Surviving with Dignity - Part II: My Father's Reflections on the Holocaust, Pre-War Poland, and a Life Rebuilt from the Ashes
[12/29/09 Update: Be sure to read Tony Prada's comment at the end of the post. His initial thought, he wrote, was to move on to the next blog but once he started, he "became engulfed with the memoirs" and his "normal 5 minute stop at the blog morphed into 3 hours." Tony shared with us some very important "takeaway" messages that I commend to you.]
As incredible as my Mother's story of survival is, as related in this previous post, my Father's stories stand apart. In his 1995 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, just two years before he died, he vividly retells his experiences before, during, and after the Holocaust. Born in 1911, he was the first in his family to pursue secular study. He graduated from Univ. of Krakow medical school, experienced violent antisemitism at many turns along the way, and was enlisted as a physician and captain in the Polish army when the war broke out. He tended to hundreds of Polish soldiers while on the frontlines during the Nazi blitzkrieg and to thousands in the Warsaw Ghetto through the uprising of 1943. He survived 5 Nazi concentration camps following the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The "death march" to Dachau in 1945 put him "one step, not even that, ahead of the angel of death." Following his liberation, he worked closely with teams from the US Armed Forces to establish and manage a number of hospitals and TB clinics for survivors. His hard and selfless work earned him not only accolades, but a Visa to the US, where he immigrated in 1949. He eventually settled in Syracuse, NY, and built a medical practice that thrived--notwithstanding a severe heart attack that nearly killed him in 1961--until he finally retired in 1984.
My Dad's proud, fighting spirit is on magnificent display in this interview, which is split into eight segments (video links embedded at the end of this post):
For those seeking excellent educational tools to teach about the experiences of those who lived through the Holocaust, you'll find them in the oral testimonies of my parents. I hope this personalizes the survivors' experiences in a way that provides additional insight into their indomitable spirit, as this University of Texas at Austin "forgiveness and resilience study" proves.
One theme that resonates throughout their interviews is how they viewed their survival as a result of not just one "miracle," but many. As we ponder in this holiday season of miracles the meaning of life, I hope my parents' stories inspire you to find meaning and purpose each day.
Happy holidays to all!
[The embedded photo is, of course, the famous "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" sign that was recently stolen from the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp. According to this Wikipedia source, the political prisoners who constructed the sign made the upper bowl in the "B" of "ARBEIT" wider than the lower bowl as an act of defiance and to signal what was really going on there.]
Here are embedded links to each of the eight parts of my Dad's interview:
© Steve Jakubowski 2009
Last night, while getting my daily dosage of blogs, I stopped by your site to view the contents of your latest post. When I read the summary you provided of your fathers life and triumphs, my initial thought was to move on to the next blog, as his story had nothing to do with business or the path in which I am currently embarking on. Taking a chance, I began watching the first video and became engulfed with his memoirs. I am glad that I did because his story provided me with many powerful messages which will reinforce the actions that I am undertaking with regards to my personal and career development. Here are few takeaways that I got from the interviews:
1. "Make the best of the hand which is dealt to you." Your father had no control of his ethnicity, where he was from, or his religious background. When the Nazi's began their ethnic cleansing, all Jews were subject to their horrible and inhumane plan. Your father stayed positive throughout the duration of this chapter in his life and was able to help those around him by leveraging his professional qualifications and personal traits. I am thankful that my generation did not have to experience anything even close to the horror that your father spoke about. It really puts things into perspective -- "No matter how bad a situation seems, it is really not all that bad." My generation is soft, we do not fully appreciate what our forefathers truly sacrificed to allow us to go about life in the manner in which we do today. When things do not turn out the way that we want them to, often times, we dwell on life and do not try to make the best out of a given situation. This was not an option for your father and those around him, as dwelling on life would have been fatal. The "keep moving forward and don't dwell on the past or present" attitude is a common trait of successful people. Evident by the final outcome of his life, your father is one of these people.
2. "Lady luck smiles on those who continue with their efforts". Because your father was able to make the best of the situation, lady luck blessed him with multiple "miracles" which spared his life. Giving up and accepting things for what they "were" would have resulted in the end of his life, as well as the lives of many people around him. This is very thought provoking because it just goes to show that with the blink of an eye, a persons future can be completely altered forever by the smallest actions or non-actions. This relates to business in the sense that by taking risks, working hard and absorbing as much knowledge about a given subject as possible, going out of your way to introduce yourself to new people, or even by attending an event in your industry, you might meet someone or come across an opportunity which you would otherwise not have been exposed to. By being dedicated and open to new ideas, you might just get lucky.
3. "Fate works in mysterious ways." Even though your father experienced hell on earth, his future was predicated on these past events. Without the Nazi occupation, he would have never met your mother and would have never had the family he has today. At the time, unknowingly to him, fate would make everything work out for the best. This relates to my life and career in the following ways: Up until this point in my life, I have accomplished many achievements in life and business. I have given 110% with regards to building relationships, my personal, academic, and career development, and trying to "make" everything line up to match the desired future outcome in which I am trying to achieve. The funny thing is that no matter how much you plan and envision what your future "should" entail, you only have the ability to prepare for it by creating the individual "dots" in which make up life (Steve Jobs talks about these dots in a speech to the Stanford Graduating Class of 2005 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1R-jKKp3NA) . It is the job of fate to line up these "dots" at the perfect moment in time and resulting from the manner by which you position yourself, it will become evident that every action or non-action leading up to this point occurred for a reason.
In short, my normal 5 minute stop at your blog, morphed into 3 hours. I will definitely use, and share with others, the lessons that I learned from your father in my personal and career development. Thanks for sharing his story and providing an unexpected change in content to your site, as I would have never viewed this video because I normally read only blogs which are of interest to me. I am sure many other people will gain valuable insights from his story (I did not get a chance to watch your mothers interview).
Why I follow your blog: I finished my MBA from the University of Texas in 2007 and had the opportunity to study abroad in Sao Paulo, Brazil. In early 2008, I began working for Development Specialists, Inc (DSI) (a turnaround advisory firm headquartered in Chicago). Up until a few months ago, I worked out of the Los Angeles office as a financial advisor to the Trustee (Brad Sharp) on Chapter 11 reorganizations, mainly in real estate. Ever since I finished school, I have wanted to return to Brazil to start a career. I decided that no time was better than now, as I am 32 years old, single, and have no real financial obligations outside of my student loans. To prepare for my journey, I left DSI in June and started my own consulting firm in San Francisco. I secured a short term engagement (until March of 2010), consulting on an infrastructure related construction project. Upon completion of this engagement in March, I will head down to Sao Paulo, enroll in an intensive language course, and find a job with an American private equity or hedge fund which focuses on mortgage backed securities, real estate development, or infrastructure investments. In the MBA world, I am definitely taking "The road less traveled", but deep down inside I know that fate is on my side and I will be successful because of hard work and just plain luck.
Everyday inspiration from people like your father reinforces the faith I have in the direction that I am taking.
I am thankful that my generation did not have to experience anything even close to the horror that your father spoke about.