Thursday, January 5, 2017

Celebrating a Father's Birthday With Memories

Today is my father’s 106th birthday. Or maybe his 105th. My brother, sister and I were never sure. He died 18 years ago.

His death certificate records his birthday as January 5, 1911. Dad usually said he was a year younger, one annum subtracted as was the custom for boys in Ottynia, a shtetl in the Galicia region of the Austro-Hungarian empire, so he would not be drafted into the army when he turned 18. Back then recruits remained in the military for some two decades, making avoiding the draft by any means no small accomplishment. On his tombstone we inscribed his birth year as 1912.

Of course, by the time our father, Kopel Fuersetzer, turned 18 the empire had been long dissolved after its defeat in what we now call World War I. Ottynia became part of southeastern Poland (today it is part of Ukraine). When he was 16 Kopel ventured far away from Ottynia to the northwest “Free City of Danzig,” now called Gdansk, on the edge of the Baltic Sea. There he lived the life of a traveling salesman until he left Europe for good, arriving in New York in January 1939.

He married our mother three years later. Working together in their lingerie factory in lower Manhattan while living in Brooklyn they raised three children, of which I am the youngest. By any standard they were successful.

He was not a perfect man or father. He was no Alan Thicke of Growing Pains, no Robert Young of Father Knows Best. Nor was he a Carroll O’Connor/Archie Bunker of All in the Family. He was human, which means he made mistakes. He screamed. He got angry. He was, like my brother’s nickname for him, the “Boss,” at work and at home.

But I learned from him the value of tzedakah, charity. Of communal responsibility and service. Of treating workers fairly and with dignity. Of being a good story teller. 

He liked to tell of the time in the 1950s when he accompanied one of his salesmen to the headquarters of C. R. Anthony, a junior department store chain based in Oklahoma City. They met with Mr. Anthony himself. By the end of the visit Mr. Anthony playfully admonished the salesman that if he wanted any repeat business he would have to bring along the storyteller again to close the deal. I think that pleased our father almost, if not more, than getting the order.

As much as some people romanticize life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, Ottynia, near the Carpathian Mountains on the train line between Kolomaya and Stanislav, was not a place our father longed to be in. His ambitions, his drive, his quest for independence led him to seek a more fulfilling way of life, first in Danzig, then in New York. 

From Danzig he would return now and then to his parents’ home—one of my favorite pictures is of him dressed in peasant pants and shirt, almost like pajamas, lying on the oversized fender of a large car in Ottynia. Yet, neither he nor his brother Willy, sole immediate family survivor of the Holocaust, talked much about Ottynia, or Danzig, where Willy lived as well for a short time. They preferred to look forward, not backward. 

Much of what I know about Ottynia comes from a video tape of the two my brother and I conducted some 25 years ago and from writings from some of his landtsmen, fellow immigrants and their descendants from Ottynia. We always were skeptical of our father’s claim to have walked miles to school and back. But our cousin, Norman Latner, in a monograph on life in Ottynia some years back, confirmed that children had to walk several miles to get to school. Instruction lasted through sixth grade. 

Norman also provided an explanation why Dad said they’d have to walk through deep snow. Ottynia, he noted, is “located at 49 degree latitude, which puts it about as far north as Winnipeg, Canada. Winters were quite cold and the summer were hot.”

Our father was active in the Young Men’s Benevolent Association of Ottynia, becoming president of the “society” for many years. He also became president of our synagogue in Brooklyn. When New York University moved to evict small apparel manufacturers from their leased lofts along Broadway, my father led an ultimately unsuccessful city hall protest.

Growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, to me, the Ottynia society often meant keeping track of phone calls. My father never liked to see anyone on the phone in our house. But he had no qualms using it to talk to his society brethren.

To my brother Bernie, my sister Lee, and me, Ottynia meant a tight knit group of couples that formed a monthly floating poker game, men in one room, women in another. The stakes were nickel, dime, quarter. I don’t know many Yiddish words, I am not even sure it is Yiddish—it could be Polish or Ukrainian—but one of the first foreign words I learned was from Harry Brooks. Whenever he’d need a special card to fill, say, an inside straight, before he was dealt a card, he’d call out, “Chei-cha.” I think it means, give me good luck.

During these card games I learned how to mix highballs for the players. When I was around 10, they would let me sit in for a few hands whenever my mother or father would take a break from the game. It was a lot rougher playing with the women. They took their poker very seriously. The men would coddle me. The women were after my nickels.

Poker aside, what Ottynia meant to Kopel Forseter was continuity. It meant commitment to family and friends. Ottynia meant helping those in need. It meant remembering one’s traditions and roots. 

To Bernie, Lee and me it also meant an impossible to follow melody when reading the Passover Haggadah as Willy and Dad droned on and on. 

For all its simple, peasant-like charm, if I might use that word to describe Ottynia, Ottynia must have had qualities that imbued in my father and scores of others a set of values that have served them well.  

“Today in Ukraine,” my cousin ended his monograph, there is still a town called Ottynia, but it is not the Ottynia of the Kletters (or Forseters). All traces of a Jewish presence are gone. There are no shuls, no cheder (Hebrew school), no Hebrew texts and no chulent warming on the stove … All that remains of the Ottynia of the past, a place of hardship and a place of joy, lives on in the hearts and the memory of the few survivors, and in us, and our children if we too try to preserve these memories of the past.”

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