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David Prince, my 96-year-old Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor father, lives alone, around the corner from me. During 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the world and the people of Victoria were locked down, my concerns over caring for Dad became more and more acute.
Dad’s many activities were cancelled. He had few friends left. He no longer drove. He was not online. I feared for his mental health. What could I do to alleviate Dad’s boredom and inertia?
David Prince, 96, and his daughter Frances, spent afternoons together reading to ease the boredom of lockdowns. Credit:Steven Gringlas
We began to spend every afternoon reading together at my place, on the couch in the lounge room. We needed to get comfortable – we were in it for the long haul. (Not that I knew that this long haul would morph into a mighty marathon.)
I brought out blankets. Dad wanted to sit up straight, with a cushion behind his lower back and a footstool upon which to stretch out his legs, covered by a blanket. I preferred to sprawl along one length of the couch with my pillow behind me, covered by two blankets. So our reading ritual began.
What did we read? Mainly Holocaust memoirs. Perhaps this does not appear to be an appropriate genre. But for us it was. Reading aloud to Dad about prewar Jewish Polish childhoods induced him to remember and talk about his own early days growing up in Lodz. Listening to the ordeals of others triggered his recollections of the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Friedland concentration camp. He spontaneously commented on the experience of others in relation to his own. Much was familiar to me; much was not. Some of what I knew was fleshed out, clarified and given new meaning in Dad’s present-day telling.
One afternoon, after we settled into our usual positions on my spacious couch, Dad said: “Maybe we are masochists?”
I said: “Who?”
He said: “Both of us.”
We laughed together and began the day’s reading.
The postwar period, still an oft-neglected topic of historical study, became a focal point of our readings and conversations. This was perhaps the most riveting time in my father’s life. In the late 1940s this young Jewish man, whose formal schooling ended after Year 7 with the outbreak of World War II, became a university student in Munich, Germany, in the most unlikely of circumstances. This was followed by migration to Australia and the rebuilding of a life.
Survival is more than a narrow escape from death and a perpetual haunting thereafter; it is revival and restoration. It is assertion of purpose, agency and vitality. It is a commitment to rebuilding oneself, family, community and society.
Would we have shared this daily rich mixture of reading about other people’s lives, Dad’s instinctive reminiscences and our resultant conversations, in a COVID-free world? The answer is painfully obvious. I have been provided with a gift; the gift of time with my elderly Dad.
Frances Prince is an executive member of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, holding the Multicultural and Interfaith Portfolio. Her new book, Gift of Time: Discoveries from the Daily Ritual of Reading with my Father, is published by Real Film and Publishing.
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