An uneducated refugee, Harley Rotbart’s father educated his sons and liberated himself from his past, writes the doctor in the New York Times.
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.
The family came to New York City for Rotbart’s medical school graduation.
Dad was a fruit peddler in Denver: Max’s Mobile Market. . . . 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’d always felt like the immigrant in the room. But in audience filled with doctors and the families of doctors, he lost his self-consciousness, fell to his knees and “shook and shivered and sobbed.”
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 . . . 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.
Dr. Rotbart, a pediatrician, is the author of No Regrets Parenting: Turning Long Days and Short Years into Cherished Moments with your Kids.