It’s 2 o’clock in the morning and sleep eludes me. It’s Dec. 18, three days away from the third anniversary of the death of Mike Adler, the man who gave me life, rescued my life and gave my life meaning.
Papa died on the fifth day of Hanukkah, a holiday he could no longer celebrate but this time, not because he was hiding from Nazis in his early 20s.
Now, in his early 90s, he couldn’t hide from Alzheimer’s. The disease that made him forget who his kids were also made him forget his heritage.
So it falls to the dutiful first-born to tell you a little about that.
Mike was the son of Joszef and Rosza Adler, an Orthodox Jewish couple who owned a general store in a Hungarian village and who reared eight children. His mom and dad and baby sister, Juliszka, and little brother, Shaya, were murdered in the Holocaust. They were dispossessed of the family store and put on a one-way train to Auschwitz.
They were taken while my father was in the Hungarian army. He was serving his country honourably when the political leadership of that country started signing death warrants for his family members. Shortly after his parents and siblings were deported, he received an honourable discharge and with it an order to show up at a train station for deportation.
He never disobeyed a government order in his life. He was a proud Hungarian patriot. But he had no sane reason to obey this one and so he made a run for the border, and hid out in neighbouring Romania (then called Rumania), doing farm labour until the Soviet Army showed up. They considered him an enemy because he was of military age and in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The country he was in, Rumania, was just like of his birth: allied with the Nazi cause.
At the age of 22, he was stateless.
To Hungary, he was too Jewish. To the Soviets, he was too Hungarian. He was put on a train to Siberia where he would spend three years doing slave labour. He survived and when he returned to the Hungarian village where he grew up two years after the war had officially ended, he was told that his parents and baby sister and little brother were murdered.
While my dad felt a great deal of survivor’s guilt, and often talked to me about how he would have happily done a bargain with Hitler, and traded his life for his beloved mother, that deal was never on offer.
Mike Adler felt it was his duty to remember them, to spare some time each day to think about them and shared those thoughts eventually with me. I was the first-born and so it was my duty to be the keeper of Mike Adler’s memory. Nothing mattered more to him than memory.
Remembering them was honouring their lives, he would tell me. They weren’t just Holocaust statistics, four little people on a list of six million.
As sleep eludes me, my mind can’t get past the cruelty that is visited on the innocent. Here’s a man who values his memory more than anything because of its living link to the innocents who were herded into cattle cars, worked to death and then herded into gas chambers. And while all he can do is cling to his memory, that precious memory is looted by this serial thief: Alzheimer’s.
WATCH BELOW: Learn more about Auschwitz
My own memory of my dad and his many words of wisdom seems to get sharper especially at this time of year, so close to the anniversary of his passing.
Two days after he left us I have the vivid memory of the cemetery in Montreal where I had a skull-cap on my head and a shovel in my hand as they lowered his casket into the grave. I was instructed to take that shovel and plunge it into a big mound of dirt and then toss it on Mike Adler’s casket.
It is part of the traditional Jewish burial ceremony. And while I hadn’t lived a traditional Jewish life since the day I left our family home 43 winters ago, on this day three years ago it wasn’t about me. It was only about him and my duty to Mike Adler, and the people he wanted me to remember every day. And so I helped to bury his body while pledging to never bury my memory of him or the murdered members of his family.
A few days ago, I honoured his memory in a tweet. The news cycle was filled with stories of sex crimes against women and even the president of the United States was compelled to sexually smear a female political opponent. It triggered a memory of my dad’s words.
Only days later Frank Bruni in the Sunday New York Times published the kind of column that wins Pulitzers.
It is the true story of Nancy Root in Arizona. Now in her elder years, she needs to use a wheelchair and finds herself being invisible everywhere she goes. Many people who see someone in a wheelchair have a habit of looking away. They may not know or want to know how hurtful it is to the person in the chair. Frank Bruni has a habit of writing beautiful words about the uglier aspects of our shared human experience. His words on Sunday, Dec. 17, inspired me to tweet his column with the following caption:
Mike Adler died on December 21, 2014.
Charles Adler hosts the syndicated Charles Adler Tonight show on Corus Radio and is a commentator for Global News.