Yehuda Nir died at the age of 84 on Saturday, peacefully and at home. He lived a remarkable life, which you can read about in this New York Times obituary. He was a Holocaust survivor who dedicated his life to healing the hearts of others as a psychiatrist, and he was forever on a mission to educate the world about the evil he witnessed and lived through first-hand. His main vehicle for doing so was his memoir, The Lost Childhood, a book invariably described by its readers as gripping and vital.
He was also my father, and it was not always easy to grow up the son of a survivor, forever haunted by the shadow of the Shoah. But in spite of everything, my father still had much to offer the world. Below is the remembrance of him I delivered at his funeral on Monday. An audio version is also available.
I would like to talk with you about hope.
I always used to joke about myself that I had to be the ultimate pessimist: I'm a Jew, I'm a Democrat, and I'm a Mets fan.
But some years back, someone pointed out to me that I had it exactly backwards. If I thought good things might happen for the Jews ... if I believed Democrats might actually win some elections now and again ... and if I was capable—of all things—of rooting for the Mets to return to the World Series, then I had to be one of the most starry-eyed optimists in the world.
I think that's exactly right. I am a relentless believer in hope.
But for my father, hope was something much harder to come by.
How could it not have been? We comfort mourners with the eternal words of Psalm 23: "Gam ki elech b'gei tzalmavet"—"As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death," its most famous verse begins.
But my father did not merely walk through that valley. He dwelled in its darkest glen for four years. He was a victim of a humanity that had sunk to its lowest, most evil depths. Human prey, he called himself.
It would be impossible not to be profoundly altered by such an unimaginable experience. Everyone in this room who knew my father knew that indeed he had been. The Holocaust left inerasable scars on his soul, and it robbed him of so many things.
One of those was the capacity for forgiveness, the left hand of hope. My father began his memoir with an unforgettable quotation from Samuel Becket's novel Malone Dies—the story of a man trapped in an asylum. "Let me say before I go any further," thunders Malone at the outset, "that I forgive nobody." It was a statement my father repeated countless times throughout his whole life.
Yehuda would glance at the front page of the newspaper and summarize the contents each day by saying "There's nothing new under the sun." He would summarize his own political philosophy with just one word, always uttered in rat-a-tat fashion: "Ven-det-ta," he'd say, just like that, with his wry smile.
Many years ago, my father and I went to a screening of "The Trial," Orson Welles' 1962 rendition of Franz Kafka's immortal work. The film's protagonist, Josef K., is hounded by the authorities and pursued for an unknown crime that he didn't even commit—just like my father had once been. I was in awe of Welles' artistry, and I'm still haunted by Kafka's disturbing message, but I could recognize nothing in Josef K.'s experience that was anything like my own.
In a sign of the gulf between our lives, though, my father told me he identified deeply with Josef K. and his harrowing tale.
These were not the sentiments of a man brimming with hope—not that anyone could ever blame him.
Unlike Josef K., who meets his death at the hands of his tormenters at the end of the story, my father lived. He did not merely live—he chose life, affirmatively and decisively. And that decision allowed hope to flower in others.
Just about everyone here has heard my father recite that quote from Malone Dies. What fewer people know about is a line my father later included in an epilogue. He was once asked what kind of message young people, whom he fervently wanted to read his book, should take from such an otherwise stark and unforgiving man. Wrote my father:
The intention of this book is to convey to young people that if you take charge of your life rather than passively observe it like a couch potato, you might help to create a world where forgiveness is possible.Think about that, if you would: a world where forgiveness is possible. My father wasn't saying he could create that world, but in spite of everything he had faced, all the wounds he had suffered, he wanted to inspire those who could create such a world.
I am one of those people he inspired. So is my mother. So is my sister Sarah. So is my brother Aaron. So is my brother Dan.
While my father could not embrace hope, he embraced his triumph over impossible odds, and he brought his children into a better world where they in turn could build on the love, hope, and forgiveness that he had never enjoyed.
But those ideals were there for us to embrace, and deep inside himself, I think he knew it. That's why he always wanted us to take charge—to "unleash yourself," as he would say. We could have the lives he was denied, and we have done exactly that.
In his later years, it felt to me like my father groused about the news less often. I'd like to think it's a little harder to complain about the headlines when two of your kids are making the news, and the other two are writing it.
But my most indelible memory of my father comes from my earliest years. My dad could do many things most of us cannot: He practiced medicine, he spoke six languages, he could eat absolutely horrifying leftovers that had sat in the freezer unwrapped for two weeks and still declare them "edible."
Yet there was one simple task he could not perform: My father did not know how to ride a bike. It's the easiest of things, something almost every child learns—but of course, my father's childhood was lost, or to be faithful to his vernacular, it was stolen.
That did not stop him, though, from teaching me how to ride a big boy bike. With the training wheels off for the first time, my father placed one hand on the handlebars and the other behind the seat. As I pedaled, he jogged along side me, keeping me steady. A scary moment became a joyous one... and then I realized I was on my own.
My father had let go, and stood there watching me ride down the street all by myself. I had done something he could not—but I had done it with his help. All my life I have felt this was the perfect metaphor for my dad. There were things he could not achieve, but he wanted others to achieve them, and he could inspire them to get there. That's exactly what he did that day, and I'll always remember it.
The melancholy Kafka once said there is hope, but not for us. If I could apply that saying to my father, I'd say that while hope may have been rendered a stranger to him, he knew it did not have to be that way for the rest of us. My father liked to quote the equally melancholy Samuel Beckett, but he made it possible for me instead to want to quote legendary New York Mets relief pitcher Tug McGraw, who once famously declared of his own team, "Ya gotta believe!"
You gotta believe—in love, in forgiveness, in tikkun olam, making the world a better place. In peace, in freedom, in safety, in happiness. Above all, you've got to believe in hope. My father wouldn't want it any other way.