After his father died, Miles Protter discovered he had lived a secret life.
My brothers and I knew something was odd when we found the counterfeit passports in Dad’s desk. Dating from the 1950s, he had four different nationalities using his photo but a false name. The mystery surrounding our recently deceased father deepened.
A few months ago, almost eighteen years after Dad passed away, one of my brothers received an email from a friend in Israel containing our father’s death certificate. We have been assured it is a legitimate document from the Interior Ministry. What does not make sense, however, is Dad died in Canada, not Israel, thirty-four years after the date on the death certificate (December 1964!)
Was our Dad really someone else? Had he swapped identities? Was he running from someone?
We had always wanted to know more. Mum told us the snippets she knew. In 1938, at sixteen, Dad escaped the Nazis who had just taken over Austria. Apparently he’d fought with some Brownshirts and his uncle told him to run for it. Dad walked alone at night along a railroad track for 800 kilometres from Vienna to Switzerland.
He ended up in Palestine living with a family who had taken in two of his sisters. He helped on the farm, finished high school and in 1941 joined the British Army. He was discharged in 1945. He lived for 12 years in Europe, after which he moved Canada to begin a new life.
I asked him many times to fill in the missing gaps. He refused, once even banging the table, shouting, “I’ll never tell you! Stop asking!”
From a young man’s perspective, his secretiveness hurt. I was proud of him and wanted to know more, warts and all. To understand myself, I needed to understand him.
My brothers and I continued digging but we had to use other means.
Our uncle told us Dad had sunk a ship full of munitions bound for Egypt (then an enemy of the newly formed state of Israel) in Naples harbour. So was Dad in the Mossad?
One of my brothers met someone at a conference who knew Dad, saying he was the ‘hardest son-of-a-bitch he ever met.’ That did not square with the man we knew as our father. More mystery.
I once asked Dad why he’d never returned to Israel in over forty years. He tried to change the subject. I then had a brainwave, saying, “Whoever you reported to is either retired or dead. They can’t touch you anyway. You’re a Canadian.”
He said nothing but within six months visited Israel. Hmm.
A few years later we happened to be watching Schindler’s List, a film about a German industrialist during WWII who saved over a thousand Jews from certain death by claiming they were essential to production. At the end they thank him but Schindler weeps uncontrollably, saying, “I should have done more.
My father broke down completely, crying out he too should have done more. More what? For whom? But he said no more. I was gutted to see him so but not know what happened.
Dad and his new wife invited my brothers and me to accompany them on a very special trip to Austria. He showed us a former refugee camp he and some mates lived in after the war. We learned they were only pretending to be refugees. In reality, they took thousands of displaced people over the mountains into Italy, and then to Palestine by ship. It sounded real cloak and dagger. We were so proud of him and delighted he’d gone to such lengths to reveal a small but vital piece of his past.
I soon visited Israel myself and called on my auntie. We asked about the huge, silver menorah dominating their simple farmhouse. Auntie was shocked my father had not told me how it arrived there. As my grandmother Charlotte was escaping Vienna, the family maid, a young Catholic girl named Steffi, offered to hide their valuables until they could be returned. True to her word, when my father looked her up after the war, Steffi gave him the menorah, which Dad shipped to his sister and mother, by then in Israel. I was moved by my Dad’s thoughtfulness but wondered why he’d said nothing.
After Dad died, my brother-in-law by chance purchased a book about the Jewish Brigade, a British regiment recruited in Palestine in the war. Dad must have belonged but never mentioned it.
The book tells of the Brigade’s role in the invasion of Italy (which Dad never spoke of). Then it describes how, under the noses of their British commanders, they set up a massive smuggling operation to move hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees out of Europe to Palestine (which was tricky as the British had agreed to keep the Jews out.) The men of the Brigade befriended, bribed or threatened young Allied officers running refugee camps to cooperate, and used British military vehicles to transport masses of people. Here was Dad’s story! But why had we missed out on all this detail?
Even more intriguing, political leaders of the emerging Israel recruited their future military and intelligence commanders from the Brigade. Was Dad one of them? Did that explain the passports?
I wonder why so many men keep their stories to themselves. I’m clear I did not want the other extreme, like an American friend whose father bragged so much you thought he single-handedly defeated the Japanese in the war. Was this his way of hiding his pain?
Many men think they have nothing of importance to tell their kids. At my book club, one man said his adult sons wouldn’t be interested in his stories. But the rest of us begged him to reconsider and tell his boys about his life. It would be one of the greatest gifts he gives them.
As dads, we are wise to discern the most appropriate times and circumstances to tell our stories to our kids. I’ve seen some teenagers cope well and others badly. But there may never be ‘the right time.’ Perhaps some tears and confusion are unavoidable.
All children want to know who they are by hearing their fathers’ stories, even very bad fathers. I read an extraordinary interview with Ricardo Eichmann who was six when his father, the Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, was kidnapped in Buenos Aires by the Israelis and later hanged for war crimes. If anyone could be forgiven for wanting to forget about his father, it would be Ricardo. But he persisted at great personal cost.
“My mother kept all the newspaper cuttings about him under the sofa. I would creep under there and peek at them. I understood bits and pieces but not the whole picture. When I asked my mother, she would say, ‘leave it.’
“I know now that pain comes from not knowing. That is why I am not afraid to confront the truth. I always wanted to know.” 
 In a 1995 interview with Suzanne Glass in the Independent, Ricardo Eichmann talks about growing up the fatherless son of the Nazi war criminal, later hanged in Israel. ‘Adolf Eichmann is a historical figure to me.’ he said.