Changing my mind

To forgive, at 90

There are many ways to begin a story, you know that, but we can begin with my father’s revulsion.

the revulsion of one person for another.

He was dying in hospital. His 90-year bones were rotting. Mostly though, he was happy with the ward service. The death part, he simply ignored. it wasn't happening.

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At my father's last bed.

“This is the best country in the world,” he would repeat. “Just feel this linen.” His eyes would look out the window of his private room at the large sky, the treetops, and the chimney of the old gaol. “We live better lives than Queen Victoria.”

even hospital tea, coloured the uncertain yellow of a creek, drew a lip-smacking plaudit. “Delicious,” he’d smile to the bemused refreshments man. “What’s its origin?”

born in a small and hardscrabble Bohemian village, he was a child of the Depression, and the Holocaust

“When I die, I want inscribed on my grave HERE LIES ZDENEK WEISS WHO SURVIVED WHEN 57 MEMBERS OF HIS FAMILY WERE KILLED BY THE GERMANS!” His hand might thump the table. “Not the Nazis – the Germans!”

not that my father intended dying. “It’s not part of my planning. Who knows? They might find a cure tomorrow morning”

There was a large and friendly late middle-aged woman. She might have been a bricklayer with her hands and toughened skin, but she was a nurse.

For weeks she tucked and fussed, and called him dear, plumped his pillows and massaged his feet, and like all the nurses and tea staff and physios and cleaners, he eventually prodded them for their origins.

when he learned she was German, he shrank from her touch. “I shudder when she’s near me now,” he hissed under his breath

Despite this, my father always held the view that he knew no grudge. “We don’t have it in us,” he would tell me. “It’s not in our Nature.”

Murder, however, was intrinsic to the German Nature. “It’s in their genes.” For them he relaxed his No Grudge policy. They were all bad, from their bones to their dying breath. As a young boy, they had hunted him and his family.


I wonder if that fear ever fades.

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The Holocaust Memorial, Berlin.

He saw no contradiction in his seething hatred for Germans, and he held that line fast. He refused the German government pension for his father’s murder. “Blood money.” He refused to buy a German car or anything German-made.

When I fell in love with a German woman, he called her The Kraut. With Susi, the survival charm that had oiled his way from war-torn Europe, to Palestine, to Australia by boat, to arduous mountain and factory work, to law school and wealth, simply evaporated.

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Dr. Susi at Bondi Beach, Sydney. Kraut, and lifelong friend.

But our contradictions overwhelm us all. When a German discount supermarket chain arrived in Sydney, beneath his very feet as it were (in the lower floor of his building), he filled his apartment high above with goods.

“Incredible,” he’d intone at a vacuum cleaner, or chopping board. “You can’t make this stuff for the price I pay.”

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My father in 1999, during our excursion through northern Italy...

I think he twisted it to a form of vengeance conversion. He was stealing from the Krauts.

Oddly, and perhaps because he was a man who celebrated his contradictions, he once travelled from his summer home in Prague to Berlin, and returned filled with praise for the German capital. “Filthy Czechs, they can’t even keep the city clean.”

But now he would never see Prague again.

A few days after his poisoned inquiry to the Teutonic nurse, she was plumping his pillow, and calling him dear, her thick glasses glinting against the strip lighting.

“She loves me,” my father said. “She’d do anything for me.” He was sitting on the edge of his bed, washing down pills with exotic tea.

His spindly white legs hung limp, but his arctic eyes were as clear and alive as boyhood in the snowy drifts of Bohemia. He looked straight at me, hesitating.

“I was wrong you know.” He sighed. “I've taught people to hate Germans all my life.”

“She’s born long after. She had nothing to do with it. She’s innocent. As innocent as I was.”

“I'm ashamed,” said the old man quietly, looking at me, and looking past me, into the abyss.

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Babi Yar