A few years ago I audited one of my father’s undergraduate psychology courses. He taught for many years at Hunter College, the flagship campus of the City University of New York, and just one or two years prior had finally, reluctantly, decided to retire, but continued to teach one course as an emeritus member of the faculty. “My work is what keeps me alive,” he used to repeat like a mantra.
Hunter’s student body today consists largely of hard-working first- and second-generation immigrants. The classroom that day contained two or three dozen nineteen and twenty year olds, primarily of Asian and Eastern European descent. I had never had trouble communicating with my father before, but, as Dad began his lecture and the students put down their phones and leaned in, it immediately struck me how many obstacles existed between him and his students.
First, there’s the language barrier. English is his third language, and many of his students were also not native English speakers. This is exacerbated by the generational difference: as he ages Dad has struggled more and more with English vocabulary and sometimes reverts to his native German. Fully three generations separated him and his students. Finally, there’s the cultural barrier. Despite having lived in the United States for 70 years, Dad still struggles to understand certain aspects of American culture and, in particular, to communicate and identify with those from different cultural backgrounds than his own.
In spite of all of these obstacles, his teaching was a great success: a joy to him and, apparently, to his students as well, who consistently gave him rave reviews. Sometimes the students would have to repeat a question three or four times, often speaking slowly to emphasize the words and the sounds that are as foreign to them as they are to my father, before he fully understood. But it is a testament to the robustness of human language and of the human mind and spirit that these individuals, with a lifetime and a world of linguistic, cultural, and generational differences between them, could find common ground to communicate at all, let alone to engage in discourse on a topic as complex as social psychology.
There was another obstacle present that day, one that I wasn’t aware of at the time. Dad has always been somewhat emotionally distant. He has always expressed his love for his children in his own way, and it was always clear that he loved us with all his heart, but his life and his personality have always been tinged with a sense of melancholy and loneliness. I always chalked it up to age—by the time you’re in your nineties, most of the people you’ve ever known have left you for good—or to a certain world-weariness, hard earned by surviving not only the Holocaust but also two marriages and three episodes of cancer.
It turns out that there was more to his emotional distance than I realized. As I began to understand from this book, in my father today there is more than a little of the frightened boy that he describes in the following pages, terrified that a band of older boys will pull his pants down around the next corner. Dad has spoken many times in vague terms about Nazis, about sleeping with a gun while on the kibbutz because of some perceived but unknown threat. And it is of course natural to expect that someone who experienced the things he did would bear some emotional burden, would carry it throughout life as a result. But I never quite understood the nature of that burden. Seeing it brought into the cold, harsh light of day—this pervasive, unrelenting, merciless feeling of detachment and inability to form deep emotional bonds with other humans—is somehow like learning that a loved one has been living, and struggling, with a disease that you were long unaware of. It makes his accomplishments that much more remarkable, like learning that a boxing champion has been fighting his entire career with the remnants of some terrible, invisible, ancient injury.
And yet, as is so often the case, these experiences have also given him gifts. His innocence, diligence, power of introspection, and simple modesty have allowed him to succeed professionally, to chart the depths of the human mind, and have made him a good man and a good father.
This book is in fact many books. There are at least four parallel stories. First, there is my father’s life story, disjoint, narrated in a detached fashion, because he doesn’t want this book to “be about him.” Nevertheless, the life story is there and shines through in anecdotes such as the joy he felt when he discovered that he could eat as much food as he wanted on the boat during his trip from Palestine to New York.
Second, there is history. My father bore firsthand witness to some of the most important events of the most tumultuous era of modern history. He was born into a world that, fortunately, no longer exists. He had a front row seat as Hitler consolidated power, as the crowds in Berlin began to flock to his rallies, and as the situation for Jewish families like his became dire. He witnessed the initial rumblings that led to the birth of the modern nation of Israel, and arrived in the United States just as it was entering its brilliant post war period of prosperity: the longest, richest, most sustained period of wealth generation on the part of everyday people that the world has ever seen. In this respect, this story, his story, is also one version of the American Dream. This era and his experience, the experience of millions of American immigrants like him, is indeed what made the United States of America a great country and stands in harsh contrast to the America of today, with a stalled American Dream and an immigrant-bashing demagogue as commander in chief.
Third, there is Nazism, and indeed the Holocaust is present in every page and every word of this book. The reader can feel my father’s fear and persistent paranoia even decades later and thousands of miles away from what he experienced as a child in Berlin, captured in anecdotes such as his dreams of mowing down wave after wave of Nazis with a machine gun. Those of us fortunate enough to have been born and raised in a more peaceful time and place cannot fully appreciate the events that unfolded in the twentieth century and the impact they had on survivors like my father. This is why it is so essential that we rely on the likes of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, and Viktor Frankl to move us by their prose and to remind us what the human species is capable of, both wonderful and terrible. My father does not want this to primarily be a “political book,” but in an age when antisemitism is again on the rise, and indeed hateful speech and fear of people who look and sound differently continues to be normalized, it is more important than ever to remember where such rhetoric can lead and to understand the impact it can have on the lives of ordinary people.
Finally, and most powerfully, there is the titular topic, three radically different systems of social and economic organization: fascism, communalism (what my father refers to as “Neo-Marxism”), and American capitalism, and the impact each had on my father’s life and psyche. How many humans can claim to have embedded themselves deeply, meaningfully, in three systems as distinct as these? How many can relate clearly what those experiences were like, compare and contrast them, and probe the social and psychological effects of each?
One final barrier between my father’s world and the world of today is the obstacle of empathy and understanding. Few people alive today can identify with the breadth and depth of experiences he’s had in his lifetime. While he has tirelessly taught social psychology to undergraduate and graduate students alike for over sixty years, his greatest gift to our generation may be something related, but something else entirely: this narrative, and a living testimony to the real, ongoing, visceral effects of systems such as fascism and collectivism upon the human spirit. This book is a gift to those of us who cannot otherwise identify with his world, as it allows us not only to approach (if never quite reach) his experience, but also to understand something of the rationale and context behind these economic, political, and social systems from the perspective of an expert who has spent his life researching (in addition to having experienced firsthand) such systems.
And this barrier, at least, can be partially overcome. We can read these words and make an effort to come one step closer to his reality, and to glean crucial implications for the world of today. In some small way, the act of writing this book has brought us closer together, and enabling others to read this book and gain some insight into his world—a world that’s long gone, but maybe not as gone as we might hope—may yet bring him some closure in the final years of his life.
We are all my father’s people.
NEW YORK, August 2019
[This is the foreword to a book that my father published last year: What a Life: From Nazi Germany Via Neo-Marxism to American Academia.]