meals sent in and, at times, could not speak to anyone. As I grew up, I did not fully understand the depth of his despair. He wept for years. He developed a schizophrenic relationship with religion. He popped phenobarbital, and never overcame his depression — and he visited it upon my sister, my mother and me.
He was warm and generous with us, but emotionally he was not there. We children gravitated toward our mother, who tried unsuccessfully to protect us from his emotional storms.

I did not have the skills then to talk to him. I think often how different it would be if I could just talk to him one time and tell him it was not his fault, that his guilt should abate, that he could let it go. But it is not to be.

Now, as a man with my own grandchildren, I still cannot reconcile my Holocaust-torn relationship with my father, the damage it caused our family and the scars from it that I carry to this very day, 70 years after Auschwitz.

David Wieder is an attorney based on Miami Beach.

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