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Lessons I Learned From My Father

By Marty Nemko

My father taught me many lessons about work.

After surviving the concentration camps, he was taken from Europe on a cargo boat and dropped in the Bronx without a penny to his name, without a family member alive, without a word of English, with only the scars of Holocaust tortures. What was the first thing he did? Took a job, any job. It was minimum-wage work in a shirt factory. After work, he went to night school at Roosevelt High School to learn English. On Saturday, he sold his factory’s shirts from a cardboard box on the streets of Harlem until he saved up enough money for the first and last month’s rent on a tiny store in Brooklyn. After five years, his earnings from the store enabled him to move our family from the Bronx tenement to the bottom half of a Queens duplex. My father never went into therapy, nor spent much time bitterly recounting the Holocaust. I asked him why. He replied, “The Nazis killed my parents and my brothers and tortured me for five years. I won’t let them take any more.” Lesson learned: It’s a waste to look back; always look forward.

Over the years, I got to know at least a dozen other Holocaust survivors. Every one of them, by all accounts, seem to enjoy life as much as most people, and certainly earned at least a modest living to support their families. Lesson learned: If they could do it, I never have justification for complaining.

As a child, I remember my father always waking early, quietly putting on his clothes, and going off to work. To arrive in time to open his clothing store at 8:30, he needed to leave our apartment at 7. After all, he had to take the Q17A bus to Jamaica Ave. where he took the BMT train to Elder Ave. in Brooklyn. The last leg was a six-block, rain-snow-or shine walk through a neighborhood much of which smelled like a dumpster. Lesson learned: It is very important to work. No excuses.

Starting when I was 12, I would, on some Saturdays, help out at my father’s store. My main job: to watch to be sure no one stole anything—a 12-year-old security guard. Not only was I a most callow guard, I received the world’s shortest training course: “Respect but suspect.” Or as the Arab saying goes, “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel tight.”

My father bought my mother nearly whatever she wanted, but rarely bought himself much. Yet he was a contented man. Lesson learned: Contentment comes from achievement and from relationships, far less so from “things.”

My father continued to own and enjoy his little clothing store until age 80 when he got an offer to buy the store he couldn’t refuse. My father loved to drive so, in his retirement, he played chauffeur for all the old people he knew who could no longer drive. In his small backyard, he grew and gave away tons of fabulous tomatoes. Lesson learned: give back in the way that comes naturally to you.

My father died recently, six weeks short of his 87th birthday. Without ever preaching, he taught me a lot.

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