Lessons I Learned from My Dad

Holocaust survivor Boris Nemko personified 'up-by-your-bootstraps'

Marty NemkoBoris Nemko, contributor Marty Nemko's father.

Father's Day is right around the corner, and we're celebrating with the occasional post on the career and life lessons we've learned from the dads in our lives. We're kicking things off with a post from contributor Marty Nemko, whose father lived one of those up-by-your-bootstraps stories that defined the promise and opportunity of postwar America.

Many people say their parents taught them valuable lessons. Count me among them. Because Father's Day is coming up, I'll focus here on my dad.

My father, Boris Nemko, rarely talked about being a Holocaust survivor and when I asked him why, he said, "Martin, the Nazis took five years from my life. I won't give them one minute more. Martin, never look back. Always take the next step forward."

Whenever I'm tempted to blame my malaise on something that happened to me, my father's "never look back" advice helps me find the discipline to push forward.

I learned other lessons from my dad. Many people preach the importance of hard work but we're more affected by those who walk the talk. My father certainly did. After the Holocaust, he was dumped on a cargo boat and dropped in the Bronx, without a penny to his name, no English, no education, no family, only the wounds of his Holocaust tortures. Work was to be his healer. He took the only job he could get: sewing shirts in a factory in Harlem.

And after his ten-hour day, he did not, as would certainly have been understandable, collapse in front of the five-inch Dumont TV in our not-air-conditioned Bronx tenement next to the elevated train roaring 24/7.

My father knew that unless he learned decent English, he'd always be doomed to near-minimum wage work. So he took night school classes at Roosevelt High School, where he met my mom--also a Holocaust survivor wanting to learn English. And on Saturdays, he didn't sleep in and watch football. He asked the owner of the factory if he could buy the shirts he had sewn, and he sold them out of a cardboard box on the streets of Harlem.

And my dad didn't, as would have been understandable, spend the money to give himself a little reward. He saved up so he could pay the first and last month's rent on the only storefront he could afford: the 200-square-foot hole in the wall at 105 Moore Street in what was once one of Brooklyn's most dangerous neighborhoods. And it smelled: next door was a deli specializing in chicharrónes--deep-fried pork intestines--which merged with the odor of stale blood from the live chicken butcher on the other side. But he was willing to endure that six days a week, 12 hours a day, so he could afford to move us from the slums into an apartment in Flushing, Queens.

Six days a week, my father rarely saw us. Because, for years, he couldn't afford a car, he had to leave the house at 7:00 in the morning to wait--rain, shine, or snow--for the bus, the train, plus a five-block walk to the store. He didn't return until after 8:00, at which point he usually collapsed on the sofa. On Sundays the store was closed, but he had to buy merchandise for it. That was his only chance to spend time with us--and he needed our help, so he took us on the bus and train to the Lower East Side, where he would buy shirts, pants, and underwear to sell at the store, each of us lugging the boxes.

My father was able to make a decent living running a very small business while still being scrupulously honest. On those buying trips, I learned that he bought items for not much less than he sold them for. I particularly remember him buying Ray-Ban sunglasses for $12 a dozen, which he then sold for $1.98 apiece. Despite modest profit margins, he was able to make enough money not only to move us to blue-collar Flushing, but to support my mom's love of clothing (including three furs).

Our reward for lugging the boxes was a stop at Ratner's Deli on Delancey Street for potato soup and blintzes. We thought that was wonderful--indeed, our overall lives felt fine. We never felt deprived. I guess his never showing unhappiness about his past or current life rubbed off on us. You didn't think about whether you should work. You just did it, and it felt fine. I've retained that lesson for a lifetime. I'll be 64 in a few weeks and still work 60-plus hours a week, and I feel great about doing it. Being productive feels so good; I feel I'm earning my spot on this planet.

My dad died a few years ago and I regret that I didn't often enough tell him how much I learned from him. I hope that if your dad, mom, and/or stepparent is still alive, you tell them.

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Doomed near minimum wage? The American dream today! Brought to you by those people who are nowhere near minimum wage, the ones who are and will destroy America so dear old Most of us and Marty may get to see our own Holocaust? Can't happen again right! Far as looking back I'm a reincarnated Nazi, I look back. Glad Boris got through the tough times! Hey the Lord reincarnates all, chat with in 2005. And my dad. Let's see I wanted to save money right after buying my first car (used) a 70 Cuda. So I gave a older woman co-worker my license now and then so I wouldn't drive so much. I told my dad I did not have my license when he wandered about me not driving. He went down and jumped on the local Police, a nice guy name Sherrily. That never dawned on me he would do something as that? He didn't get locked up but it's a wonder. I got my license back and started driving the old Cuda again which was just about 5 years old at that time. It had to be sold to save the house, my vehicle today is a bicycle. Roll on time!

June 15 2014 at 8:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

what a precious memory never forget where you came from. thank God for a loving dad

June 15 2014 at 8:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Beautifully-told memories from Marty Nemko!

My father worked everyday of his life except when he'd get his once-a-year bout of the flu. He was so proud of never missing work. I also worked pretty hard, often 50-60 hours a week without extra compensation. Marty's right...it does feel good to put in a good day's work. I have no children, so I'm not sure why today's younger generation have such a great sense of entitlement. My guess is the younger generations of parents want to give their children everything without ensuring their kids deserve it or have earned it.

June 15 2014 at 1:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

his father was both a survivor and a strong person who expected to earn his way. Seems he never thought he was deprived or entitled, he just did what he needed to do and worked his ass off. sounds like the son is the same. I only hope the Son's kids are the same. Often the work ethic fades with generations.

June 15 2014 at 9:13 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to moeelmore's comment

Gee the bosses and co-workers I was around it didn't fade it shot off into Oblivion. That was a small religious college. 'Trust no-one'!

June 15 2014 at 8:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

That's what America is about or was................ Opportunity

June 15 2014 at 7:48 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Perry's comment

No doubt that this man was grateful to have survived the Holocaust and lived his life in a manner that he was grateful for every day that he was alive, afterwards. This sense of entitlement that people have today stems from their parents (and grandparents) making live easier for them. There is no longer a sense of pride for accomoplishments that stems from working hard. This current generation is lost.

June 15 2014 at 1:11 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to jabaileydc's comment

Sorry, making "life" easier for them. This is for the detractors who pounce on typos.

June 15 2014 at 1:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

Don't worry the current generation will get their chance at a World War so their lost for those hard working days will hopefully be remedied. I only know my place out in the workforce around me I saw ass-kissing and the success those people got. Me I did not get success as far as people look at what success is, money and up in society. Garbage that guarantee's us that World War. And I'm ruining your property value with my old rundown house, 'well then just go to Hell'!

June 15 2014 at 9:01 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down

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