Naomi Shragai’s Jewish father survived Auschwitz, he was there at the birth of Israel, then emigrated to live the American dream. So how did he end up dropping out and dressing up as Santa?
They were Hungarian immigrants in Los Angeles and they were nothing like my friends’ parents. Their accents were so thick and their mistakes so extreme. When buying our first car in America, my mother took advice from a friend who suggested she ask for a “strip-down car”, which meant no unnecessary extras. By the time she arrived at the car dealer’s, “strip down” somehow turned into requesting a “drop-dead car”.
It wasn’t only their English that embarrassed me, but their terrible dress sense. It was the 1960s, and clothes had become wild, wonderful and colourful. To see my dad in high-waisted trousers when all the world seemed to be in hip-huggers was too much to bear.
There were advantages, however. Whatever I wanted within reason, as long as I convinced them that it was normal in America, I got. “Every kid in America has a pony,” I insisted. Fred, my father, couldn’t bear the possibility of not fitting in, and so bought me my first pony. I was a Jewish, urban cowgirl in the hills of the San Fernando Valley, far from the Jewish Hungarian lifestyle my parents understood, and it gave me tremendous freedom.
My parents were survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. From an early age, I was aware of the traumas that happened “over there”, even though they were never spoken about. Somehow the experiences penetrated me through some inexplicable osmosis.
My mother suffered constant anxiety; she worried that at any moment she could lose her family as quickly as she had lost her parents when arriving at Auschwitz. That dreaded separation point when those directed to the right went to the gas chambers and those to the left to the camps. Every moment in our lives was another potential separation point. Every morning when my sister and I went to school, and my father to work, my mother found herself back at the “point”. My father, seemingly less damaged by his experiences, responded to her anxiety with anger, and often retreated further into his business.
Our story was similar to many immigrant families in the 60s. We had arrived in New York from Israel with $50 in our pockets. Someone told Fred about the possibilities in Washington DC. After trying and failing there, we headed for LA, where my parents found friends from their home towns in Europe. Families from concentration camps had few extended members, so we often collected together and created our own, with only a similar language and history to bind us.
Fred worked as a lorry driver, studying at night until he became an accountant, and later a real-estate agent. Within no time he had bought a house, installed a swimming pool and joined the ranks of middle-class Jewish life in LA.
My memories of him as I grew up are mainly of watching him reading the paper, listening to the news, and shouting in Hungarian. He and my mother argued a lot, but always in Hungarian, so the meaning of their rows was a mystery to me.
He was relieved to have daughters rather than sons because, in his eyes, this meant he didn’t really have to spend time playing with us. Although he was awkward in the role of a father, I never doubted his love for me, and I often ran to him for comfort, hoping he could put some sense into my mother’s irrational outbursts.
In his business dealings, he had great ambitions, but they often failed. One exception was a mobile-home park he built in Victorville, California. To mark his success, he named the streets after family members. There was Ruth Street, Alice Avenue, Fred Street and Naomi Avenue – our family, for ever remembered, on the road to Las Vegas.
It wasn’t a bad life, until his health started to deteriorate.
Perhaps it was his experience in the Holocaust, the stress of a bad marriage, or just an unhealthy lifestyle. He smoked two to four packs of cigarettes a day, over-ate to the point of obesity, and found that he couldn’t control his mood and temper.
In his 40s, he had a massive heart attack. After quadruple bypass surgery, he gave up smoking and took up exercise, which involved walking around our swimming pool 120 times – he carried a counter to keep track.
But slowly, his weight crept up again; he made some poor business decisions, and went bankrupt. The house with the swimming pool went and with it his American dream. He had another massive heart attack and was told he would not survive unless he checked into a cardiac rehabilitation programme.
Whatever magic happened to him in those six weeks, Fred was never the same again. It took me years to recognise the man who emerged. The high-waisted trousers had been replaced by jeans and an “I Love to Hug” T-shirt. His hair and beard were long and grey. Suddenly, he wanted to embrace everyone; stress was the poison, and hugging was the medicine. Group therapy had changed his life. He didn’t have to follow the American dream and chase the mighty dollar, he could give it all up and live his own dreams.
So Fred announced he was divorcing Mum and became a health guru, a role that was to attract considerable media interest. Time magazine interviewed him for a cover story on cardiac rehabilitation, and he became America’s role model for life after cardiac surgery, giving talks in local universities and on TV shows. We, his family, simply didn’t recognise him.
In his local beach community, someone must have mentioned that with his flowing beard and warm, rounded belly, he would make a good Santa Claus. He leapt at the offer, and was soon fitted out with a costume. Not just one for winter, which didn’t exist in southern California, but a shorts and T-shirt option too, with surfboard accessories to match. He even changed his car licence plate to read “H Santa”, meaning Hungarian Santa.
The rest of the family may have been bewildered by his transformation, but somewhere in all of this, I believe my father really did find himself. The compassion he felt towards children was real and deep, and in his new guise as Santa he was able to visit and entertain deprived children – the homeless, the terminally ill and the abused. He opened his heart to them and brought them moments of real joy.
I, however, still could not forgive him the anguish he had caused my mother. Perhaps I was jealous that these children were getting the love I felt I had missed. But mainly I was confused. How could my father, a Jewish camp survivor who had lost his parents in the Holocaust, who participated in building the state of Israel, suddenly turn into the Christian mythological figure of Santa Claus?
In his often-fabricated accounts of his life, the time from his deportation to Auschwitz to when he was standing next to the Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion in a military hospital in Tel Aviv, utterly vanished. I was furious.
Then, in the mid 1980s, I moved to London and, with distance, our relationship began to heal. Instead of feeling anger, I began to feel grateful that this extraordinary man was my father, and I wanted to understand the magic he carried.
Sadly, there was little time left. The phone call that children who live abroad from their parents fear the most came. Fred had suffered another heart attack and died.
As all my grandparents were killed in the Holocaust, I had never before experienced a death. As a family, we had no idea even how to plan a funeral. Fred was not a religious man – indeed my sister and I had been brought up to scorn religion – but of course there would be a rabbi. Someone mentioned that he had wished to be cremated, and so that is what we did. It was only afterwards that I realised cremation was against Jewish law and I bitterly regretted turning my father to ashes after his parents had been burned in the gas chambers.
All his friends and followers attended. I’ll never forget the look on their faces when they arrived and discovered that Santa Claus was a Jew. They still wanted to remember him as they knew him best – by singing Christmas carols. So the Hungarian Jews and their offspring sailed off on a boat to scatter his ashes in the Pacific Ocean, off the coastline that brought him so much happiness, while the gentile community remembered Fred as they wanted to – with a good Christmas sing-song on a boat of their own.
Years later, as I found myself desperate for extra income in order to fund my training as a psychotherapist, I became an entertainer at children’s parties, dressed as a clown. Despite years of therapy and self-development, there was no mistaking it – I was becoming my father.