Monday, August 18, 2008

Oradea: My Father's Memory

The first thing we did in Oradea was visiting the cemetery. I always say that you can remember a lost loved one anywhere, not necessarily in the cemetery, where you actually see and touch the physical evidence of the person's death. Well, when it comes to my father, this theory doesn't really work. He was and remained very special to me and to all around him. Most of his life is still a mystery to me, as I don't remember many of the stories he told me about his life before I was born.

He was born in 1917 in a traditional Jewish family (1 out of 8 children) in the little village of Szentjob (Bihor county). His family, as many other Jewish families in other little villages in the area, owned the village shop and later a soda water filling station. He absorbed trade as a small child, while helping around the shop. One story I remember was how he was sent, as a child, alone on a horse carriage to the big city of Oradea to one of the rich suppliers in town to bring goods for the shop. He loved to tell me the part where the supplier ordered his servants around to treat him as a VIP, bring him breakfast and anything else he needed. This must have made a big impression on him.

His entire family was deported to Auschwitz (just one sister came back), while he was in a forced labor or prisoner camp in Ukraine. There he learned to be a tailor.

What made him with his 7-grade education and above history the exceptional person loved and respected by everybody around him? Must be the unique combination of his personal integrity and beliefs, his sharp mind, his kindness, willingness to help and endless generosity. I hoped to meet someone who knew him and could attest his qualities for Dan.

Being a prominent leader of Oradea's Jewish Community, he planted zionism in me and the memories of Jewish tradition. His first heart attack, at the age of 60, just 2 weeks after he retired full of plans to turn our garden into a "garden of Eden", left us suddenly with a huge hole in our lives and souls, changing them irreversibly.

Although my mother hired someone to pray Kadish for the transcendence of his soul for an entire year, I remember the masked sadness in his voice when mentioning, in his lifetime, not having a son to do that for him. So here I stand, in front of his grave with my son Dan, prayer book in his hand, hoping Apu is pleased and can rest in peace. My mind wonders around the hypotethical question of how he and Dan would have got along and about the huge forces that make us try to please our parents even after their death. "He would have been very proud of your achievements" says Eva and I wordlesly thank her for saying the right thing.
In a previous conversation she told me how happy my mother's entire family was to have him with them. My second cousin, Pop Ioan, told me a story I didn't know. He very much wanted to buy one of the first cars in Oradea when he was young and couldn't afford it. He turned to my father for advice (although he is related to my mother) and got the entire sum as a loan. No repay date, just a promise that he would occasionaly take him to visit the Jewish cemetery in Szentjob, where he arranged for a yearly payment to an ex-neighbor to take care of it.

Next day we are visiting the Zion neolog synagogue, where I got married in 1980. After being closed for many years following acts of vandalism, it is now somewhat renovated, although ripped off its past glory. An old man in charge shows us around, points at the places of the beautiful stolen chandeliers and asks for a donation. As we are about to leave, he asks me for my name. "Berger Erika" I say, "the daughter of Berger Jeno." "The tailor?" he enquires? "Yes". "I knew him. He helped me and gave me clothes 'cause I was poor."

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