Move over, Kornmehl family. Today is my father’s day.
From Vienna to Belgium and America
If I thought I knew next-to-nothing about my mother’s past, I know even less about my father’s. I’m not sure, for example, whether my paternal grandfather died before the war or left his family — and, in either case, when those events occurred. My mother didn’t know either. And only after my father died did I discover, by spotting a glass Jarolim Biergarten mug in my sister’s house, that my paternal grandfather had owned a beer hall.
The story of my father’s war years is equally fuzzy. He and his brother Richard were able to get to Belgium, where they spent some time in a work camp. Somehow my father was able to come to America, while Richard was sent to someplace deadly. The other brother, my uncle Fritz, survived the war by joining the French Foreign Legion.
My mother told me that when my father got definite word after the war that his mother and sister had been killed, he had a nervous breakdown. I don’t doubt it. My father was a difficult man. He would punish me and my sister for whatever childish infractions we committed by refusing to speak to us — sometimes for six months at a time.
That drove me crazy, I won’t deny it. But I adored him. And I don’t think I ever had any doubt that he loved me too.
Our Brooklyn Outings
My father was a dental technician — did he learn the trade at the Belgian work camp, or did he already know it in Vienna? I have no idea — which meant crafting dentures and bridges for his many dentist clients. He worked long hours during the week and he often worked on Saturday too. But on many Sundays he would take me to Garfield’s Cafeteria on Flatbush Avenue for a piece of cake or pie. It was just the two of us; my mother and sister were not invited.
When we moved up the D train line to King’s Highway, where my father had his dental laboratory, we shifted Sunday cafeteria venues to Dubrow’s.
I look more like my father than I do my mother. I’ve been told I get my sense of humor from him, too; he had a dry wit. He was never very demonstrative, but on my wedding day morning, he saw I was upset. He asked me if I was sure I wanted to go through with it, and told me that I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to. Then he hugged me hard and told me that he loved me. I don’t think anyone, even my mother, knew about that.
He died suddenly when I was 23, of a heart attack. He was 70, and had stopped working at his dental laboratory about two weeks earlier. He and my mother were planning to move to Atlanta, where my sister and her family lived. I guess he didn’t like change.
Of course it could have been a coincidence. I didn’t know this until after the fact, but my father had been diagnosed with an enlarged heart and given pills to take. That he didn’t take them is not a huge shock. My family hated doctors.
I never called my father “dad” or “father”; it was always “daddy,” which sounds a bit childish but I’m not going to rewrite history.
It was a very long time ago, but I still miss him. I promise to work on your family tree next, Daddy. If I ever finish with the Kornmehls.