A treatise from a son of a Holocaust survivor.
Watching John McCain’s acceptance speech the other night, I couldn’t help think of my dad. No, my father never ran for any political office nor did he fly fighter jets in Vietnam. He wasn’t even born in this country. But he loved his adopted country as much as John McCain does. And like McCain, he too was a survivor. No, he wasn’t a POW. Marty Lebovits, my father, was a survivor of Auschwitz.
POW or Auschwitz survivor. We’re not talking apples and oranges here. We’re talking the same apple. And the same heroism.
Marty was 16 years old when World War II ended. He weighed sixty-five pounds when a U.S. convoy picked him up somewhere in Austria days after his captors fled, days after he had endured a three-hundred mile march through the bitter winter winds of Poland, his only protection a thin cloth coat more suitable for soft summer nights in his native Czechoslovakia.
His first and most salient memory after he was rescued was the food. The food! Under the care of American doctors, Marty ate and ate, tasting exotic foods with funny names like “Jell-o” and “Spam.” Yes, Marty was raised as an Orthodox Jew, but after three years of being on the Nazi SlimFast diet, Marty knew God would forgive him the sin of spiced ham. And he continued to eat.
And so began his love affair with America.
Victims of unimaginable horror try to bury their anger in different ways. My dad buried it so deeply that it came out the other end in China. Yes, he wore the scars of Auschwitz, the ugly tattooed number on his left forearm, the buckshot wounds in his legs from his first attempted escape from Auschwitz, and the emotional scars of losing five brothers and sisters and my grandparents. But he only talked about them when asked. He was an American now. These scars were just impotent reminders. They would not dictate his life.
John McCain never buried his anger. He wears his anger on both sleeves, across his brow, and on his pant legs. It is chiseled into his heroic face. He is defined by this anger. It’s what makes him tick, what makes him get up in the morning. As he admitted in the speech, as a young pilot he “liked to pick fights.” Nothing has changed.
As I listened to McCain speak, I thought of another similarity and a compelling disparity between these two men. It involves recklessness.
John McCain crashed five fighter jets. Forty years later, he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Marty Lebovits was reckless too. He liked to tailgate on the highway at high speeds while my mom screamed at him from the passenger seat, and my sister and I pressed our small hands against the backseat hoping that dad would just slow down.
When you beat back death, you crave another chance to beat it back again.
But Marty never wanted to see war again. John McCain is itching for the next battle. He wants to relive Vietnam through Iraq, Iran, and, heaven forbid, Russia. But this time, he intends to win.
Like McCain, my father married the most glamorous woman in town and went on to become a man of some accomplishment. John McCain found it in the world of Washington politics. My dad found it as “King Marty,” the king of 8-track players in Tonawanda, New York.
These kinds of men come back from war with a strange sense of entitlement, a feeling that they will not be denied the pleasures of life.
For my dad, it was food. Grocery shopping was a childhood joy of mine. Every other Sunday morning, my mom would make a small list of items for my dad and me to pick up at Park Edge Supermarket, and every other Sunday morning my dad and I would come home with five brimming bags of groceries. Like a Czech Scarlett O’Hara, Marty Lebovits looked to the skies and cried out “As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again… now pass the whitefish.”
John McCain came back from his war, ditched his first wife after she was disfigured in a car accident, and then married the wealthy beer heiress Cindy. He, too, would not be denied. I do not begrudge him this, nor his seven homes and private jet. Five years of torture as a POW entitles him to these creature comforts.
It does not entitle him to be President of the United States.
The other night, I imagined my dad sitting next to me watching John McCain speak, their stories so different, but equally compelling and heart wrenching. He would’ve been confused why a man running for President could be so open about his torture. He wouldn’t understand how a man could speak so freely about the intimate details of his captivity.
Marty Lebovits never played the role of victim. Minutes away from the gas chamber, he buried himself underneath a pile of clothes, underneath hundreds of filthy drab shirts and pants and socks and shoes discarded by men on their way to a certain death. And Marty hid. Hours later, a forklift lifted him onto a truck, the truck drove away from the camp, and his first escape from Auschwitz began.
Marty Lebovits would never understand why Senator John McCain would want to play the part of victim, to use his horrible Vietnam history as a way to raise sympathy and garner votes. He would never comprehend why a true American hero would sell his victimization like a discount Motorola 8-track player.
Marty Lebovits, a hero in his own right, would never vote for John McCain.