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January 10, 2019 10:13 pmComments are Disabled

My grandfather turns 93 or 94 today.

We actually don’t know, because when he arrived at Auschwitz, rather than being sentenced to death in the gas chamber, he may have survived by making himself a bit older to impress the selection officer. On the other hand, he may have made himself younger after the war, in order to make emigration easier. Today, according to his US passport, he’s 93. But we’ll never know for sure, and he doesn’t remember.

The details of his birth are the least of what he lost in the war. By the age of 19, or 20, he had lost his entire family in the camps. Only his half sister, through sheer luck of having married a soldier before the war, survived.

By the time he was 25, or 26, he was working for $0.75 per hour in a shoe factory in Brooklyn. By the time he was 29, or 30, he had married my grandmother and had my dad, first renting a one-bedroom apartment in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and soon earning enough to buy a house.

By the time he was 54, or 55, he was in charge of the entire factory floor, and second in command of the company. He was the most trusted artisan of luxury women’s shoes in Philadelphia, his work known worldwide. Decades later, my father would randomly encounter a man who extolled the greatest shoemaker in Philadelphia, not knowing he was talking to his son.

When he was 62, or 63, he got to see his family grow even bigger when he became a grandfather. My childhood memories of my grandparents are larger than life. He has always been the most cheery, positive person. It’s hard to imagine the person that I know having lived through what he has lived through.

When he was 86, or 87, he lost his wife and partner of over fifty years. It was the saddest I’ve ever seen him. When my grandmother met him, he barely spoke English. She made him practice words over and over again until he got them right. She shackled her life to his in partnership and love. They built a life and a family together. She was the funniest person I ever knew and we all miss her all the time. But not like he does.

When he was 92, or 93, he survived a quadruple bypass with a prognosis of 15%. If Dr. Mengele didn’t kill him, the Abington Hospital certainly wasn’t going to.

The reason I’m writing an abridged and unfortunately bland version of his life is because on a day like his birthday, it’s hard not to reflect on what an extraordinary life he has had. Most of us wish that we will reach such an advanced age, but I doubt by the time I do I will have accomplished as much, or at least be able to look back, as he might from time to time, and be proud of what he has accomplished despite so many hardships. For those of us with (let’s be honest) not very hard lives, it’s important to think about what people have gone through for us to live so well.

So now he’s 93, or 94. We actually don’t know. But in a way, it doesn’t actually matter. He has lived a life full of pain and agony but also of happiness and triumph and rebirth. He has seen the worst in people, but he chooses to see the best in people. He’s still the happiest person I know. And every time he goes around the sun I consider myself fortunate to have him in my life.

I spoke to him briefly today to wish him a happy birthday, and of course I promised to visit soon. I will.

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