Charles Adler was asked what he would say if invited to deliver a commencement address. Here’s what his message for the class of 2018 would be.
My name is Charles Adler and I feel very special being here. I feel special being anywhere today and every day because the chances of me being alive to visit with you were never very promising. I don’t think of myself as a religious person, but I religiously believe that the idea that I’m alive is a miracle.
I have to tell you that it’s impossible for me, at this graduation ceremony, to be here without trying to remember what it was like for me to be sitting where you are right now when I graduated high school in Montreal. It was 1971 and I remember that because for some reason I can’t forget my student number at McGill University — it is 7110479 — and while I remember the number, I can’t remember the name of the person who stood where I stand now, delivering his remarks to us at graduation. I can’t remember anything about what was said. My guess is it was safe, polite and conventional, but not memorable.
I’ll make you this promise right now. Forty years from now, you’ll remember what you hear here. Because I don’t do safe. I was born an endangered species — the son of two people who had been marked for death. They dodged bullets. They didn’t raise me to believe that life could ever be safe for me.
My father was your age when the Second World War broke out. And my father was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was living in a small village in a country called Hungary, a country bordered by Ukraine and Romania and Czechoslovakia and Austria, a country that had been overrun by various invaders over the years. It is a country that has given the world a lot of painting, music, dance and theatre, all expressions of passion.
Hungarians have found many ways to passionately tell their stories. On this day, you’re hearing my story and if I do this right, 40 years from now you’ll still remember it.
So my dad was your age in the wrong place at the wrong time. You see, even though he was a Hungarian patriot, loved the language and the literature and the heritage, loved soccer, there was something about him that made him dangerous to the country. Was he a terrorist? No. An arsonist? No. Did he do nasty things to other human beings and animals? No. My father was honest and generous and loving and loyal to his country.
But because of the passions of Hungarians when he was a teenager, and because unprincipled people were exploiting the passions of 1930s Europe, my innocent, harmless father was seen as a threat to the people of Hungary because he was a Jew. A dirty Jew, a filthy Jew, a rotten god-damned, Christ-killing Jew. And those are some of the more polite ways that were used to describe who he was and who his family was.
My father shared a home in the village that was two storeys high. On the first storey was the general store, which had been in the family for several generations. Every member of the family worked in the store. It was the barter system back then. The farmers would buy things by trading their corn, their wheat, their barley for goods, clothes, food, appliances, toys. So the farmers brought what they had produced, then traded it for what was sold in the store. It was my father’s job, and the job of his three brothers, to then transport the stuff to the market, which was one long day of hauling, because it was a horse and wagon ride, and in the spring rain came, making the road incredibly muddy.
My father was born in the early years of the 20th century, but it might as well have been the middle ages in many ways. So you had a family business, mom and dad and granddad and four boys and four girls. But after the madness that visited his village, after they were told they posed a national threat because they were Jews, they were told to report to the authorities for deportation. They were being expelled from the country they loved. Nobody loved a mother more than my father loved his. But Rose Adler ended up with a one-way ticket to Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp with the slogan, “Work will make you free.”
But that was a lie. Authoritarians live on lies. Please remember that today and tomorrow and 40 years from now. Authoritarianism cannot exist without lies and big ones, whoppers. Work will make you free. They worked my grandmother to death. She was a slave and when she was of no value because she was skin and bone and too weak to work, they tossed her into an oven. They did it with enthusiasm. They believed in the lie that exterminating human beings was purifying the culture.
It’s amazing what people will do enthusiastically if they believe in something, and always in the case of someone. They believed in Adolf Hitler and no matter how much he lied and no matter how savage he was, the people who enthusiastically gassed my grandmother believed they were pleasing Daddy, pleasing the Fuhrer. He told them to never believe what anyone else told them. He told them that anyone criticizing him was offering falsehoods. And in the service of truth and the purification of their culture, the Jews had to be liquidated.
My father managed to survive the brutality and insanity, and when the war was over, he went back to the village he was brought up in, only to find it had been looted. Virtually everything had been taken, but my father found one thing that had belonged to his father, an old leather backpack, so he picked it up and picked himself up and moved to Budapest, where he found some work as a tailor, sewing clothes. That’s where he met a 16-year-old girl who had the same first name as his mother, Rose.
Rose grew up in Budapest. She was nine when the secret police knocked on the door and dragged away her mother. She, too, was a threat and deported to a concentration camp in Austria. My mother stayed behind with her grandmother. They were forced to live in the Jewish ghetto and, in the later stages of the war, were ticketed for death as well. But a saint came along at the last moment.
The Swedish ambassador to Hungary, Raoul Wallenberg, designed a scheme to get Swedish passports into the hands of as many people as possible in that ghetto. My mother was a runner. She was nine and she didn’t look Jewish and she ingratiated herself and charmed herself into the hearts of the secret police and other soldiers and she smuggled as many Swedish passports as possible into the hands of others who had been put on the list to be liquidated. My mother never told me of her heroism. I learned about it from one of those whose lives she saved.
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I was a young man working in a radio station when a listener called and asked to meet with me at the deli across the street. She revealed one of my family’s secrets to me — that my mother was a hero. And that the passports she smuggled to her family’s home kept them away from the ovens.
When I confronted my mother about it, she was hostile and denied, denied, denied. I asked my grandmother, Elizabeth, about this incredible act and she said to never discuss it with the family because my mother didn’t see herself as a hero, but rather as a failure because she couldn’t get passports into the hands of enough people. Some of those people were cousins, aunts and uncles, and were put on the train to hell and never came back. And, of course, some of them were children, too.
So, if you asked a mathematician on the chances of my being born, the odds would be extremely low. What are the chances my father was smuggled to Romania, just hours before he would have been forced to board a train to Auschwitz? What are the chances my mother is rescued by the generosity and charity of a Swede named Wallenberg, who, by the way, was taken away by the Soviets after the war to Siberia — he wasn’t as lucky as my father. The Soviet communists murdered a man who had rescued thousands of Jews in Hungary, including my mother.
A number of years ago this righteous man was posthumously made an honorary Canadian citizen. Is there any chance you won’t remember this story 40 years from now? I’ve given you the sad side and dark side of the circumstances of my life. In a moment, I want to take you to the sunny side of the street and tell you why you are incredibly lucky to be alive, why you have every reason to believe that you can have the best life possible here in the greatest country on earth. You don’t have to dodge bullets or worry that your children will be taken from you because your neighbours have been inflamed by a genocidal ideologue.
In 1956, there was a revolution in Hungary. The people of Hungary attempted to rid themselves of a Communist puppet government. For a very short time, the revolution succeeded, but the Soviets chose to put an end to it by crushing it, and they sent tanks into the streets and a number of people, primarily young idealist Hungarians, were mowed down by the same people who killed Wallenberg — the same people who kept my father in forced labour for the crime of trying to avoid a gas chamber. There was chaos in the streets. There was chaos everywhere.
Several thousand Hungarians decided to take a risk and flee for the border. My father did not want to take the risk. My heroic mother, said, “I’m taking the baby with you or without. I’ve seen too much blood and I have no idea if they’ll come for my child some day, the way they did for so many members of my family only a decade ago. I’m taking the baby.”
Thank goodness my father loved my mother more than his fears. He put the baby in that leather backpack that belonged to his murdered father and they headed for the border to Austria, where they were put in a detention centre to wait for political asylum and political refugee status in what my parents saw as the promised land.
I was that two-year-old baby. And I stand before you tonight with one message. Don’t let anyone tell you that the odds of you making it are against you. Screw the odds.
I have been told all my adult life that the odds were against me getting a radio job in a big city when I was 18. But I did that in Montreal.
I was told it was against the odds for me to work at the Cathedral of Canadian Radio, CFRB. But I did that — and not once, but twice.
I was told I couldn’t get a network show in Canada. But I did for a decade once before, and I’m doing it again now for the second time.
I was told it was hopeless to try to get work in the United States. But I did and hosted a network show that was heard in more than 100 cities and towns. I did it out of Tampa, and I then went to work for a great university in Boston.
I got to spend a lot of time at Boston University, Harvard and MIT across the Charles River. Among my duties was hosting a nightly TV show, Adler On Line.
I was told I wouldn’t get an Emmy as Best Host. After all, I’d only been there for a year, and I was up against institution legends. I was caught in traffic in the rain and showed up just before the announcement.
And even though I felt like a wet rat, that feeling changed dramatically when moments after I walked through the doors of that beautiful, magical theatre, they called out my name. And when I picked up that Emmy, and clutched it the way a mom clutches her baby real close, you know I was thinking of my folks, Mike and Rose, and gas chambers, bullets and backpacks.
The world has offered me more kindness than any human being deserves, even though my family endured so much harshness. I want you to know that you can do anything you want with your life. Don’t let anyone limit your dreams.
You’ve heard my story. I live my story every day of life.
Now I want you to live yours. I want you to own your story, own your wonderful life. The fact that you’re alive means you’ve beaten the odds.
Charles Adler hosts Charles Adler Tonight on Global News Radio and is a columnist for Global News.