20 Jun

My Father’s Gift to Me

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, June 18, 2010


 When I was 12, my father came and spoke to my seventh-grade class. I remember feeling proud, for my rural school was impressed by a visit from a university professor. But I also recall being embarrassed — at my dad’s strong Slavic accent, at his refugee origins, at his “differentness.”

I’m back at my childhood home and reflecting on all this because abruptly I find myself fatherless on Father’s Day. My dad died a few days ago at age 91, after a storybook life — devoted above all to his only child.

Reporting on poverty and absentee fathers has taught me what a gift fatherhood is: I know I won the lottery of life by having loving, caring parents. There’s another reason I feel indebted to my father, and it has to do with those embarrassing foreign ways: his willingness to leave everything familiar behind in the quest for a new world that would provide opportunity even for a refugee’s children.

My father, an Armenian, was born in a country that no longer exists, Austria-Hungary, in a way of life that no longer exists. The family was in the nobility, living on an estate of thousands of acres — and then came World War II.

My father was imprisoned by the Nazis for helping spy on their military presence in Poland. He bribed his way out of prison, but other relatives died at Auschwitz for spying. Then the Soviet Union grabbed the region and absorbed it into Ukraine, and other relatives died in Siberian labor camps.

Penniless, my father fled on horseback to Romania but saw that a Communist country would afford a future neither for him nor his offspring. So he headed toward the West, swimming across the Danube River on a moonless night. On the Yugoslav side of the river, he was captured and sent to a concentration camp and then an asbestos mine and a logging camp. After two years, he was able to flee to Italy and then to France.

My father found that despite his fluent French and university education, France did not embrace refugees. Even children of refugees were regarded as less than fully French.

So he boarded a ship in 1952 to the United States, the land of opportunity — even though English was not among the seven languages that he spoke. His first purchase was a copy of the Sunday New York Times, with which he began to teach himself an eighth language.

He arrived as Vladislav Krzysztofowicz, but no American could pronounce that. So he shortened it to Ladis Kristof.

After working in an Oregon logging camp to earn money and learn English, he started university all over again at the age of 34, at Reed College. He earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago, where he met my mother, Jane, and in his 40s he began a career as a political science professor, eventually winding up at Portland State University.

Because he never forgot what it is to be needy, my dad was attentive to other people’s needs. Infuriatingly so. He picked up every hitchhiker and drove them miles out of his way; if they needed a place to sleep, he offered our couch.

Seeking an echo of his old estate, my dad settled us on a farm, which he equipped with tractors and an extraordinary 30,000-volume library: From chain saws to the complete works of Hegel (in German), our farm has it all.

At the age of 80, my father still chopped firewood as fast as I did. In his late 80s, he climbed the highest tree on our farm each spring to photograph our cherry orchard in bloom. At 90, he still hunted.

I know that such a long and rich life is to be celebrated, not mourned. I know that his values and outlook survive because they are woven into my fabric. But my heart still aches terribly.

As I grew up, I came to admire my father’s foreign manners as emblems of any immigrant’s gift to his children. When I was in college, I copied out a statement of his:

“War, want and concentration camps, exile from home and homeland, these have made me hate strife among men, but they have not made me lose faith in the future of mankind. … If man has been able to create the arts, the sciences and the material civilization we know in America, why should he be judged powerless to create justice, fraternity and peace?”

I taped it to my dorm room wall, but I didn’t tell him. It felt too awkward. And now it’s too late. Even this column comes a few days too late.

So my message for Father’s Day is simple: Celebrate the bequest of fatherhood with something simpler, deeper and truer than an artificial verse on a store-bought card. Speak and hug from your heart and soul — while there is still time.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.


 On The Ground With  NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

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