Friday, May 9, 2014

My Dad Mike

A guest post by the Founder of "I Declare World Peace", Lawrence R Gelber. 

As the world commemorates the final days of World War II in Europe, we are all naturally reminded of one of the most horrific periods in modern history. But scattered among the tales of death, horror and heroics in battle, there are also countless stories about ordinary people doing remarkable things.  I tell one here about my dad.

Victory in Europe: Image from Wikimedia Commons
My father was one of five children born in the Bronx to immigrants from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Since he was born in the early 1900s he was, luckily, too young to serve in WWI and too old to serve in WWII. His extreme nearsightedness probably also kept him out of military service, even in a non-combatant capacity. My dad had barely completed one year of high school, and so worked away at a low-paying trade, and quietly lived his life.  WWII came and went and he married my mother after the War, and I showed up soon thereafter.

By the time I was a young boy in the early 1950s, his trade largely disappeared, so he went to work in the post-office. Since he had a wife and a young son, he decided to work nights, because that increased his meager pay by 10%.  He was by all measures a simple, but honest, humble and gentle man who took the responsibility of a family seriously.  My dad was already 42 years old when I was born, and I was the apple of his eye.  His gentle loving nature made me a daddy’s boy from my earliest memory. He taught me to respect life and to live and let live.

When I was a teenager, my dad would periodically tell me stories of his youth, some wild, like the time a bullet pierced his coat, shot by a member of the then famed “Legs” Diamond mob that specialized in robbing resort hotels located in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Once, while walking along a street in the Bronx, an old friend of his addressed him as “Doc”.  When I asked him later, my dad explained that he was good at fixing eyeglasses and did that for his friends, who in turn called him Doc.

I do not think my father was particularly happy with me when I was a hippie, or when I went off to travel the world in the late 1960s instead of getting a job, but his love was always there. So I know he was extremely proud when I decided, some years later, to go to law school. But then, in the middle of my second year of law school, in 1979, he died from an embolism after knee replacement surgery.  I was an only child. I was crushed.

At his funeral, I noticed a woman who I had never seen before, someone of my dad’s generation. I asked my aunt, my father’s younger sister, about the woman.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
In the very late 1930s, or very early 1940s, European Jews looking to escape the Nazis were trying, often desperately, to get visas to the United States. In that effort a particular family in Austria scoured telephone directories for people surnamed “Gelber”, hoping to find a sponsor for a US visa. There in the Bronx telephone directory was my dad, and they wrote to him, a complete and utter stranger. Even though he had no money and even though he would be undertaking financial responsibility – that’s what sponsorship entailed - he said yes.  He would sponsor a family of complete strangers. My dad, in the vernacular of the Yiddish speaking world, was a “mensch”, a real human being.           

My aunt told me this woman was the wife in that Austrian family.  I was wracked with grief, but this new information, this story I had never heard before, about an astounding thing that my dad had done, added another profound dimension to the monumentality of my sense of loss. I approached the woman. Her husband, who had since passed, had gone on, after arriving in the United States, to become a prominent physician at a major hospital in New York, saving countless lives.  She held my hand and with a heart full of compassion told me that my dad had saved them.  I asked her, through my unrelenting tears, if I could tell her story, in essence a holocaust story with a happy ending, in the eulogy I was moments away from delivering.  She kept my hand and looked at me and repeated (I paraphrase) – “I would not be here if it were not for your father, you can say whatever you want. Your father saved our lives. We owe him our lives.”

My dad’s humility and lifelong respect for life is part of the inspiration for the “I Declare World Peace” project which my wife Rita and I have been promoting for a few years now.  I think my dad never told me the “war” story for two reasons. One was that he was simply a humble man, not given to bragging, and, because what he did was “right”, there was nothing to really talk about. The second reason, I suspect, is that my dad intuitively knew that war stories, even ones with happy endings, were perhaps best left in the past. But even if my dad would not tell this story, I tell it because what an everyday working class man like my father did demonstrates that just one person with a strong conscience and a firm moral center can make a spectacular difference in an otherwise scary world. World Peace is up to each of us. Please Google “I Declare World Peace” and help us spread the word.

Lawrence R. Gelber is a lawyer living in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife Rita. Lawrence & Rita operate the I Declare World Peace project, described at