When I say that my mom was an Auschwitz survivor, people go into “Wow” mode. But while it may surprise you, I don’t believe that’s an excuse for subsequent behavior. You see, I grew up knowing dozens of Holocaust survivors. And some were very resilient and productive; others not. The Holocaust, as absolutely horrific as it was, seemed to only significantly affect only some survivors’ subsequent lives.
Of course, some of that is simply constitutional: Some people have more internal resources. But that wasn’t my mom’s problem. She was well-adjusted, healthy, not to mention beautiful. Let's just say she wasn't the hardest working person.
In our Bronx and then Queens apartment, she spent lots of time hanging out: playing cards, going clothes shopping, etc., and because my sister and I were pretty easy kids, she didn’t need to (nor did) spend much time with us—except when, God forbid, I’d come home ten minutes late for dinner, thereby delaying her broiled meat’s timing and, angry, she whipped me. I frequently wore welts.
She never chose to work outside the home, never contributing a dime to the family despite my father working seven, yes seven, days a week, 12 hours a day, taking a bus, two trains, plus a six block walk—rain, shine, or snow—to work in a crummy store in one of Brooklyn’s most dangerous neighborhoods, in a tiny clothing store that always smelled of stale blood from the live-chicken market next door merged with the smell of chicharones (deep-fried pork intestines) from the deli on the other side.
Yet my dad never complained. Although he never made much money, he just kept buying her the jewelry and fur coats she insisted she deserved—three fur coats to be precise. Nor did he, also a Holocaust survivor, ever complain about it. One day, I asked him why. He stiffened, which he rarely did, and said, “Martin, the Nazis took five years from my life. I won’t give them one minute more. Martin, never look back, always take the next step forward.”
That lesson has been my life’s most important—helping me to avoid playing victim—for example, blaming my issues on my mother having frequently whipped me. That lesson also has helped me motivate my clients who had been using decades-old mistreatment to justify current inertia or bad behavior.
The main lesson I learned from my mom was equally vivid. Seeing the way she chose to live her life motivated me to marry the opposite kind of person. My wife Barbara is one of the nation’s most respected school superintendents, a great wife and mom, and treats me with the respect I only wish my mom had shown my dad. Thanks, mom, for being a role model.
Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.