Otto S. Polatschek: February 24, 1916 - July 4, 2007
My father, Otto S. Polatschek, passed away peacefully at 8:00 o’clock in the morning on July 4. He was 91. He lived in Pembroke Pines, Florida.
Trudy Dessey, his partner and companion for the last nineteen years, reported to me that Otto had a stroke two days before. He was taken to the hospital. Trudy visited him on Wednesday morning and he just fell asleep.
Otto had a difficult time for the past two years. He was loosing his eyesight and since he loved to read he became frustrated and even depressed. Yet he remained active every day and was usually cheerful and talkative. He could still play a hand of bridge. Except for his eyesight, he was always in good health. He finally stopped driving at 90.
Otto suffered no chronic disease. His gait was weak but he refused to use a cane. He never needed a walker or a wheelchair and thankfully, he never spent one day in an assisted living facility or a nursing home.
My father and I spoke frequently. Most recently I called from his cousin’s home in Israel and again about a week ago when I returned from The Middle East.
Otto left strict instructions that there be no funeral or memorial service. Trudy and I will honor his wishes.
I know my father was happy for me and was proud of my recent travels and my writing. Yet he was disappointed that there are no little “Polatscheks.” Well, who can know the future?
July 12, 2007
Several years ago as I was preparing to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah, I browsed through my Bar Mitzvah photograph album. There is one shot that is particularly dramatic. I am walking between my father and my mother; they are holding my hands, and we are striding triumphantly into the catering hall. My sister Paula; my grandparents, Rosa and Herman Polacek, and Harry Lifson; Aunt Sue and Uncle Harry Taxier, Aunt Beatrice Lifson, Aunt Ida Lifson, Aunt Ida Kiewe; cousins and friends are all assembled and waiting for the Bar Mitzvah bocher to arrive.
And despite the fact that this affair was costing him a small fortune, my father had a broad smile and a proud smile and a quick step. And why not? My father was only thirty-seven at the time.
The Bar Mitzvah photograph is the first of a series of images that provides a framework for the life of my father, Otto, or by his Hebrew name, Chaim ben Zvi ha Levi, now gone at the age of ninety-one.
At The Jewish Center of Highbridge in 1953, my Bar Mitzvah teacher, a delightful and witty man, Isaac Borodovko was puzzled by my father's Hebrew name. He accepted that his student Jan could have the Hebrew name of Moshe. I am named for my paternal great-grandfather. "But how in the world do we get Chaim from Otto?" he wondered. Now that question will remain an unsolved mystery. Neither Mr. Borodovko nor I ever asked.
Many years before my Bar Mitzvah, Paula and I were chatting with our Bronx neighbors, other young children named Ellen and Joanne Affinito. We were discussing our parents' names. My mother was Ruth. Their mother was Nancy . Their father, a former Golden Gloves Champion and professional boxer, was called "Red" or Sal, for Salvatore. Paula and I countered with Otto S. The girls wanted to know what the S. stood for. I hesitated for a moment and announced, "Sam." My mother overheard our conversation from the kitchen and burst into the living room laughing. "You father's middle name is not Sam," she explained. "Your father's middle name is Siegfried!" Otto Siegfried!
What's a nice Jewish boy doing with names like Otto and Siegfried?
There is a photograph of my grandparents that explains my father's names. His mother, Rosa, a young woman, stands beside her husband, Herman, ten years older. My grandfather is dressed in the military uniform of the Kaiser's German Army. Years ago, slightly shy and embarrassed, my grandmother explained, "My husband came home on leave from the Army and that is when I became pregnant with Otto." And as loyal citizens, my grandparents bestowed proper German names on their children.
Otto Polatschek was born on February 24, 1916 in Nuremberg, Bavaria, Germany. He died on July 4, 2007 in Pembroke Pines, Broward County, Florida. He had one older sister, Ida, of blessed memory. Besides me, his son Jan Robert, he leaves his grandson Jason Paul Wiesenfeld of Miami and two great grandchildren, Chloe Emma Wiesenfeld and Maxwell Jacob Wiesenfeld, his niece Dorothy Morris of London, and his wife and partner of nineteen years, Gertrude Dessey of Pembroke Pines, Florida.
Otto's childhood was privileged but somewhat difficult. His parents were occupied with building their retail shoe business, and growing up Jewish in Germany could not have been easy. I remember seeing his class photo taken when he was a child. His smile and his round Slavic face were easily identifiable.
Yes, my father's parents and uncles were Czech immigrants to Germany. They spoke Czech at home and spoke German with a Czech accent. Consequently, their wealth never bought them entry into German society. Yet I have seen photos of my father as a young man on the ski slopes and in the gardens of the finest resorts in Switzerland. Otto also played soccer and was a sprinter. I wore his track spikes when I competed as a young boy.
Following in his father's footsteps, so to speak, Otto trained as a Chiropodist, a foot care specialist. He studied in England and then worked at a Dr. Scholl's store in Madrid just before the Spanish Civil War. At times he pronounced an English word with a decidedly British accent, "half," for example, and he spoke good Spanish. And as a kid, because of his training, I never had to worry if I got a splinter in my foot.
My father sailed to America on the S.S. Washington and arrived in New York on April 1, 1938. Since he was a fashionable young man he traveled with a silver steamer trunk, the ones with the drawers and small closet. I saw another photo; he left behind a stunning young girlfriend. But he brought with him his tuxedo, his smoking jacket and how many pairs of shoes? He always had a thing for shoes and I have inherited that particular affliction.
My father also left his parents behind in Germany. He told me that he never expected to see them again. But they did just barely escape from The Nazis and came to America to live out their lives. His sister Ida and her husband Siegbert Kiewe were safe in Stockholm as was their daughter, my father's niece, my cousin Dorothy.
Most of the rest of the family were not so lucky. My father made a family tree and recorded that more than thirty of his uncles and aunts and young cousins and his eighty-one year old grandmother were murdered in The Holocaust. I do believe he was haunted by those losses all his life.
My father met my mother in the offices of T.O. Day, a shoe company in New York. They were married at The Alcott Hotel on October 8, 1939. The Best Man was my father's friend from Germany, Walter Jakes. I still have the photo of the bride and the groom cutting their wedding cake. My mother, of blessed memory, looks quite glamorous and my father is quite dashing in his black top hat. I was born soon after in the fall of the next year (apparently everyone was counting on their fingers) and my dear sister Paula of loving memory was born in 1944.
So my father was always one step ahead of the draft. He was finally called but the War came to an end and he never served. I am not sure if he would have made a good soldier or not. My only clue is that he made a great Scoutmaster.
My father was not the first Scoutmaster of Troop 70 in The Bronx. That distinction belongs to our neighbor, Louis Schwartz. But arguably, Otto was the most active. For the years that he was Scoutmaster it seemed like almost every month he was hauling us out of the city for a weekend in the New Jersey woods: Alpine or Kanes Open or Spruce Pond. Rain or snow never stopped us. We became experienced campers.
In recent years I have crossed paths with a few of my former scout buddies. They remember my father as a serious and dedicated leader who also liked to join in the fun, playing soccer in the gym where we met on Friday nights, or playing penny poker with the older boys on a camping trip.
Otto kept an album of those years in the scouts. In addition to all the award ribbons and citations our troop won, there are several photos of the troop campsites. Cooking and camping and sleeping in tents or lean-tos or cabins, we were a scruffy, happy and talented bunch. The photo of him I like best is the one where he was dressed in his Scoutmaster uniform at an award ceremony as the Eagle Medal was presented to my friend Herbert Deuchar.
Allen Milman, another member of our troop and one of my oldest friends, continues to this day to be motivated by my father's and his own father's dedication to the boys. Allen has raised tens of thousands of dollars for the New York City Council in honor of his father Harry Milman and "Mr. P" as he calls my father.
For his achievements Allen was awarded The Silver Beaver, the highest honor an adult can receive from The Boy Scouts of America. I have to wonder how many other boys, now grown men, my father has influenced and motivated by his energetic and cheerful example.
Like his father before him, Otto was an irrepressible card player. He played hearts and pinochle and bridge and gin rummy and canasta when it was in fashion. I think hi-low poker was his favorite. Every so often a group of men showed up at our small apartment in The Bronx. The poker group was a strange assortment. When the strange assortment became positively weird, my mother put a stop to it.
What didn't stop was my own teenage poker group on Sunday afternoons at our always "open house" on Anderson Avenue. My father joined David Lehner and Jay Gilsen and Jay Shaw and me in seven card stud or a variant called Chicago (high spade in the hole wins half the pot). Carol Denkensohn and Robin Barlow, Marsha Brody and Toby Levy sat in the kitchen with my mother and they commiserated with each other.
There is no photo of any of the "card parties" but if you ask my buddy Jay "Gittlesen" -- just for fun my father always called Gilsen "Gittlesen" -- Jay still carries an indelible image of my father "Toot." With his smirk of a smile, mischievous Jay would ask my father, "Hey Otto, how do you spell your name inside out?" And the late Davy Lehner, another Bronx character called my father "Siggy." And Michael Kossove called my father "Gabochecki."
Honestly, in those more polite days of my youth, no one ever dared address a parent of a friend with anything other than Mr. or Mrs. But my father was less formal. He told my friends, "Call me Otto."
My father was a collector. He collected match book covers and US coins but his real passion was postage stamps. Over the years he amassed more than 100,000 different issues from Europe and The United States. And because of his Germanic precision, each stamp was meticulously placed in its allotted space in one of his twenty-five albums.
Philately is a colorful educational tool. My father showed me the proper methods of collecting and together we learned history and biography and geography and an assortment of esoteric postage vocabulary. Post card vs. postal card. Plate block? Perforation? Postage Due? Imperfect? Booklet pane? And what about that tiny S or D or P that sometimes appears on our coins?
My father taught me the proper form for the 100 yard dash. He tried in vain to teach me a little German. But mostly he taught by action and example. When one of our neighbors was seriously ill, my father took me to see him. I don't remember his name but I remember the man in his pajamas and bathrobe and I remember his gratitude. And when Louis Schwartz lost his brother, my father took me on the condolence call. I remember Mr.Schwartz' surprise and gratitude that both father and young son took the trouble to visit and comfort him.
These social skills must be taught and my father demonstrated their importance. He encouraged his son and young daughter to find the strength to overcome their own reluctance or fear in order to help someone else.
I feel sure that Ellen and Joanne Affinito were always thankful that Paula and I attended their father's wake. They really have my father to thank; Otto insisted that his children behave in a responsible and caring manner.
Every evening at dinner my mother, in her broken Yiddish-German quipped to my father, "Was gibts neu in die gescheft?" So, what's new at the factory?
My father spent his entire adult work life in a series of factories, first during the War in "defense work" and then as an owner and later as a plant manager. Fluorescent starters, electric knives and can openers, phonograph records, candy and sterile bandages all came under his purview.
I would say that Otto was an Industrial Engineer who never took a course. He could set up the equipment and materials, organize the assembly lines and staff each station with efficiency. If a particular spot needed two workers, he always paired an African-American with a Latino; that way they did more work because they couldn't chat.
Around the house my father was Mr. Fix-it. Between him and Mr. Demarest, my wood shop teacher at P.S. 73, I learned to handle the basic tools. I can even hang a picture on a wall, straight.
I leaned much than carpentry from my parents' work experience. My mother was a school secretary in Harlem and my father worked in the factory section of Brooklyn. By their own behavior and attitudes, my parents taught me respect and tolerance for everyone, no matter the color of their skin or nationality or religion or level of education or language skills.
Unlike many of the households in New York in the 1950's and unlike many households of contemporary America, I never, ever, even once, heard my parents tell any demeaning joke or utter any sort of racial epithet, or religious or national prejudice or educational slander at anyone at any time. My sister and I benefited greatly from our role models.
My father was comfortable with almost everyone. But I think he was more at home in the company of the less fortunate. And in my recent days, I am my father's son as I travel with a smile through some less fortunate areas of the world. I am grateful for his example. And since he was a traveler himself, I am also thankful for his understanding and encouragement for my current life style.
My father loved to read, especially historical novels and pure history. He educated himself and he was well-informed. And so whenever we discussed my latest destination we always had a thorough conversation. I went to Peru; he knew about the Spanish Conquistadores and the Incas. Southeast Asia; he knew about Dutch colonialism and Japanese imperialism. He knew British history and European history and the American Civil War. And he knew his politics. As a Naturalized citizen, he always voted.
My father was a life-long Democrat and did not turn Right as he got older. A portrait of FDR hung in our apartment. There was never a sensational Daily News or Mirror in our home. He read Max Lerner and Murray Kempton in the New York Post when the New York Post was the New York Post. He read the Kiplinger Letter. Lately he listened to NPR. And although we lived in The Bronx, he taught me to be a Brooklyn Dodger fan. We listened to baseball games on the radio and he took me to the Polo Grounds for Giant - Dodger double-headers. Together, we always had to "wait til next year."
My father was an excellent ballroom dancer. You should have seen him dance at Paula's wedding. After the fox-trot, his best dance was the waltz. I bet that his dancing skills charmed my mother when they met. And also his "green horn" pronunciations and phrases: "Bo-log-na sandwich on brown bread" for example.
Except for Paula's "gourmet phase" when as a stubborn little girl she insisted on eating cream cheese and jelly sandwiches at every meal and at every restaurant, we almost never ate white Wonder Bread at home. Only European style bread: dark rye or pumpernickel or raisin rye or that nutty thin-sliced wheat loaf. We ate German "specials" -- double fat frankfurters. Until recently my father prepared his own German style potato salad and large jars of cucumber salad -- sliced fresh cucumbers marinated in vinegar and sugar and spices.
My father did enjoy the Jewish-American cuisine -- Chinese food! All his life and as a very senior Senior Citizen he ordered spare ribs and shrimp with lobster sauce, even when he was 80 and 85 and 90. "What's wrong with that?" he asked innocently with a smile and raised eyebrows. And at a delicatessen it was herring in cream sauce with extra raw onions or crabmeat salad and a bagel. I learned to love my father's selections but I didn't inherit his tough stomach. Now I am much more of a chicken and cashew nuts, easy on the chili sauce, kind of guy.
When my parents retired to Miami, my father restored his athletic abilities. He swam every day, played a little tennis and he did hundreds of sit-ups. His abs were rock hard. And then he copied me.
I took up jogging during the jogging craze thirty years ago. Jogging led to marathons. This time my father decided to follow in his son's footsteps and he began to train. We both entered the Orange Bowl Marathon in January 1980.
We started together on a hot Sunday morning in Coral Gables. We jogged leisurely side by side for several miles. I decided to pick up the pace a little and he continued but fell behind. Hours later I approached the 25 mile mark, with every muscle in my body, from scalp to toes, crying out in agonizing and empassioned pain. My father met me there and jogged with me and encouraged me for the last mile to the finish line. My mother was on the sidelines and was yelling, "Father and son! Father and son!" Later I learned my father had completed twenty miles that day in the Tropics, at the age of 64.
"Varum so spaet?" was the classic Polatschek remark. My grandparents living in New Rochelle frequently invited our family to Sunday dinner. My father drove us to the suburbs from our apartment in The Bronx. Now it's not easy for parents to arrive punctlich with two young children to dress and traffic on Fordham Road to navigate. Regardless, if we were fifty minutes late or fifteen minutes late or even just five minutes late for the noon dinner, my grandfather always opened the door and with his broad jovial smile demanded, "Varum so spaet?" Every time. It became the standard Polatschek greeting.
Years, years later I decided to introduce a friend to my father and Trudy. I miscalculated our driving time to their apartment. I told Gail that my father would open the door and I warned her that he would greet us with that familiar German question. My father, a chip off the old block, didn't disappoint me. Right on cue, "Varum so spaet?" And later, when he arrived at my apartment in Miami, I didn't disappoint him either.
To be honest, when it came to interpersonal relations within our immediate family, my father could have used some help. He loved me and he loved Paula. I know he loved my mother. Yet, they were each very difficult in their own way. There was an undercurrent of tension in our house for one reason or another.
Old unresolved anger could erupt when my Aunt Ida visited us from Europe, and at times my father's relationship with his parents could also be strained.
The problems between my father and his parents were eventually resolved. And when they died, within two weeks of each other, my father was quite sad and dependent. I was only 23 at the time but what he had taught me about providing comfort to others now helped me to help him.
My Aunt Ida died in London seven years ago. Cousin Dorothy and I are both thankful that Aunt Ida and Uncle Otto had settled their differences and were on good terms.
The problems between my parents were never resolved. So after forty-eight years together, Ruth and Otto decided that enough was enough.
My mother lived alone and happily for the remainder of her years. Ruth Polatschek died in Miami on May 31, 1999 on her eighty-seventh birthday.
And to be honest, my relationship with my father waxed and waned and waxed again. Now I will miss our serious conversations and the humorous banter we enjoyed for the past several years. And like his father before him, he always knew the best store to get the best price on anything I might need, from discount fish oil tablets to hamantaschen to almond horns and back again to Dr. Scholl's arch supports for my trekking shoes.
There was one tragic event, thirty five years ago, that has shaped the lives of the Polatschek family until this very day. My sister Paula died suddenly and inexplicably at 28, after giving birth to her only son Jason.
Jason never knew his mother, but he placed a delightful picture of her in a prominent place in his home. And in my opinion, Paula's husband Stephen Wiesenfeld has never stopped loving his lost wife. His terrible pain at that moment long ago has subsided but the memory of Paula is, I believe, still very much a part of his life. A part of all our lives.
My mother at first was bitter and angry but she worked though her emotions by talking lovingly about Paula whenever she had the opportunity. And during her retirement years, Ruth was energetic and productive. With other retirees as the singers and dancers, she wrote and produced several musical shows for her neighbors. She organized a dozen tours and traveled around the county and overseas as the guide. Ruth is buried beside her daughter, Paula Carol, in New Jersey.
Speaking for myself, I miss Paula more and more as the years go by. I wish I could have had the opportunity to have improved as a big brother. And my little sister would have provided maturity, stability and good sense to our family, and wisdom and good counsel to me, and oh boy, did I ever need that. And I am now particularly saddened that Paula does not have the pleasure of her grown son and his devoted wife Carrie and their two brilliant children, her grandchildren, Chloe now 4 and Maxwell, 2.
My father was devastated, crushed when his "Polly" died. I literally had to hold him up during the funeral and burial. He taught me only too well.
And I don't think my father ever recovered. At first he remained silent and uncommunicative, going to work and poring over his stamps. But there were moments when his emotions bubbled-up and he was debilitated momentarily. Any movie or television program remotely connected in theme to the loss of a child would send him from the room. And he bolted when any entertainer with a "Fiddler on the Roof" repertoire worked his way to "Sunrise, Sunset."
For many years after that terrible day, my father became withdrawn and reclusive from May 11, Paula's birthday, until well past June 5, the day she died.
And although my father doted over Jason when he was a boy, it's no surprise that their relationship severed many years ago. Sometimes, things are just too tough.
Sunrise. Sunset. Sunrise. Sunset. Given enough of each, things change.
My father and Trudy found each other in the Miami-Herald Personal Ads! They were together for nineteen years. They traveled. They danced. They played Bridge. They went shopping. They went to the movies. We celebrated Trudy's Eightieth Birthday and Otto's Ninetieth Birthday together with family and close friends. They were a happy couple. He was happy.
And at long last, Jason and Otto found the strength to come together again. Otto finally met his great grandchildren last Thanksgiving.
How can I sum up my father's life, a life that spanned most of the Twentieth Century? A life that touched so many and was touched by so many, a life touched by extraordinary events.
There are two last photographs, two images I only recently discovered. The photos are in an album at the home of Miryam Lauer, my second cousin. She lives in Binyamina, Israel where she has lived since she was a child. I met Miryam and her husband Moshe for the first time last month.
Miryam is the granddaughter of Emanuel Polatschek, the oldest brother of my own grandfather Herman Polatschek.
Miryam was delighted to review the history of our extended family and take me page by page though the album she inherited from her mother and grandfather. There were two photos in that old album that caught my eye.
The first black and white photo is of a pretty young woman in an elegant white dress, long white gloves, folded parasol, a black purse and a matching, enormous black hat. She is seated and a sophisticated gentleman stands beside her. He sports a three-piece suit, watch fob, a jaunty white hat with a broad black band, a proud mustache, and a cigar held tastefully in his left hand almost out of sight.
I asked Miryam, "Who is that handsome couple in your album?" "I have no idea," she said. "Well I will tell you who they are. "They are my grandparents, Rosa and Herman." It is an engagement photo or maybe one taken soon after they were married. My grandparents look so young, yet it is unmistakably them! Miryam gave me the photo without hesitation.
The second photo is engraved in my mind's eye and I think it will haunt me now for a long time. There is a young boy, maybe eight years old, and he is standing beside his older sister who is seated in a very prim and proper manner. They are dressed in the expensive, fashionable and youthful clothing of the 1920's. The boy is smiling ever so slightly and the girl is more serious. "Who are these attractive children?" I ask Miryam. "I have no idea'" she answered. "Well I will tell you. That young boy is my father, Otto, and the girl is his sister, my Aunt Ida." Again, unmistakable.
Since Miryam had met Aunt Ida several times and she had met my father on one occasion, she wanted to leave that photo in her album. It was a good decision. Instead of looking at the photo from time to time, I will keep it in my consciousness where it is a more powerful image.
Our lot in life. That is the theme of our Torah reading this week. How do we know our lot in life? How do we accept our lot in life? Can that little boy in the photograph anticipate his lot in life?
What I see in that clear photograph is my father as a young boy, a boy with a sincere smile, a warm countenance and a serene, strong composure, the personal attributes that will serve him well in his many years ahead. The very attributes that will carry Otto Polatschek through his lot in life. The very attributes I hope his son has learned. The ones I will pass on to the next generations.
Otto S. Polatschek. Rest in Peace.
July 12, 2007
For many years I had considered changing the spelling of my name. Perhaps Jan Polachek or Jan Polacheck. Or maybe Jan Polacek, my grandparents name. To honor my father and my family, I decided to keep the name I was given at birth.