Sunday, June 20, 2021

Questions My Father Never Answered, Questions I Never Asked

There are so many questions without answers. So many questions I never asked. So many mysteries my father never exposed of his life in Poland before the war, before his whole immediate family, save one of his brothers, was lost in the Holocaust.

Today is Father’s Day. Kopel Forseter has missed the last 23 commemorations. I remember few if any celebrations when growing up, just an oft repeated comment from our mother that she should be the one feted as without her Kopel would not have become a father. Sylvia never entertained the corollary on Mother’s Day.

My brother, sister and I knew the broad outlines of his story. Growing up in Ottynia, a shtetl in Galicia that became part of southeastern Poland after World War I, then part of Ukraine after World War II. He had two younger brothers—Willy, who survived the war, and Max—along with a sister, Klara, and an older half-sister, Bracha, from his father Moses’ deceased first wife. Bracha died before the war.

At 16 he moved to Danzig, now known as Gdańsk, but after WWI labeled by the League of Nations as the Free City of Danzig, though it had a decidedly Germanic presence. Yad Vashem estimates that 96% of the residents were German. Not surprisingly, German influence was great. So much so that after Kristallnacht terrorized Jews in Germany on November 9-10, 1938, Danzig had its own Kristallnacht pogrom November 12-14. Until recently I never computed that Kopel’s departure from Danzig to New York transpired two months later. 

It should have been obvious to me. Throughout the 1930’s repressive anti-Semitic laws were imposed. According to Wikipedia, “In 1938 (Gauleiter Albert) Forster [how eerie that this Nazi persecutor’s name is one letter, an ‘e,’ shy of my last name] initiated an official policy of repression against Jews; Jewish businesses were seized and handed over to Gentile Danzigers, Jews were forbidden to attend theaters, cinemas, public baths and swimming pools, or stay in hotels within the city, and, with the approval of the city’s senate, barred from the medical, legal and notary professions” (ńsk).

After arriving in Danzig Kopel became a route salesman hawking stationery in towns surrounding Danzig. He made lifelong friends who, like him, fled Danzig for the Americas, Israel and Australia.

Going to Australia with her parents was his girlfriend, Dora. Her parents died shortly after reaching the safe haven. Though she tried, Dora never could reconnect with Kopel who, in 1942, married my mother. Fifty years later they met again, the full story a link away (

My father carried himself with the posture of a Prussian, not a Polish peasant. He enjoyed wearing nice suits and, for my taste, some raffish looking sports jackets. Of course, he always bought his wardrobe from a wholesaler he knew. No full price purchases for Kopel Forseter.

I suspect he was a ladies man. One photograph shows a buxom blonde perched on his shoulders. Was this Dora or another girlfriend from Poland, or was the picture taken in New York? I never asked. 

One Passover, seeking details of their past, my brother Bernie and I videotaped our father and Uncle Willy. We would ask for specifics of life in Ottynia and Danzig. We would receive generalities. Except when Willy related his years in hiding from Nazis and their Ukrainian sympathizers (Here’s a link to that saga:

Dad never talked about his family in Ottynia, if he felt helpless or guilt stricken at not being able to save them. He never showed us or translated the postcards he received from his mother while the family was first under Soviet Union occupation and then Nazi rule. He never talked about Dora. Though offered reparations for his lost business he never made a claim; he would not return to Danzig.

Like many of his generation he focused on the future, not the past. His repertoire of stories from the Old Country never failed to amuse family, friends and customers. His stories no doubt contributed to his success as a businessman as well as being a civic and social organization leader.

We did not always get along. He chafed at my idea of pursuing a journalism career. Mom probably talked him into paying for my master’s degree in the hope of giving me enough rope to hang my interest in becoming a reporter. Yet in the end I think he was proud I edited and published a magazine read by many of the companies that were his customers.

But did he ever tell me that? No. Did I ever ask him? No.

(Editor’s note: This entry was inspired by the cover story of today’s Sunday New York Times magazine section (