To Survive and Thrive

Walter was born in Austria in 1930 with twin brothers arriving two years later.  The three boys lived with their parents in a comfortable home in close proximity to their large extended family.  Fritzi was an at home mother, and Max owned a store.

In his eighth year Walt’s life irreparably changed; while in the town square a parade approached. Walt stood on the sidelines enthralled and smiling, excited by the noise, cars and soldiers. Someone handed him a little flag and he enthusiastically greeted the parade, cheering and clapping with the others; a great day in the life of an eight year old boy.

Max, who happened to be heading home during the parade saw Walt waving the flag and watching the parade. He approached and harshly took the flag from Walt’s little hands, dragged him home and gave him a spanking. “We do not cheer for Nazis.” Walt did not really understand what he did wrong; and did not know that a little Jewish boy had no business watching a Nazi parade, much less cheering one on.

Max had the foresight to understand the family was no longer safe in Austria. While others decided to “stay and see,” he decided to “pay and flee.” After several unsuccessful attempts to immigrate to the United States, Max bribed an official who signed his immediate family’s papers so they could leave the country. His store and home were seized without compensation and the family left with a suitcase each, boarding a ship to Shanghai. They left behind cousins, aunts, uncles, friends and the life they had known. When they said goodbye it was final. Other than one aunt, the entire family was murdered.  

After an arduous journey, they arrived in Shanghai and were greeted by distant relatives who brought them to the Jewish Ghetto. For a decade they lived together in a two room flat, one room being the kitchen complete with a toilet hidden by a makeshift screen. The boys went to a Jewish school and Max set up a new store.  After completing eighth grade Walt left school to help make money to support the family.

Max continued petitioning the United States and after 10 years an extremely distant relative sponsored them which allowed them to immigrate.  Fritzi unfortunately had tuberculosis and her application was denied. Max and Fritzi made the impossible choice and decided Max and the boys would go alone. They knowingly lied and told the boys their mother would be on the next ship after she recovered.

The boys boarded the ship to America and never saw their mother again. When Walt tells this story, as and says, “I never saw her again,” his voice cracks, and tears roll down his face. He is now 87 years old and still carries these scars.

He arrived in the United States when he was 18 starting his life over for the second time. Despite the adversity and loss he faced, Walt, my father, refused to give up. Rising above the horrors of his childhood, he greeted life with humor, compassion and optimism. He not only survived what life dealt him, but against all odds, thrived.

My family has what we call “the Gewing sense of humor;” it ran from Max to my dad to me and my siblings and our kids. We all tell the same stupid jokes repeatedly, each time cracking up, even if no one else is laughing.  Every time someone asks for directions Dad suggests they ‘take the duck way.’ He waits for a response, “what’s the duckway?” ”Oh, about five pounds.” Every. Single. Time. It tickles me when my children make the same jokes.

His humor helped his emotional healing and is an integral part of his psyche. To illustrate, I came home one day to find him sitting with a large bowl of walnuts, meticulously cracking them in perfect halves. Once halved, he removed the meat, replaced it with raisins and carefully glued the halves back together.  Once he had a large bowlful he took them to work and placed them on his desk. As people passed by he offered them some raisins. “Those are not raisins” people would say, but dad was so earnest in his description of his hybrid walnut/raisin tree that people believed him. They cracked the nuts and dumbfoundedly ended up with a handful of raisins. Dad howled with laughter when he eventually revealed his trick to them.  

This prank was reborn when I gave birth to my daughter, Jordan.  In honor of her birth, he filled Walnuts with Jordan almonds to give to the staff at the hospital. “Would you like a Jordan Almond?” he asked as he held them out to the nurses in the maternity ward.

Life and pain, filtered through humor – the legacy of my father.

Walt’s experiences heartened rather than hardened him and he is incredibly kind. Because he faced hardship and oppression he vehemently fights for the rights of others. During the 60’s he was a champion for racial equality, protested the Vietnam war and over the years has fought for whatever causes have stirred his soul. When gay marriage was at issue he stood with me and my ex-wife demonstrating proudly for my right to marry who I loved.

The home he built with my mother was always open to strangers and they often gave shelter to people in need. One afternoon my father went to the dry cleaners and came home with “Steve,” a recent immigrant, who over time became known to my family as “the crazy Hungarian” who ended up staying in our home a year or so. That was normal in my house growing up; strangers in need became our extended family.

At 87 he is still a prankster and activist. At a recent pet parade at his retirement community his dog wore a placard which said, “Dump Trump; No Wall.”

Though life could have made him bitter he chose a to build a life of meaning. Married for 68 years, he has three children and 7 grandchildren. We all carry his story and values and when things feel hard for me, I try to follow his example and choose love over fear.

 

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