The New York Times


May 21, 2013

For an Auschwitz Survivor, His Son’s Graduation Spelled Freedom


Graduation 1979, the author with his parents and brother.
Graduation 1979, the author with his parents and brother.

On Tuesday, when our daughter-in-law gets her degree from New York University, the ceremony will be held at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, a place that holds some very powerful memories for me.

It was May 1979, and pouring rain so my Cornell medical school graduation had to be moved indoors to one of the Lincoln Center auditoriums. My Mom and Dad and younger brother were there all the way from Denver to watch me receive my diploma and take the Hippocratic Oath as a new doctor. This was my parents’ first time in New York. Dad hadn’t traveled much since the “big trip” to America from Poland. He was an Auschwitz survivor (No. 142178 tattooed on his arm) who lost his parents and sister in the concentration camps. My father had enough strength left to be selected for labor by the Nazis, and survived until liberation.

Still, true liberation didn’t come until that rainy graduation weekend in New York.

Dad was a fruit peddler in Denver: Max’s Mobile Market. Awestruck is an understatement for his reaction to New York. The World Trade Center, Statue of Liberty, Broadway and a fruit stand on nearly every corner. He was the most brilliant fruit peddler in the history of fruit peddling, the smartest man I ever knew. Deprived of a high school education when the Nazis raided his town of Klodowa, he came to America years later as an apprehensive, thickly accented refugee from the unspeakable horrors of Europe. Despite many years in America, the emotional scars were still there. He had a sense of inferiority and was intimidated by those around him who had an education. He was always socially self-conscious, acutely afraid of standing out for his lack of accomplishments. Within his circle of family and friends, dad was proud of who he was and what he had overcome. We knew he was proud of us, too. My journalist-to-be brother and I had chosen professions dad respected and admired. But outside my father’s inner circle, he was introverted, stoic, reserved. He would withdraw in the company of those who didn’t have to make their livelihoods on a fruit truck, and always regarded himself as the immigrant in the room.

On cue, the graduation speakers read their parts: “It was only four short years ago …,” “The experiences we had, the friendships we made.” ‘’Pomp and Circumstance’’ played, tassels were flipped, mortarboards flew in the air. The emotion I felt during the ceremony, however, was nothing compared with what happened afterward when I waded through the crowd to find my family near the center of the lobby. Hundreds of doctors, parents of doctors, friends of doctors and professors of doctors were milling about. This should have been the ultimate intimidating environment for my father. After hugs from my brother and Mom, I moved on to Dad. What happened at that moment I will never forget. Crying loudly, Dad fell to his knees in what can only be described as a total emotional breakdown. He shook and shivered and sobbed. People all around turned to stare, but he didn’t notice or didn’t care. The usual self-consciousness was gone. As I dropped to my knees to face him, he held me like never before. Everyone backed away to give us space; a few applauded. Strangers took pictures. Dad and I stayed on our knees, crying and hugging for a long time, until we both had the strength to stand up. Then, holding onto each other and to my Mom and brother, we made our way out of the auditorium. We didn’t stop at the reception for cookies or punch. We just kept walking until we felt the rain on our faces.

Only later did I fully realize what had happened. On that day, and again in a similar scene at my brother’s journalism school ceremony the next year, Dad was liberated from Auschwitz. He was no longer “142178,” a Nazi victim. My father could now stand face to face with doctors, journalists and other accomplished Americans. Although uneducated himself, he had educated his kids, and that was plenty good enough. Better than good enough: it was great. No longer bound by the restraints life had forced on him, he reveled in what this new country had given him. He reveled in his family and in his fruit truck. He reveled in personally defeating Hitler. At his sons’ graduations, he graduated to freedom.

Three years after my graduation, Dad died from pancreatic cancer. He never knew his grandchildren but would have been very proud of them. He missed all of their graduations, but with each one we again celebrated Dad’s liberation. But for his strength, courage and sacrifice, none of us would have been here to collect our diplomas.

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is professor and vice chairman of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine/Children’s Hospital Colorado, and the author of “No Regrets Parenting.”

Previous My Story essays can be found here.