Oh, My Papa
Today is Father's Day, June 20, 2004, so I thought I would write
a little about my Dad.
George S. Johannes was born in Paris, France,
August 28, 1909, and passed away in Santa Monica California on Father's Day,
June 17, 1990.
Samuel and Pauline Helfgot Johannes emigrated from Poland
(or Austria, or Hungary - depending upon the moving borders) to England and then
on to France. Their first son, Maurice, was born while they were crossing the
English Channel. Their second son, Michel (pronounced Michelle, and later
anglicized to Mitchel) was born in Paris, France.
When little Georges
was born, Samuel was a successful furrier, the older boys were in a private
school, and Georges was sent to be cared for by a wetnurse out in the country.
When Georges came home, he had long thick hair with beautiful curls, and his
mother Pauline thought at first he was a girl sent to her by
During World War I, all non-French born (called 'aliens') were
moved to a little town near the Port of Bordeaux, called Bergerac. At the time
this was known as an "Alien Concentration Camp". My Dad has told of very fond
memories of this little town. He said there was one rich man who even had
One of his favorite stories is when he and a friend went
hiking down the road and hitched a ride with a farmer who let them ride in the
back of his wagon. They rode all the way to the farmer's place, and then they
had to hike back to the village. Tired and hungry, they came upon some German
soldiers who offered the boys a lift on their shoulders. The soldiers marched
them the rest of the miles to the village, and my Dad never forgot that
When he was about 10 years old, Georges contracted
bronchial pneumonia and typhoid fever. The hospital was attached to the nunnery,
and the nurses were nuns. Georges was comatose, and the nuns could do nothing
more than pray for him. He remembers hearing the Priest giving him the Last
Rites. And somehow, he survived.
Because of the war (WWI), Samuel could
no longer engage in his business in France, so he traveled to America where he
had a brother who helped him get established in New York.
came over later with the boys, Georges was still a sickly boy, and she hid him
behind her skirts as they entered Ellis Island - for fear that they would be
I would have thought that having been required to attend
services at the Roman Catholic Church in France, with the beautiful stained
glass windows, along with the miracle of the nuns' prayers and his survival,
that Georges would be impressed and committed - if not formally converted to
Catholicism. But other than the pretty windows, Georges was not impressed.
When they arrived in New York, his uncle said the older boys were too
old, but Georges could be sent to Hebrew School to study for his Bar Mitzvah. (I
think he was about 11 or 12 when they landed, and the Bar Mitzvah traditionally
occurs at 13.) So he went to Hebrew School, and again - Georges was not
impressed, and did not choose to study for his Bar Mitzvah. When I asked my Dad
what his religion was, he always said "I'm a Free-Thinker, not associated with
any organized religion".
Growing up in the Bronx, the other kids called
him "Frenchy", a nickname he loved. He taught himself English by sitting in the
silent movie theaters, watching the same film over and over, seeing what was
happening, and hearing the sounds of the words, while reading the sub-titles.
Many times his friends or brothers went to the movies with him, and left him
there. He often got in trouble for coming home so late, but as long as the movie
was shown again and again, he stayed.
Oh my papa - he was unique and
stubborn and took a strong stand for all underdogs. He was fiercely independent
- and so was I. We lost patience with each other often, and butted heads daily.
But I knew I was the apple of my daddy's eye, and I knew I could count on him to
discuss and reason with me on just about anything I wanted to talk about - as
long as it wasn't past my bedtime...
In the summertime, dad took long
weekends and joined us at whatever bungelow colony we stayed at that year in the
Catskills. The initial trip up to the mountains for several years in the 50's
was made in our first family car - a 1939 Plymouth sedan, complete with running
board. Family pets,bedding, pots and pans, etc, loaded in the trunk and back
seat with the kids (me and my big sister who somehow got the job of distracting
me enough to keep me from feeling motion-sick and barfing, I guess since she was
in the back there with me, it was more a self-preservation task.). The trip took
9-12 hrs, and we usually overheated on the same 'hill' but Dad & I already
knew where the nearest running creek was to get the waterfor the radiator. And
our favorite diner to stop in was the one at the truck stop with the big sign
saying "Eat Here Get Gas".
I'm sure I can think up many anecdotes about
my wonderful joyful, and life-loving dad, but for now, I just wanted to share a
little about who he was, and how special my relatiionship was with him.
One farewell saying in France - which is a way to say goodbye, but with
the feeling we may meet to share more in the future (to make the farewell not so
final) is the expression "Nous monterons les montaignes." (Literally meaning "We
will climb mountains together".) And my dad did teach me and climb with me every
weeekend we could in the Catskills. And every time I have occaision to walk
sideways up or down a steep hill or narrow stairs, I feel my Papa is with me:
teaching me to walk my first steps, to ride my two-wheeler bike, and to climb
mountains. And in my heart I hear my Dad and I saying to each other: "Nous
monterons les montaignes."
[Oh My papa completed