Each January 27th, I join many families that pause to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism. With each life lost, daughters, sons and grandchildren are left to bear the grief and the multigenerational and intergenerational trauma. My dad’s family were victims of Nazism in Poland, but fortunately he was spared the horror. As a young man he fled to America which became his second home that provided life from the ashes. It is with honor and lasting love that I remember him.
Memories of him were written in an article posted in the Detroit Sunday Times on April 2, 1944 titled:
“Nazis Hold Family of Wounded Vet:
Jones Hospital Patient Gives Lesson in Courage“
The words were hidden away on page 10. But an unnamed reporter visited Jones Hospital trying to unearth profiles in courage.
Zalman’s story . . . my dad’s story . . . is worth remembering . . .
“It would be hard for the ordinary person to understand why Pvt. Zalman Lopata of Detroit can smile so often and so easily. There is so much in his life that might embitter even a young man of 24.
Pvt. Lopata went through Fort Guster as an inductee in January, 1943. Now he is back for treatment in Percy Jones Hospital here. He stepped on a German mine in the beachhead fighting at Anzio, Italy.
On that beachhead he left a leg, and he is here for a new operation so that he can wear an artificial leg. But that is not all of the story.
Pvt. Lopata has little hope that his parents and his brothers and sisters are alive. He left them in Wysock, Poland, in 1938 to come to America. They are Jewish.
Lopata speaks perfect English, which he learned in Detroit night schools while he worked days in a department store. He hopes later to enter some trade. So far as he knows, his only living relative is an uncle. Norman Lee of 18272 Santa Barbara, Detroit. The soldier’s former address was 1664 Elmhurst. It is not easy to get Pvt. Lopata to talk. But in his smile there seems to be no hurt.“
My dad may have been quiet, but at the same time he was a tough cookie. For all of the sadness and hardships he experienced in his life, he was definitely a survivor. Moving to a new country all alone, learning a new language and supporting himself was no easy task – especially carrying the weight of having lost his entire family to the Nazis. A few years after arriving in the United States, he enlisted in the Army, and unfortunately, lost his leg by stepping on a land mine during WWII.
After spending months rehabilitating, he was able to walk again with the aid of a prosthetic leg. Back then it was a leg made of wood that provided a foot and went up to the knee. At that point there was a leather corset that held his remaining natural leg and attached to that was a belt that he secured around his waist. It was quite heavy, easily weighing over 20 pounds and cumbersome to have to manipulate all day long, but he did.
Although that was a visible wound, as I think back, it wasn’t the only wound from which he most probably suffered. Because he married and worked and had a family, outwardly it appeared that he was able to move forward with his life. However, it didn’t mean he wasn’t suffering from an invisible trauma – PTSD. This disorder was not even popularized and discussed until the 1980’s. The ongoing trauma of losing his family would have been enough, but he also suffered the shock of losing his leg. At the time he was released from the hospital, there was no psychological help available for this disorder, as it was not yet recognized.
The prevailing male ethos was to remain outwardly strong and silent. I NEVER heard him talk about his war experience, or the loss of his family. This silence and subsequent isolation could only have made the wounds of his trauma even more difficult to endure. No human heart and no human mind is equipped to bear this much trauma alone. Yet he persevered without grievance and bitterness.
During my entire life, I knew that he had a wooden leg, but I never thought of him as handicapped or disabled. He was just my dad who wore a prosthesis – that I would hide from him when I was a little girl on Sunday mornings when he didn’t have to get up early to go to work! We would laugh and then I would bring it back to him after teasing him a little bit. In my eyes, as a little girl, and even now as I look back, it never stopped him from doing anything.
When I was very young, he would take me swimming at Wood Hall Lake, where my aunt had a cottage. He would take off his wooden leg and leave it at the edge of the lake and get into the water. Then I would get in, wrap my arms around his neck and he’d swim with me on his back.
At least one day every summer my dad, mom and I would go to the Detroit Zoo. Even in the heat of the summer, he would walk around with me no matter how uncomfortable it would be for him, pausing to sit down for a rest on the benches in front of the polar bear exhibit.
Each summer he would cut his own grass with a push lawn mower. He would also tend to the most beautiful vegetable garden that he would plant each year in our backyard. From that garden he would grow, among other things, the cucumbers he would use to make the most delicious dill pickles! I remember him enjoying cooking brisket too, which was absolutely delectable and he knew was a favorite of mine.
He never had fancy cars, but whatever he owned, he cared for meticulously. I remember a yellow Chevrolet convertible and a red and white Oldsmobile in particular. He would spend much time outside cleaning them inside and out – painting little dings and scratches. He would always park as far away from other cars in the parking lot as he could, regardless of the walk to get where he was going, to keep them from getting marred. Something I always complained about to no avail. He loved his cars!
I think of him always as such a hard worker. He never missed a day of work regardless of Michigan weather. Each morning he would take the bus to work downtown at the Veteran’s Administration where he was an Adjudicator. He loved when I was older and had a summer job downtown near where he worked, because I would visit him from time to time. He would introduce me to every possible person he could find in his office. The best part being that sometimes we would take the bus home together.
His work paid off in so many ways. He always made sure that he and my mom always had a nice house. Nothing fancy, but very comfortable. I never felt as though there was anything I needed and couldn’t have. He managed to pay for my entire college tuition without asking me for a cent, and bought me my first car when I transferred from Michigan State University to Wayne State University. He was so proud.
The greatest gift he ever received was the gift of his grandchildren – Danielle and Layne. Oh how he loved those little girls! He and my mom babysat for me often because I had to work, so he was able to spend time with them watching them grow up. It was with a special twinkle in his eye when he told me stories of what they were up to during their time together that was so powerful to me. These were moments of pleasure and joy that he so richly deserved.
So, yes he was quiet. And yes he suffered more than many. But his life was well-lived and I am forever grateful for having him as my father, for being an example of determination and perseverance and for the sacrifices he made for me. His unending love, his example of a powerful work ethic, and his belief in me has been the inspiration for all that I do in my life.