Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Hundred Years

Aleksandr Ogonowski
August 25 1914 - March 15, 1995

On this day one hundred years ago, my father was born in Rzeszów in the Galicia province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. World War I was just getting started. Four years later the Armistice was declared and Rzeszów would be part of a newly independent Poland. My father grew up during the next twenty years, did his time in the military, and returned to civilian life. In August 1939 he had just turned 25.

On September 1, 1939 Nazi troops began the invasion of Poland. Seventeen days later, the Soviets invaded from the east. To avoid capture he made a run for the Romanian border. On one occasion,  he recalled laying in the ditch by side of the road as planes strafed those fleeing. He felt the repeated thump of machine gun bullets impacting the ground. After the planes left and he felt it was safe to get up,  he arose to discover every other person in the ditch was dead. He just happened to be in the place that was between rounds.

He made it to Romania, then to Athens, Greece. At Piraeus he boarded a ship to Marseilles, France and then made his way up to Paris. He remained in Paris a while, employed as an aircraft machinist. When France was invaded, he had to flee again. He rode his bike to the coast and boarded a ship bound for England. Because of  the ever-present danger of U-boats, the ship took a circuitous route to England and remained at sea for days. The was no food on board. All he had to eat was a sandwich shared with him by a married couple.

He survived the voyage and made it to London. His skills quickly landed him a job in the aircraft industry. Unfortunately, aircraft manufacturing was a principle target of Nazi bombing. As a result, his company moved the operation to Canada. He then emigrated to the US, got married, had children, and now I am hundred years after my father was born.

A hundred years is a long time.  It is a full century of human history. When my dad was born, tanks were just being introduced; horse-drawn artillery was still the norm. Planes were fabric-covered wooden-framed bi-planes. Radio communication was by Morse-code. Voice telephone was in its infancy.  But decisions were being made. Decisions whose consequences are still unfolding today.

For the most part, I have been lucky. My decisions were not made under duress. Yes they were pivotal, such as whom I would marry and whether I would have children. But they were not forced decisions. On the other hand, history forced decisions on my father. Two armies invaded his country....should he stay or flee? If he had not decided to flee, you would not be reading this story. Had he stayed, he would have almost certainly perished, if not in battle, then in a mass-execution in the woods. My existence is the consequence of decisions that were made at definite points in history, a hundred and one years ago, seventy five years ago, and fifty nine years ago.

So here I am today, one hundred years after his birth. My life going forward will be the product of my decisions, the decisions of others, and circumstances over which I have no control. I will pray that the circumstances over which I have no control, I will respond to with grace. When I do come to the "forks in the road", the points of decision, I will pray that my decisions will "tip the scales towards the good" as Maimonides put it. I believe that the little acts of cruelty and the little acts of kindness multiply over time. Of all the stories my father told me, the story of fellow refugees sharing their sandwich with him is the one I remember most vividly.