Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Righteous Man....My Father

My father died last week at the age of 78. Here is a quick version of his story:

Richard K. 1934-2012


Born to Jewish immigrant parents my father grew up in the Bronx, New York. He attended Taft High school. He ran away at age 17 and joined the navy during the Korean War. He went to New York University on the GI Bill and became a teacher. He helped start the 600 school system in NYC (which no longer exists). Today we would call him a special education teacher. He left teaching as a Vice Principal.

From teaching he went into Jewish philanthropic work. But not content to give up his teacher calling he also taught at Memphis State University and helped create the program today known as Head Start.

My father was never one to sit on the sidelines of life. My first vivid memory of the life he would live (and which I am only learning alot about now that he is gone) was finding out that on a trip to the Soviet Union, he smuggled out a list bearing the names of Jewish refuseniks. One of the cause celebres of the time was freedom for Soviet Jews, but noone in the west knew anything about their organization and the people involved in the underground until that list was made available. If my father would have been caught, he had been warned, he could have been prosecuted for espionage. This list ended up in the hands of then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on his first meeting with Leonid Brezhnev.

My father wrote the original proposal for the US Holocaust Museum and the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) at the Justice Department. While the Jewish world gives this honor to another named individual (My father had the nerve to be a republican I suppose. We can discuss the psychiatric health issues of some US Jews at another time). You can see the original proposal with his name on it in the Carter Presidential Library (we have a "presidential sealed" copy). He was named an advisor to the OSI. In his time, he was considered one of the leading authorities on the Holocaust and Nazi war criminals.

My father was named a Presidential appointee under the Reagan Administration. He was the Associate Coordinator for Refugee Affairs. During his tenure he planned and organized the airlift of Ethiopian Jews out of the Sudan. Other than a few mentions in passing in most books and the Jerusalem Post his is a name most people would never know. So much of what my father did during those years is unknown and hidden. This is only one of the operations out of his office. Most programs would never get the publicity Operation Moses received.


My father standing next to my mother, being sworn into his State Department post by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor


As the associate coordinator for refugee affairs my father would visit refugee camps that were funded in part by US taxpayers. After one such visit to the refugee camps in Gaza, my father also attempted to help the Palestinian refugees by trying to get funding for better conditions in the camps. His attempt was not only shut down by our government, but by the UN and the Arab governments he approached. My father could not solve the middle east crisis, but he saw no reason that people who were caught in the middle of this political morass had to live in squalor. What my father saw were children, mothers and fathers. To him, everyone was first and foremost a human being.

There are events that he participated in to this day my father has never spoken about and are still highly classified. Remember this was at the end of the Cold War and so much of his time and effort was spent trying to free enslaved nations. At first he was asked to never request his government file for his own safety. The government felt several years ago that enough time had passed to send out his file if he wanted it. But when he finally received the file, the government had so redacted it, that the only words left on the pages were mainly prepositions.

From there my father was the head of the US Holocaust Commission. Yes, he ran the organization he had developed that noone ever gives him credit for creating.

After he left government my father developed a program for testing immigrants taking their citizenship exam. It was a successful program. It saved the federal government huge amounts of money. It helped people take their tests earlier than if they had to wait for the government to administer the tests. The person in the government who oversaw their program, one day told them that their program was going to be shut down because "they were republicans." Those were the exact words.  The Clintons had come into office. (Yes they are not my favorite people.) My parents lost their business six months later.

Even after he left government, my father continued in his own way to work towards a better world. He never stopped hunting down war criminals living in the US. He helped deport some very very very nasty evil men. HERE Yes, some parts of your past life do come back at times. Even last year he had been asked to help track down a war criminal in another country. (Here, here, here, here)

My fathers testimony before the Congress on the rehabilitation of torture victims. Here.

From there my father went back to his first love..teaching. He started as a special education teacher and ended up teaching regular 8th grade social studies. He taught, critical thinking and law. He loved helping children learn to learn and to appreciate and prepare for the future. He taught them a love of country and a love of the US Constitution. Most of the students he had recently taught were children of immigrants, like himself, whose parents came here, to this nation seeking a better life.

In happier times, my mother and father used to reminisce about the adventures that they lived through. My mother would then turn to him and tell him, "not bad for two little kids from the Bronx." No not bad at all I would say.



******

You don't have to believe anything I have written here. You can believe that it is the imaginings of a grieving daughter. But everything here is true. Of course he was not solely responsible for every act but he was a participant in an important and scary time in world history. So I know that because my father lived, hundreds of thousands of people are alive and have children and grandchildren. Because my father lived, millions are living in freedom. Because my father had lived the world is a better place.

My father lived his life to help others. To make this a better world. The Torah says that God does not destroy the Earth because he can always find a sufficient number of the righteous among us. I have never thought that to be righteous meant that you pray all the time or study Torah all the time. I have never thought that to be righteous means you are perfect all the time. How can we be?  Afterall we are all human....So no, I do not think my father was perfect by any means...But to be righteous is to do what you can to save the world.....My father was one such righteous man......Hopefully God will be able to find someone to replace him and soon...I know I never will.

Until next time,


Elise

P.S. I just remembered something of a wish I had had concerning my father and his grandchildren. The Western Wall of the Temple, or Kotel, is the holiest site in all of Judaism. It is located in Jerusalem, Israel. My dream, was that my father, and his grandchildren would go there and touch the stones hewed together thousands upon thousands of years ago. Together they would place a note in the cracks of the Wall, as is tradition. (A special message between God and you.) To us the Kotel is more than a religious symbol. It is a symbol of renewal and survival. It is a symbol of strength and the future.

The Jewish people pray three times a day, the watch word of our faith, The Shema. It extols the virtues of a monotheistic God. You are commanded in that prayer to teach these words, "Hear O Israel (meaning the people not the state), the Lord our God the Lord is One,"  to your children. From generation unto generation.... Seeing his grandchildren in Jerusalem, at the Kotel, reciting this prayer, would have been the culmination of much that my father had sought to accomplsih.

It never happened, because I thought we had years. First was medical bills, now there's college and graduate school. There was always a reason that we just didn't save money for such a trip. Now the trip will never happen.

Don't wait. If there is something important that you want to do, something so meaningful that it would be a lifetime experience, especially between your parents and their grandchildren find a way to do it. Don't make my mistake.Learn from my mistake. Please.