My Late Father: The Greatest Generation Up Close
Twenty years ago this week, my father passed away.
In his declining years, he had few friends and only a tiny family, and since he was almost obsessively modest about himself, little was known about him outside a small circle. He deserved more. He was part of the generation that was put to the ultimate test, and he passed with flying colors. He saw nothing special in what he did, but what he did was awe-inspiring. We owe his generation, which some have called the Greatest Generation, more than we may ever realize.
My dad was born in Budapest in 1920. His full name was Erich Albert Loëwe.
My father’s family was assimilationist. They embraced modernity and universalism. Dad had little knowledge of Judaism and even less comfort in a synagogue. That made his decision to wear a Star of David later in life and to develop an emotional attachment to Israel, which he visited numerous times, all the more striking to me.
Dad’s family moved to Vienna shortly after his birth and in 1925 to Berlin, where my grandfather worked as a journalist.
Berlin’s Jews in the 1920s were an extraordinary presence in the city. To a large degree, they defined the cultural, medical, scientific, and commercial worlds. Dad threw himself into math and science, loved to tinker with just about anything mechanical or electrical, and enjoyed skiing.
In 1933, Hitler came to power. Life as my father knew it was about to be shattered. His family left Germany almost immediately. They saw what was coming, in Germany at least. First, they went to Poland, and then sent my father, 14 at the time, back to Vienna to live with relatives.
A few years later, my grandmother became a cook in the Soviet Red Army, and my grandfather was interned in Shanghai by the Japanese occupying army for “spying.” It would be well over a decade before this family of three would be reunited.
Antisemitism was a potent force in Vienna long before the Anschluss in 1938, but Jews were nonetheless shocked by the paroxysms of hatred expressed by many Austrians after the Nazi takeover that year.
Dad recalled walking home from school shortly thereafter. He was 18 at the time, and studying physics and chemistry at the Institute of Chemistry. (In 1975, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the institute for his work on “the synthesis of the heavy hydrogen atom,” which, again, was done while he was a teenager.)
At the Kohlmarkt, in the center of Vienna, he was grabbed by uniformed members of the Nazi SS and SA — and, together with a few other Jewish youth, ordered to get on his knees and shine the Nazis’ boots. My father remembered returning to his aunt and uncle’s apartment around 4am after seven or eight hours of this humiliating work.
He eventually was able to leave Austria in 1938 and moved to Paris. He enrolled in the faculty of physics and chemistry at the Sorbonne and worked nights at an aircraft supplier.
It was in Paris that he first met his future wife, Nelly Chender, who was then just the kid sister of my father’s friend Yuli. Her family had managed to flee Moscow in 1929 and resettle in France.
Dad finished his course and enlisted in the French army, or so he thought, in Sathonay near Lyon. Through an apparent clerical error, the French assigned him to the notorious Foreign Legion (La Légion étrangère) rather than the Legion for Foreigners (La Légion pour les étrangers).
He was sent to French-ruled Algeria, where he did his gritty military service, often enduring taunts of sale juif (“dirty Jew”) from the officers. When France fell to the Nazi onslaught in June 1940, my father was placed in a prisoner-of-war camp in Kenadsa, in western Algeria. The prisoners were assigned to perilous and debilitating work in the coal mines of the Sahara.
A fellow prisoner, a non-Jew from Austria who became Dad’s lifelong friend, later told me that my father was tenacious and his spirit indomitable. Determined to return to the war against the Nazis, he escaped from the camp in 1943, after more than three years’ incarceration. He had tried once before, but had been caught and shot in the ankle in the process.
He joined a caravan of Arab traders making their way across the desert and was able to reach Algiers. There, after an extended hospitalization for treatment of the ankle wound, malnutrition, and exhaustion, he joined the British Army. Given the rank of sergeant, he supervised Algerian workers at an airport being used by Allied forces. But that wasn’t the kind of military work he had in mind.
After a few months in the British Army, he was transferred to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the legendary American wartime espionage unit under the command of Colonel Wild Bill Donovan.
The story I was told is that the Americans wanted him to change his surname. It sounded too Jewish and too complicated with those two dots (the umlaut) over the “o.” They gave him someone’s address book, and my father, who barely spoke a word of English, picked the name “Harris” because it looked like “Paris.” True or not, I’ll never know.
After participating in the invasion of Italy with the US Fifth Army, he was involved in one of the war’s most ferocious battles at Monte Cassino and then helped liberate Rome. Eventually, the OSS trained him in the craft of espionage. The OSS school in Italy fronted as a psychiatric hospital. Long after the war’s end, my father would wake up screaming in the middle of the night, a result of having been roughly awakened during training and put through mock interrogations.
In all, my father parachuted 13 times as an OSS agent — three training jumps and ten actual jumps behind enemy lines in Austria and Yugoslavia. His assignment in the final months of the war was to help persuade the Austrians to break away from the Germans and surrender first.
After the war, the OSS helped him come to the United States. At first, he continued to work in intelligence in Washington, but he didn’t stay long and retired with the rank of captain. He had had enough of war, both open and clandestine. He wanted to continue his scientific studies, find a job, and get married. He yearned for the security and stability that had been missing for the previous 12 years.
He discovered that my mother’s family had made it to New York on one of the last passenger ships crossing the Atlantic before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He located them. My mother, it turned out, was no longer just the kid sister, and they got married in 1946. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Los Angeles, and my father began working as an engineer in the MGM and Argosy film studios.
I was born in Santa Monica in 1949, but we didn’t stay long. While the whole country seemed to be moving westward, my parents decided to move back to New York.
My father was fascinated by every advance in technology. One of the newest frontiers at the time was television, so he gladly accepted an offer to work at CBS News. When CBS signed an agreement with a German television network in 1960, he was asked to go to Munich to help implement it. He was a logical choice. He spoke fluent German and was on the cutting edge of the latest breakthroughs in video.
There was only one problem. My father hadn’t set foot in Germany since 1933 and, frankly, had no desire to return. CBS gently encouraged him to give it a shot. If he could adjust emotionally, my mother and I would follow; if not, he’d return. I remember vividly the call that came a few weeks after he left for Munich. Come, he said, and we did.
It was only later that I realized my parents had taught me two very important lessons in (West) Germany, and they did it in the best way possible — through example. Both lessons have stayed with me.
First, somehow life goes on. Never ever ignore the past, but don’t become its prisoner either. There wasn’t a single moment in Germany during that year when we ever forgot where we were. I was only 11, but it quickly dawned on me. Munich, after all, was the site of Hitler’s attempted putsch in 1923. It also became the symbol of appeasement in 1938. It was just a few miles from Dachau. And anyone around us over the age of 35, or thereabouts, could well have been involved in the Final Solution.
At the same time, I saw my parents struggling to acknowledge that the Germany of 1960-61 was different. It was a democratic country governed by the rule of law, even if antisemitism hadn’t entirely disappeared. It couldn’t have been easy for them, but my father’s work had brought us there and, consequently, they tried their best to be open-minded and forward-looking.
Second, be who you are. My parents were Jewish. They weren’t at all observant or very Jewishly literate, but they were proud of their heritage. They had been marked for extinction because of their identity. Their lives had been disrupted in more ways than I can count because of that identity. Yet they had absolutely no desire to hide from it, much less reinvent themselves.
To affirm Jewish identity in postwar Germany took some courage. Yet perhaps they instinctively understood that the ultimate test of the new Germany — and the new Europe — would be how these countries interacted with living Jews, and not only how they dealt with the memory of murdered Jews.
Our time in Germany ended on a bad note: my parents divorced. Personal differences proved irreconcilable. My mother and I returned to New York. My father stayed on in Europe for another 15 years. He then moved with his second wife to Rochester, Minnesota and then to northern California.
I was never to live in the same city with my father again, or even within driving distance, though we usually managed to see each other once or twice a year. To state the obvious, it wasn’t ideal. There were some things I missed out on.
But I’ve come to understand that my father was a product of a very specific time and place in world history. From an early age, he faced circumstances that were far from enviable, and that couldn’t help but affect the rest of his life.
At a time when many kids today are thinking about summer camp or their bar or bat mitzvah, my father was on the run from a psychopath who wanted to wipe all the Jews off the face of the earth. When many kids today take family gatherings for granted, my father didn’t see his parents from the age of 14 to 26. And when many kids today think about their post-college plans, my father was plotting his escape from a prison camp in western Algeria.
I can’t say that I ever learned how to drive from my father or how to handle my social life, but in the long run I was exposed to something no less valuable.
I saw up close the example of a man whose courage knew no limits and who, together with like-minded men and women, saved the world from Hitler. I saw a man who never boasted about his exploits, but simply did what he knew had to be done, and then, when it was over, tried as best as he could to get on with his life in a new country, culture, and language. And I saw a man who stubbornly believed that tomorrow could be better than yesterday, and never stopped trying to make it a reality.
Courage, humility, perseverance, and optimism — four character traits that my father embodied and the world could always use more of.
The more time that passes since my father’s death, the more I miss him.
David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).