Happy Father’s Day!
My father passed away a few months before my first son was born. So my wife Camille and I named our newborn Grant Karlis Vaska, sharing the middle and last names of my dad.
Karlis Vaska was not the name my dad was given when he was born on a collective farm in the Soviet Union. But it was the name that saved him.
A Lutheran pastor gave my dad his new name while he was in a refugee camp at the end of WWII. My dad ended up a homeless refugee after a journey through war torn Europe that began when he was taken from his family to serve as slave labor for the Nazi regime and that included time in a concentration camp.
After America and its allies won the war 75 years ago this summer, the Soviet Union wanted to seize him—along with all its former citizens living in the West—and send them to the gulags, the notorious labor camps. My dad’s new name saved him from that fate.
So I celebrate Father’s Day with my son Grant Karlis Vaska and with my other son Nathan, whose middle name is that of my wife Camille’s dad Stuart Schwartz. Stuart was a U.S. Army dentist who—when stationed in Berlin—worked on the teeth of two war crimes prisoners who were architects of the Nazi policies that led to my dad being taken from his family.
Finally, my dad was witness to the racial and religious prejudice that led to the incarceration and murder of millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, Slavs, Gay and Black people in the Holocaust. When I was a teenager, my dad ordered a subscription to Ebony magazine during a time of racial unrest in our country. I asked him why he thought a white family living in the suburbs needed a subscription to a Black lifestyle magazine. He said if everyone had the chance to see that Black families lived just like white families in their everyday lives, we could avoid the kind of prejudice in our country that he saw during the war in Europe.
So today we celebrate my father’s good fortune to come to America as a young teenager with a new name.
We celebrate the love of country and community he and his immigrant soccer buddies showed us.
We celebrate my dad’s efforts—especially relevant in these times—to teach us how to overcome prejudice of all kinds and break the cycle of that condition being passed from one generation to the next.
And we celebrate the warm embrace he received from freedom and opportunity in this country and are thankful he worked hard to pass them on to us.
Thank you Dad.
I wish you all a Happy Father’s Day.