My father lived an unusual life. He was born in Germany and was only four when Hitler took control of the country. He turned ten when Hitler started World War II and he was sixteen when the war was over. Then the Russians came in and took over his village.
The Germans secretly admired the Yankees and resented the Russians, whom most Germans perceived as barbarians. One of the jokes about Russian soldiers who occupied Germany was about the one who'd never seen a water closet. The Russian soldiers didn't know what to do with the WCs, so they washed their potatoes in the toilets, when one of them accidentally pulled the lever. The potatoes, of course, disappeared and the surprised Russian solders screamed SABOTAGE! The Germans found that joke very funny.
My father's father was a school teacher in the small village they lived in. Early in the war he managed to offend a local Nazi bigwig and to save himself from the possible consequences of this transgression, he took refuge in the German Luftwaffe as a cook.
That became my father's lucky break, because after the war my grandfather was interned in the English zone. So to be closer to my grandfather, the family made the trek over to what later became West Germany and were safely on the Western side when the border to East Germany closed down.
My father's family had humble origins. They worked as coal miners for centuries. Things changed when my grandfather became a teacher and my father was the first one to study all the way to a medical degree. That was something my grandfather was immensely prod of, and he insisted that his two sons, (the other became a lawyer) put their titles on the wreaths at his grave. They were all very poor after the war, and going to university meant big sacrifices. So having two sons getting advanced degrees soon after the war was not only an achievement, it was a minor miracle and a source of eternal pride.
My father met my Swedish mother in romantic Heidelberg, where they both studied medicine, and when he'd finished his studies he married her in Sweden and stayed in this northern country where I was born a year later.
He drove a scooter and suggested the baby (me) could go in the back, however, my mother refused, which led to them buying their first used car, a small VW Beetle. I still remember lying in that alcove behind the back seat, which could fit a small suitcase or a very small child. Seatbelts were not considered essential in the back seat of a car in the 60s.
Many in my father's family got stuck in East Germany, and this colored the political discussions at home. He resented all "isms," including fascism and communism. Once he told me how, as a child, he'd seen a group of concentration camp prisoners on the train station. His father told him to look the other way, but he didn't. He never forgot their faces, completely devoid of hope.
I still remember when I asked what a communist was, and my father told me that was something very bad. One of our relatives in East Germany assisted someone who had plans to escape but the whole thing was discovered and my relative almost got caught. Everyone in the family in the West was instructed not to call or write this man, so that we wouldn't further jeopardize his situation.
At home my father ran things with an iron fist. At work he ran things with an even stronger fist. He finally became his own boss as head of a medical clinic. Now he only had to report to the politicians, in the Swedish society with socialized medicine, and he disliked many of those politicians immensely. He was a Republican, but very practical, and soon determined that many of the local Republicans were idiots and the Social Democrats were people he could do business with. As the head of the hospital clinic he had this position for life, just like some US judges, and for many years a form of détente existed between him and the politicians who allocated money to his hospital.
At home a form of détente also existed. I was just as strong-willed as he was, and I spent many years at home restraining myself. I figured eventually I'd move out and do whatever I wanted.
But when I turned eighteen something happened that changed all that. I fell in love with a girl whom I had actually known and taken out when we were just eight years old. (She is now my wife.) Anyway, I was fed-up with holding back. The result was one of the most tumultuous years in my home and ended when I moved out of the house when my father was away on a business trip.
It took many years to repair the damage that was done during that one year, and I'm not sure it was ever completely repaired. But I had finally broken lose from his rules and fetters. I went on to a career in business which I enjoyed immensely, but which also required that I kept my mouth shut for many years, until I finally couldn't take it anymore and simply had to speak up.
Then, my father died, five years ago. He'd lived by the sword; he fought his entire life for what he believed in, never afraid of a confrontation, actually loving a good fight. Many of those fights made it into the newspapers and on to television. I had always thought I was a smoother person and that I would prevail with diplomacy. I guess over the last few years I've learned that we weren't so different.
I also learned that in spite of our different opinions and the fact that he'd made me furious and I'd probably made him just as mad, there was a void when he left. Suddenly a lot of action was gone, and family gatherings missed the spark without him. All in all, he did it his way. And suddenly, I'm finding myself doing the same. The irony is that I'm the one who is surprised.
Peter Rost, M.D., former Vice President for the drug company Pfizer, became well known in 2004 when he emerged as the first drug company executive to speak out in favor of reimportation of drugs.
Dr. Rost is the author of a medical text book, Emergency Surgery, and
has written numerous op-eds for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times
and dozens of other major newspapers.
Dr. Email to:rostpeter(at)hotmail.com,
Dr. Rost daily blog: http://peterrost.blogspot.com/
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