My father was extraordinary. I will never know anyone like him in my lifetime. I do not know how to move these photos around yet but here are some photos of his art and something I wrote about him. He passed away 8/27/15. I am heartbroken and as my brother said — the world has turned on its axis. This won’t do him justice and I am mostly posting it to save it for my children and myself somewhere in the bigger universe that is now the internet. Thank you for taking the time to know a little of who he was.
below is the photo he always carried in his wallet. the family he lost so young that i think defined his whole life and his values. I hope he is with them all now.
the greatest romance of all time: Dora and Stanely
the gardens….he designed:
TO MY FATHER
By Karen McKinney
I never imagined the day I would have to write something about my father – mostly because he was too grand and extraordinary to ever capture in any kind of essay. There is no way I will ever be able to convey all he was to my children or their children and trying to do so is a futile exercise. And yet he has left us and I must try to honor his amazing-ness
My father was so many things. A gentleman. A scholar. An artist. A philosopher. A friend. And husband. A father. A humanitarian. A hero. He was strong and loyal and decent and extremely true. He was also the little boy who watched his mother be taken from him after she hid him in the rafters of his house.
Yes, he saw his own mother being taken away to her death and never to see her again. This one moment in his youth in many ways informed his entire life and in many ways – for me his death.
I have thought about that moment my entire life. IWhat could that mean for him. I knew even as a child that my mother represented all of my safety and security and love and to lose that would mean impossible pain. To lose it to such an inhumane tragedy and be forced to somehow survive in the Nazi times as a 17-year-old Jewish boy, alone and facing such persecution and loss and hopelessness remains unimaginable to me.
Nonetheless he was to all of us – a superhuman able to survive these times. He was part of the partisans living in forests fighting back. People say the Jews did not fight back but his legacy should teach the entire world that that the Jews fought back. Stanley told us how he slept in the ground, sometimes the nights so cold he would have to ask another person to yank him off the ground as he was stuck frozen. To eat or drink they had to rob a peasant or drink dirty leaf water. This was not a short weekend camping moment – but years of his fight to exist during horrific conditions and seeing loved ones ripped away and killed. In the forests in the cold, he helped to bomb German lines of transit of arms and smuggle other Jews out of Poland and to their own safety.
He often told me that he was amazed he did not get a single cold or flu till after the war was over and he was finally in a warm bed. To him, getting sick represented almost a luxury. Yes, he was a hero. And his ability to fight and survive was truly like a superhero. I thought about these moments when I was safe and warm and he tucked me into bed at night and when I was thought I was very cold sitting next to him on a chairlift. He reminded me what being really cold or hungry was all about.
We watched him in his last few days and could only think to ourselves that he was such a strong hero – the nurses saw it in his reliance and his strength. What 93-year-old man had never taken a single medication?
My son often asked me if my father could make him an Ironman costume. Even at his young age my son saw his abilities as an engineer (28 patents!) and an artist. I told him to ask Pop – maybe he could do that for Jackson. If anyone could it would be him. After all, I could honestly imagine him being able to become Ironman to fight off all the bad guys, fly and save the world. Yes, for me he was that great.
His will to live was extraordinary and he saw the same will and strength in my mother with whom he shared 68 years of love. It is captured in a photo we have of the moment he had again to say goodbye to his love at a boat on his way from Italy to America. He was brushing her hair from her face with a tenderness I envy. I know his touch and will miss it forever.
They had the most amazing romance and I basically waited in my life to have someone love me like that. He went to America to forge a new life. For them. And he arranged for her to have a scholarship. He created the most beautiful book of photos for her of his journey across the ocean to his new life and sent it to her to see what he was seeing. We have this journal and I have always loved to look at its beautiful layout and feel in its pages his longing to share with her and not let her be left behind.
He told everyone in Casa Della Studente that he would go and create a life of art and books and music and all the renaissance cultural underpinnings that were important to him. A European style villa surrounded by gardens and places he could paint and draw and collect art and study the masters in a grand style. Everyone thought he was nuts. After all, they all knew they were just lucky to be alive after such tragedy.
But he created it all in a very short time.
He had his European Villa and I grew up surrounded by all he valued living a life only a princess can imagine – yet better. Why? Because it wasn’t just a castle with paper walls. It was a fortress of intellectual curiosity and depth. We never had light dinner conversation with our father. Yes, that could be exhausting but his mind was forever tingling with ideas and stimulating us to higher grounds. He never let himself become a slug in front of a television. I grew up afforded every opportunity to study and grow as this was his highest value (and Dora’s as well). I heard my brother play the piano underneath my bedroom every night and fell asleep to those sounds. I danced as a small girl to flamenco music in his library of books so grand we have a hard time cataloguing it. I played in the garden of boxwoods and statues and touched the fabric of culture in a way that no one I know can possibly imagine. As a small child, I sat still for hours for him in his woodshop so he could sculpt a life sized bust of me.
The smells I recall – Varnish. He made violins and was perfecting the varnish colors. Oh not just a simple violin. An inlaid violin. Other smells — photography chemicals. He was always in the darkroom. It was a magical place where in the dark images would appear to gradually be revealed. His creations would suddenly come out of nowhere. His desire to create was relentless and unimaginably intimidating and inspiring. I wish to this day I could touch 100th of his abilities, his drive, and his mark of excellence. He modeled excellence in every way for us.
The other smells I remember were cucumbers and tomatoes. And herrings, sprats, or sardines. I know I was embarrassed sometimes as a child by his formality. His heavy accent, which was so different, then anyone else I knew. His seriousness. His rough beard. And the smell of these exotic canned fishes in my home. Even now, as an adult, what I would give to share a salmon sandwich with him, all clean shaven in his white shirt at a table having some intense conversation about anything at all. The caviar he always bought just for me. Now every ounce of me is proud of it all. I was so proud to have him speak to anyone as his words slipped out in a facile manner with such intelligence that everyone was intimidated and in wonder.
Yes, as I write this I see him at his breakfast table offering me hot tea and salmon. He was always clean-shaven yet his beard feels rough to me to kiss and smells of after-shave. He wants me to look at his newest photograph. He complains I never have enough time and that he has important things to talk to me about if only I had more time with him.
Yes if only I had more time. One more meal. One more embrace. The look of intense love in your eyes. I miss you father. I imagine you walking around in your “Member’s Only” jacket and I can hear your little moccasins on the floor as you go to make our breakfast. Or retrieve some chocolate for me or cookies from some secret hiding place to share. Or show me your recent artwork. I see you take out your little magnifying glass from your pocket to look at the ingredients more closely. Who carried an old magnifying glass around?
My father was also funny. Not in the big smile kind of way – but in a very dry sense of humor. He was clever with words. Especially to his beloved Dora. He would make her laugh. And she would always exclaim, “He cracks me up!”
In fact a secret of their marriage was the humor. When they would have a spat – typically in Polish so we did not hear what it was about – she would often walk away and sort of sulk or brood in anger. She told me even though he had been wrong or harsh he would come back to her, unable to tolerate the distance and silent treatment and say “okay, now you can beg for my forgiveness” at that point she was unable to do anything but laugh and their disagreement would be over.
Their marriage for me was also captured in a moment when I once came to see my mom in a hospital room and she had had some sort of angioplasty I believe. He was sitting by her side with books and magazine. I asked my mom how she was. She was actually glowing and said, “I’m wonderful. Your father and I had such a great day” I was stunned and said “why?” She said “we talked”. Yes, we talked.
I said about what? She said “Anything and everything. He read me an interesting article he had read in the New Yorker. We talked about our past. What we have created. Our children. You”. I saw in those moments what companionship and intimacy is all about. The friendship. The support.
They were so lucky to have each other – both who had shared these unimaginable tragedies and losses and survived to forge a new life. Taking every step together. He would call her many times a day from work to share every detail of his daily life. She supported him. Helped him with his fears or his anxieties. Balanced the checkbooks. Kept him happy and loved and never alone anymore.
They knew how to set their own needs aside for others. They understood the word “sacrifice”. If he had to bring home a work colleague after working late into the night she would set aside her own piece of meat to give them both food.
He believed in loyalty so deeply that he would not go see an Ingrid Bergman film as she had cheated on her husband and had an affair.
He once told a story to me of a woman who had made a pass at him while he and Dora drove in separate cars with the couple to a dinner destination. The husband with Dora and the wife with him. She turned to him and said, “Lets get lost.” He was stunned – although I wasn’t as women were always making a play for him right and left. He of course told her they had to meet Dora and the woman’s husband at the restaurant. He later told my mom the story and they laughed and laughed over it. They had a joke where he would cajole Dora — ”Come on, lets get lost”
Their marriage also had an element I learned was critical in the balance – respect.
My father was so gentle. He would not kill a spider and would carry it outside the house. He would capture a bat sleeping in a beer mug in the house and take it outside to set it free. He played with my son well into his 90s by sitting with him as he set out racecar track in his kitchen area. One of my favorite photos is of both my children napping with him. He would always paint and do art projects with Isabella since she was a tiny tot.
He loved cars and would drive me to Hebrew school in a Ferrari with his driving hat and gloves. He was actually a lover of all beautiful crafted things. Cameras, radios, car, painting, music, books.
He also created fantastic things. Painting. Photographs. Numerous paintings of my mother who was consistently his muse. Once when we entertained in my childhood he made a lobster out of carving tomatoes! He would craft the most beautiful appetizer plates. He would cut my bagel into 6 separate slices. He carved the best pumpkins I ever saw for my children. I adored the wonderful custom special sandwiches he would make for us in the summer for lunch at the pool. Each one a work of art and love. His best creation for dinner of his signature dish – shrimp and bacon. His artistic gifts – the photos we all have. And then of course a wonderful painting of my children I am so grateful to have as a gift from him. A recently at 92 he painting and an extraordinary painting of my brother Robert.
Not so long ago when I visited, before I left for California, I was a bit sick. I was feeling scared and he decided he did not want me to be alone he rode with me to the airport in the limo holding my hand the whole way. He was 93 at the time. Still protecting me. With his very warm and gentle hands. I don’t know who will ever protect me and inspire me in these ways again. I was so lucky to be his daughter. Strangely, I want so desperately to call him up right now to tell him about what it is like to lose him so he can console me. I know that he of all people who suffered great loss — he would really listen to my pain and hear me.
The thing is, my father said he survived to pursue all these interest. He lived later on because his great love for all of us and his sense of obligation to defend and protect us and take care of us. But when he survived the Holocaust, it was largely to pursue his dreams. In many of our long talks, he would tell me that life without a dream is not life at all. Even last year he created a gallery of his photos in his basement hoping people would come and see his works of art. He was framing them and displaying them in his big dream to always create. He told me that I had to hold onto my dream to become a writer and would ask me again and again if I was writing. And he told me to never stop. I think this one thing, his dreams, saved his life. And when he could no longer see a dream, he literally stopped living.
My mother had a tradition before we ever travelled anywhere. Even in a big rush to the airport she would make us all follow her tradition. We would all have to sit down together as a family to take a breath and exchange a dollar for good luck. The she would say something in Yiddish I believe meant –for the best of health and luck? She would hand the traveler a dollar bill. She insisted on this exchange of money to seal the deal of the good fortune. Yesterday as I prepared my father clothes for his burial I was searching through the pockets of his favorite dark jacket and was stunned to find a single dollar bill in his pocket. I felt this was a sign from him. That he would be safe on his journey. I put it in his pocket. Dad – I hope you have a safe journey and like you paved a way for Dora, I hope you wait for me on the other side as I know you will.