By Dwight Owen Schweitzer
Originally published in the Jewish Star Times in July 2001
While watching Peter Jennings as he narrated his popular television program, ‘The Century, Americas’ Time’ I would often think about my father. He would be just over 100 years old if he were alive today and I both marveled and lamented at the changes he had witnessed and wondered how he might have felt about those he didn’t. He had almost made his three score years and ten when he died that early November morning in 1970, suddenly and without warning.
The world that saw him buried was a very different one than the one that saw him born in Hartford, Connecticut, that July day in 1901. The Boer War was just teaching the world the rudiments of modern warfare and Teddy Roosevelt was accidentally in the presidency, the first, but not the last vice president in the 20th century to be elevated there by an assassin’s bullet. It was a good time for American Jews in those days, at least if they lived in New England or New York, minded their own business and stayed in their own neighborhoods; which of course most of them did.
It was a time of emerging contrasts in American life, great wealth and great poverty, technology ascending while most Americans in their entire lives still had not traveled more than 25 miles from the place where they were born. The litany of events that shaped his life in those early years is too long and disjointed to be visited here, but my fathers America whispered to him that all things were possible… and he believed. He had no way of knowing that his was to be a time of horrors and miracles, especially for the Jews. Too young for World War I and• too old for World War II, he set about to make his mark, and make his mark he did.
I remember thinking how odd it was that he was a German major at Harvard, but that was in 1924 for him and 1964 for me … His was a time when German Jews held a lofty perch of wealth and power in the mystic world of international banking and finance and where a Jew had risen to become Foreign Minister of Germany only to be assassinated because he was a Jew. The past is ever prologue.
For my father working his way through Harvard College and Yale Law School, he must have thought his life roared every bit as loud as the decade that saw him go from boy to man; from the “the butchers’ son” to “the lawyer,” and from the margins of genteel poverty to the .hope of a life in full. And then the depression descended on his America, but it was not the depression of modern parlance and there was no pill to get you through. This depression was a time in America of grinding deprivation and it hit those hardest who had tasted financial success only to have it torn from their mouths. For him success was still the thing of dreams but then so had been going to Harvard and he was a man of fierce determination and drive who had brought his dreams to heel.
I wasn’t around to like him then’. but I know I wou1d have, and most people who knew him, did I’m told. It’s said that he could tell a joke or a story so well that you forgot you were hearing it for the tenth time; such was the stuff of American Jewish men of the early twentieth century who’s pent up energy, optimism and determination burst forth in a time of exuberance and innocence.
My father was a warrior, and his enemies were poverty and injustice. Overcoming them were the indicia of success as he was wont to define it, strive for it and never let those goals out of his sight for long. That he found success should surprise no one, and least of all him, but what was surprising was that through it all, his moral compass never wavered. What was right stayed right and what was wrong stayed wrong. It was as simple as that. His burgeoning success and fluency in German resulted in their wanting him in Nuremberg to help prosecute the Nazis who hadn’t escaped the worlds newfound thirst for justice.
For an ambitious lawyer just coming into his prime, the allure of such a high profile area of responsibility must have been tempting, His enemies however, were still here and his war was yet to be won. Given his expectations for himself, those were implacable foes that loomed large on his horizon every day. I don’t know if he ever thought he won his war but I suspect he didn’t. For all he achieved, amassed, collected and acquired, he remained possessed of an iron discipline and even as he thankfully mellowed, his self indulgences were few, although we lived in a house that was more like a museum.
Satisfied to let his youngest son drive his Cadillac to high school, he would cross the street every morning and pretend to be waiting for the bus, knowing that any minute someone would stop and offer him a ride downtown to his office. How often we would walk down the driveway together, I stopping at the garage to get the car and by the time I exited the driveway he was already gone. It was often his friend the Archbishop who got to him first.
I tell all this because in him is the story of American Jewry in our time and at its’ best. The values he espoused, his drive, self discipline and humanity are the essence of what we are, and by his light may we be better seen and understood by those who ought to know us.