Max, An Unconventional Father

By Renee Symonds BA Dip. Ed., MA Psych. 


 An unconventional father, I had,

A confirmed Communist too

And here in Australia

 A Socialist would do

A lover of languages

He used them all,

To shape his ideas,

Compromising, not at all,

As if a Pied Piper, he followed his tune

As he stuck to his tune, he reached his moon.

Max was born in a small town in Eastern Poland (Western Ukraine). As a child, he contracted the Polio virus, which, after several operations, left him with a permanent disability in the form of atrophy of the right leg. He was often in pain and needed specially crafted boots.  He was occasionally jeered at for being a cripple, a cruel reminder of his disability.

He and his brother, Manes, the only survivors of their family, had come from a family of Kosher butchers and Rabbis. They came from a town called Bolechow. This town has been written about in Daniel Mendelsohn’s epic book, The Lost, about Daniel’s search for the truth behind his family and the town’s tragic history.

Max and Mane’s mother, father and sisters, Rosa and Sarah, were killed in one of the two massacres carried out in their town. During the war period, the brothers fled to Russia in order to survive. Manes often stole horses in order to transport Max, and, when no horse was available, he carried Max, who had no suitable shoes, on his shoulders.

At age 13, Max left school and Manes remained at home tending the butchery and the geese. Max went to a neighbouring town to learn the tailoring trade. He was apprenticed to a Master Tailor and, while serving this apprenticeship, attended a technical school to gain a general education. This intellectual pursuit never left him and dominated his life’s desire for a formal education.

In 1934, after serving his apprenticeship, he went to Lwow and there worked until the outbreak of the German/Polish war in 1939. While in Lwow, he joined The Garment Employees Union and The Fellowship of The Workers University (a workers educational institution founded by the Central Council of The Trade Unions of Poland). He attended lectures in the evening in Political Economics, and Polish and World History with an emphasis on European History and Current Affairs.

On returning home in 1939, he found a Soviet Administration established there. From the outbreak of the war until June 1941, he had a job in the planning office in a state owned- tannery, which produced hard leather for shoe soles. When the German/Soviet war began in June of 1941, he was evacuated to the Soviet Union, where he was placed on a collective farm. With the assistance of the management, he established a tailor’s workshop, catering to members of the collective. In the summer of 1942, the Germans broke into Southern Russia and the pastoral authorities included Max in a group of people charged with the evacuation of herds of cattle and sheep from the war zone.

After his discharge, he joined the Evacuation Field Army Hospital, where he worked in the tailor’s workshop, which provided a service for hospital staff and the wounded. When the war ended, he opted to return to Poland and his home town.

He was the first to return to their home town.

Prior to the two massacres, there had been 6,000 Jews inhabiting the town. He came to learn that 45 had survived, he and Manes being two of them. From there, he went to Germany to a Displaced Persons camp. Manes remained in Poland.  Max and my mother, who would become his wife, Tonia, also from Bolechow, met again.  She preceded him to Australia. He joined her not long after as a member of her family. In 1950, he migrated to Australia and then married Tonia.

After working in various clothing factories in Sydney, he opened a factory making men’s suits on his own. In the last stages of the factory becoming liquidated, he employed 30 people, producing 200 men’s suits weekly. He took pride in his achievement and loved his workers.

These were years in Australia where trade barriers went down flooding the market with goods from other parts of the world.  He could not compete in this new market. Hand made goods were not as valued as ready-made goods. He felt his life’s work was being “liquidated“ and his outlook plummeted to an all-time low.

Max had described his war years to me in unusual terms. The vision that was imprinted in my mind was of great years, of smoking dope in Russian bazaars and riding on trains in Ouzebeckistan, a vision which clearly enabled him to cope with the truth….until recently.

He suffered from Major Depression, a bout with alcoholism and had to be hospitalized. Shock treatments left him nullified and dulled. He had always been a man of salient words and those he spoke were to the point. Even in the midst of this trauma, he maintained an incisive sense of humour about the scene at the psychiatric hospital, describing in vivid detail his group therapy and the arduous task of the psychiatrist to extract words from group participants. He came home to a regiment of empty days and of pill taking.

What sustained him, as always, was his reading, his self-education.

All his life, he had been a consistent reader of classics, history and current affairs, as well as of literature in Polish, Russian, German and English. He also had, in his words, “been trying to dabble a little in Philosophy and economic history.” The conditions of his youth ingrained in him a lifestyle committed to an ideology prevalent among the proletariat, Jewish, lower- middle class in pre-war Poland. To him, Jewish middle class values became obsolete and he sought a leftist orientation. Not until Australia did he adopt a more conformist lifestyle. However, this was at variance with his inner self, a self which desired freedom of expression and which struggled with the constraints, trials and tribulations of everyday life.

This man, my father, thrived on controversy, on the exchange of ideas and on questioning of assumptions. In his thoughts and discussions, he left no stone unturned. He spoke his truth, and spared no-one his truth. The acceptance of other’s truths was, at times, more difficult for him.

As his depression lifted, he began night school. His tutor encouraged and prompted him to enter a mature students’ university entrance program in order to pursue his studies. Max applied, was accepted and began his university studies.

Max had never been a social creature and only emerged from his world of reading for Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. Nothing else mattered, not afternoon teas, or mundane chit chat. But, to university he went, at age 64, grossly overweight and with a spastic leg, angina and more enthusiasm and desire than half the faculty.

What comes to mind is Rosa Safransky’s astonishing story, “History In The Kitchen,” (published in “Enough Already,” an anthology of Australian-Jewish writing, edited by Alan Jacobs, Allen and Unwin, 1999), and the marks of the Holocaust that were made on Rosa’s parents, who were Holocaust survivors, in memorable colors. So too, in my kitchen, although, perhaps, not quite as vividly.

When I reflect back, I recall that my father left the Holocaust world, but replayed parts of it in our kitchen, where he dreamt of his mother’s meat pies and spoke of philosophy.  At the same time, my mother, clanging kitchen implements with resentment at his freedom and her enslavement to domesticity, dreamt of good times while making soups and caring for him. She demanded I go study and he implored me to sit and talk with him, excluding her and her participation about such deep matters. He often asked me to accompany him on his journey of learning and she was more akin to the secret police, wanting to know of his and my mind’s inner workings. So, when I, later in life, announced to her, foolishly, that I was going into therapy she wailed, “What did I do wrong?” Yet, as a loving and devoted mother, I couldn’t ask for better.

Max created a new life at university for himself in “this lucky country,” and Tonia silently sublimated herself to her caring role. I watch the scene in the kitchen played out. I am able to create a mix of Tonia and Max, later in my life, translating it into a world of love and devotion to my children and a career for myself.

Max was visible around the campus, I am told. The click, click of his walking stick and his cigarette puff breaks were known to many. He put to use every word he had read and digested. He was so popular with the students and often my mother would drive him to university and give them gefilte fish that he had cajoled her to make for student parties.

The university years were Max’s best years. His brother, Manes, who, with his family had followed Max some years later to Australia, was co-opted by Max into becoming a proof-reader, library researcher, photocopier and general book carrier. He was as he had been in the war years taking care of Max, spending inordinate amounts of time gathering and collating information to add to Max’s drafts of university assignments. These tasks took a toll on Manes’ sore legs and feet. But his “oy vey” of complaint was also a statement of a day well shared and a job well done. Max was a tough taskmaster and Manes a perfectionist. And Manes was also an expert at deep discussions.

If I happened to intrude on one of their discussions, I was terrified. To me, their discussions sounded like a full-on fight, but Manes would respond, “What are you worried about? We are only talking.” The “only talking” was so passionate and so steeped in a shared, deep history that we were transported back to Bolechow, as if time stood still. That shared understanding was what made the present Max and Manes team so awesome, whether it was shouted or shared in companionable silence.

As a family, we had all were involved in Max’s university degree. My eldest son, my father’s only grandchild at the time, was six, and even he wasn’t spared. “Alexander,“ Max would say, “What do you think of……” and he would launch into deep discussion and the relentless pursuit of truth and outcome would begin. There was deep discussion even over the issue of wearing pyjamas to bed or not. Minute detail was examined like a Torah text. My friends, too, were not excluded from his scrutiny. When I walked in my parents’ door, whether I was tired, jet-lagged or had lost the plot that day, the discussion would begin, “Rena, what do you think of….”

The demand from him would be in the form of, “come talk to me”, “be with me,” “discuss with me,” and all my pain for his losses, lost time and opportunity would well up in me. I would forget my issues and surrender to his insistent refrain, “be with me,” “share this with me,” “stop your world a little for me and decrease my isolation.” I gave in even later in life, and regret not having given in to him more often.

Did his request prompt my becoming a therapist? To stop a little, to be with someone, to respond to someone, to talk with someone and enter into a dialogue with someone, I believe is one of the most valuable gifts we can give to others. For in that moment of entering into someone else’s world, our own lack may be filled in with our giving. Our own pain may lessen and we then get a breather from our own aloneness. It is this that produces a shared moment.

My father’s journey towards his degree was like that. So, to graduation he proceeded, and, on the way, won his tutor’s and fellow students’ admiration. Max worked very hard on his assignments. “Hey Max,“ I would say, “Great result. Are you pleased with it?” While I would expect a favorable response from him, he would only say, “ It’s ok, but next time…..”

He found it hard to allow himself to feel real pleasure over his achievements, as if, if he named them, they would disappear and his window of opportunity would be taken away from him.

I recall his graduation day. What a day for all of us! As Max walked across the stage to receive his Honours Bachelor’s Degree, the click, click, click of his walking stick resounded in the hushed auditorium. The whole audience rose to give him a standing ovation. He was 69 at the time. He was the oldest graduate, with the greatest handicaps and the greatest joy. Max let that day in and allowed the pleasure of it to overtake him. It truly was the most joyous day of his life.

That day gave me back some life force too. As I imagine for many of you, being a child of survivors, I, at times, felt guilty for having a life, for having had the opportunity of going to university, for feeling pleasure in life and for having opportunities when my parents had experienced so much loss and suffering.

For Max, his degree gave him a domain that was exclusively his own. Yet, on that day of pleasure, a downhill slide began in the form of the progressive escalation of his symptoms. What would he do now? He had no job prospects, was too old and ill, and, though he wanted to go for a Master’s degree, he now felt more isolated without being in university, surrounded by friends. He had fulfilled his dream: An education at all costs. We even framed his degree to mark his graduation day.

Three months later he died. In the days prior to his death, he said, “Renee, I leave you no headaches, I leave you no blocks of flats.” (As Holocaust survivors found their feet and achieved success in Australia, a marker of their success was measured in financial terms and the purchase of a small block of four small apartments became a measure of success. As we were bankrupt at the time, there were no blocks.)  That quote carries some irony, for my father suffered daily with very bad migraines compounded by what the polio had done to his spine, which made what he achieved even more amazing, and it was the migraines which he passed down to me. It was a joke between us, that there was no inheritance, but there was, in the transmission of trauma via the headaches, a shared experience.

Nevertheless, there was no feeling of unfinished business between us. There was, for me, a soulful, painful understanding that I had to let him go. I feel that pain today as if it were just yesterday. He never saw his second grandson, a carbon copy of himself.

The university wrote us after his death, indicating how happy Max had been at the university and that, not only had he been an outstanding student, he’d also been a teacher to staff and students alike.

What does one say to a man who quietly and firmly never let go of his dream, who in, whatever way was available to him, worked towards his dream? I believe one says, ”It was a privilege to know you. The road was long hard and winding. Fraught with pain and struggle. The struggle was worth it and you triumphed.” As he wrote in his university application, ”I hope that, in my quest for knowledge, I can once again be useful. These are my reasons for applying for university admission. I hope that my application will not be rejected, as otherwise, I will be left to my own devices.” He was not left to his own devices, he fulfilled his dream, a Bachelor of Arts with Honours, a combined degree in History and Sociology. He triumphed.

And what would he say? He would say, ”Here, in this Lucky Country, one’s desires can be fulfilled.”

And I would follow with, “It is never too late, never too late to be the best of who we can be and not the least of who we can be.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.