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< Echoes of Memory

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from My Mother


By Peter Gorog

Single-parent families were the second-most common family structure in 2016 in the US, with just over 20 million children living with a single mother or father. Today the term “single-parent families” has a negative connotation, implying that one parent abandoned the family. The sad truth is that the missing parents are mostly the fathers who abandoned the mother of their children.

I was raised by a single mother. So were thousands of Jewish children whose fathers were taken to the Hungarian forced labor battalions between 1940 and 1945. Most of those fathers never returned. My father never abandoned us; he was taken away from us and perished during the Holocaust.

According to psychologists, sociologists, and other experts, there are myriad disadvantages to growing up without a father, especially when you are a boy. At age 79, do I show any of the adverse effects of a boy growing up without a father? You have to ask my family and friends. The one thing I do know is that everything I am today is the result of my mother’s self-sacrificial love, determination, and compassion. Paraphrasing the title of a popular book, all I really need to know I learned, not in kindergarten, but from my mother.

The list of values we learn from our parents is endless. Can we pick only one or a few that are more important than others? I certainly cannot value integrity over loyalty, kindness over sincerity, patience over being adventurous. I have seen all these traits in my mother, and more, but I think the one I used most and with the best results is perseverance. She never gave up. This is the one trait I cherish from her, and it helped me through the most difficult times of my life. I am here today because my mother was determined to survive the horrors of the Holocaust, the miserable conditions during the years following World War II, and the depravity of the Communist system in Hungary. During her 90 years she was robbed of the joy of experiencing the love of her family members and her best friend, lover, and husband, Arpad. In spite of all of her losses, she not only persevered, but had the satisfaction of seeing her son succeed and experienced the joy of her six grandchildren.

How did she teach me the virtue of perseverance? It was definitely not by lecturing, admonitions, or even through allegorical fairy tales. It was by her conducting her life with dignity. When she could not get food in Budapest after we were liberated from the ghetto, she went to the countryside and bartered her jewelry for food. When she lost her small millinery business, she worked two shifts as a seamstress for a co-op, for a meager salary, just to make sure that we would have a roof over our heads, clothes to wear, and food on our table. When I started school and had an opportunity to meet with classmates who were better off, I never complained because I didn’t remember her ever complaining about her circumstances. When I was twice rejected from college admission because my parents were not part of the so-called “preferred classes” (blue collar, peasant, Communists), she was disappointed but did not dwell on it. She advised me to go to vocational school and try it again as a blue collar applicant. It worked! When I defected to the US, my mother was very disappointed and she might even have felt betrayed. But I only heard words of encouragement from her and that everything would work out for the better. She was right. Again.

I would love to know how many of my mother’s character traits I passed on to my children and what they would pick as the most important ones I taught them. I know children do not always listen to their parents, but I hope one day they would ask for my advice for what they should value in order to have a successful life. I am ready with the answer. I was just reminded today by the 101-year-old Ben Ferencz who is the last living prosecutor of Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials. When he was asked during a Q&A session what advice he would give to the young people today he actually gave three: “Never give up, never give up, never give up!” His life story is the living example that it works.

© 2022, Peter Gorog. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   peter gorogechoes of memory, volume 14life after the holocaustparentsmemory

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