I love these pictures of my father: young, happy, fit and tanned. He was born in 1928, to a poor family in a small town in Poland. His family – his parents, his sister – were murdered by the Nazis. I know some of the details of what happened to him in those years, but I cannot imagine, and I hope you can’t either, all the horrors my father saw before he was eighteen. Fifty years later remembering some of those things could still make him cry. Otherwise, every day and to everyone he met, he was always cheerful, always friendly, always optimistic. He was garrulous, he loved being with people. He always looked for solutions to problems, never lingered on setbacks. He was an optimist who had seen the worst the World could offer.
These pictures were all taken in the years after he was liberated from Thereisenstadt, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, at the end of the Second World War. Britain offered to take a thousand young survivors in, only 732 could be found. He was brought to the Lake District. They – children, really, who had had their childhoods stolen – couldn’t believe how much food was on the tables for them. They stuffed bread in their pockets for later, not imagining there would be another meal later that day or even later that week.
He grew strong. (His great friend Ben Helfgott, also from Poland, also a camp survivor, went on to represent Great Britain in weightlifting at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956). Those survivors, the few left after six million were murdered by poison gas or starvation or bullet, not to mention the many other cruel ways Nazi Germany thought up to kill Jews, all had great strength of character.
In 1948 my father went to the new country of Israel to fight in the War of Independence. Three years after liberation he was willing to put his life at risk again for a country where the Jews could be free. There he is, sitting on a masthead, in the picture at the top of this post. It was taken in Marseille on his way East and is my favourite photo of him. You could see the same look on his face sixty years later when he was excited. The British didn’t make it easy for them to cross the Mediterranean. He fought. Life in the Camps made you tough.
He returned to Britain. I don’t know why he didn’t stay in Israel – he loved it for the rest of his life and went back many times. He married my mother, learned a trade, started a business, started a family. It wasn’t that easy to be his son. He wasn’t easily pleased. He wasn’t fascinated by us. He doesn’t deserve all the blame for that, not at all. It probably wasn’t all that easy to be my father. He was more likely to praise his friends’ children than his own. Maybe we were less praiseworthy. My mother is the opposite of him in many ways – unsocial, timid, shy – yet their marriage was a success, they were happy together. You would see them holding each others’ hand all their lives. Jack and Mrs Spratt.
Ten years ago he retired from his business, which he loved, to look after my mother after she became unwell. He did this in the same way he did everything: a new challenge to master, another obstacle to overcome. He even learned to cook a little. They gave up travelling. They’d been to a lot of places, seen a lot of the world. He even gave up going to Israel which I think must have been the most difficult thing. But he was never down about it. He’d sit at a café a hundred metres from his flat – it was as far as he could walk in the last couple of years of his life – he’d drink lemon tea and wave at people as they passed, talk to anyone that would talk to him.
In his last few years we found a way to enjoy each other’s company. We even chatted on the phone. We’d never chatted on the phone before. Those ten years were very troubled for my family, I don’t need to tell you how, but my father was always resilient, always looking for ways to improve things. Look at his face in these pictures. He got to have his life, despite whole nations making a lot of effort to end it, as so many were ended. He feared the World would forget the suffering. I was sceptical of that, but after events of the last years I’m less so. Attacks on Jews, debates about if it’s time to forget the Holocaust on British tv, some people want to pretend it didn’t happen. But he survived it, was a witness. He survived to ride a bike and do hand stands to impress girls on a beach. He made money and friends and laughter. He had a good life. And that’s why I love these pictures of my father.
Israel Wilder, born Pietrokov, Poland, 3-12-28, died London, England, 24-5-11.