Lessons I Learned from My Dad

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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