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Remembering an exemplary father: Tragedy in his youth taught the value of human life

Wed, Jun 26, 2013

Morris Koen, my old neighbor, used to walk up and down my block on Elmwood Avenue in Evanston with a smile on his face while accompanied by his adult disabled son, David, who cheerfully waved to everyone.

Though Morris has been dead for three years now I can still picture them strolling down my street. His walk and smile, his son’s waves and his upbeat attitude about his son, put him among those us who so ennoble the word, “father.” His heritage and the tragic days of his youth helped form his attitude and made what we, his neighbors, witnessed him doing even more dramatic.

Morris earned my deep respect—as have others like him—by showing special care and concern for a child whose life was marked by profound physical and mental disabilities.

His next-door neighbor Benn Greenspan, who knew Morris well, described his life story as “amazing.” It was that and it was even more than that. Horrendous tragedy in his youth taught him a searing lesson about the value of a human life. He would apply it to his own son.

When Morris was a teenager, he lived in Salonica, Greece, a city with a Jewish population of 50,000. In 1941, the Nazis seized it and by the end of the war, they had starved or murdered almost all of its Jewish inhabitants, save those found barely alive in the death camps of Nazi Germany.

As a teen, he was one of several hundred Salonican Jews who fled to the nearby mountains to escape the slaughter and to fight alongside the partisans against the Nazis. His older brother, a medical doctor—convinced his profession might save him—did not leave the city and was tragically among those whom the Nazis wantonly murdered.

That life experience, though he seldom spoke about it, was on parade for those who knew of it as he and David walked Evanston streets.

David was in his mid-40s and had such a low level of development that he was pre-lingual. His communication with the world was limited to mere grunts or a scream loud enough for passers-by to hear him. It was not demonstrated, however, on the walks with his father.

“I thank God for David,” Morris told his next-door neighbor. “I am retired. He fills my days.

“I could never leave anybody behind or put them away,” he confided with a shrug and a smile of resignation.

The family owned a dog, which Morris referred to as “the devil.” The animal had an annoying habit of barking long and hard at everything from a fly to a falling leaf. Even sending it to obedience school did not alter its behavior. Still, Morris kept it, explaining, “David loves the dog and the dog loves David.”

His wife—David’s mother—had been a school psychologist. In the end, she suffered from dementia. Morris became her kind, attentive caregiver also even though she no longer recognized him.

The connection between his life and family losses in Salonica in the 1940s inspired him to become the father he was 60 years later.

The people of Salonica were principally descendants of the Sephardic Jews, who had fled Spain in the 15th Century to escape the Inquisition.

What Morris witnessed and learned happened to the people of Salonica under Nazi rule was branded on his soul. Even while he was still living in Salonica, an average of 60 of his fellow Jews were dying every day of starvation. Ten thousand others were forced into hard labor building roads, with 12 percent of them dying in 10 weeks until other Greeks put enough money together to ransom them from having to do the forced labor.

In 1943, the Nazis removed the surviving Jews to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where some 37,000 Salonicans were gassed immediately. These were disproportionately women, children and the elderly. Others were forced to undergo experiments that included emasculation of men and implantation of cervical cancer in women.

Many, because they did not speak Yiddish, were forced to take bodies from the gas chambers to the crematoria. All of those assigned to this were killed after three months lest they give testimony to what was happening.

Others still surviving in the camp participated in the famous attack that killed 20 of the guards associated with the crematoria.

These were Morris Koen’s neighbors and his heritage.

He came to Chicago and operated a dress shop on the Near North Side.

Decades later, he had a choice to take care of his son and wife and the answer was clear to him. Despite the burden, he did not institutionalize his child.

In his death, Morris became the one left behind. He fell in the snow in his back yard and no one heard his calls for help in time to save his life. But his son was not left behind. Morris’ other son, Daniel, came from California and took David back home with him. Once more, heritage counted.

By Kenan Heise
StreetWise Contributor


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