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 mistake.

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 electricity!

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 wonderful experience.

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.

When Pauline 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 turned away.

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 03/19/2005.]