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To the remarkable outpouring of goodwill, remembrances and analyses of the life of my father, Dr. Henry Morgentaler, I would like to add a son’s perspective.
When I was a child, the Holocaust experiences of my father and my mother, the acclaimed Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb, were always present. From my first days, I learned stories of bravery, family loyalty and even romance under those most difficult circumstances. My parents’ families had hidden together behind the same fake wall while attempting to evade capture by the Nazis, who were liquidating the Lodz ghetto in Poland and sending Jews to the Auschwitz death camp.
Somehow, both Henry and Chava survived death camps, and after the war each went in search of the other across newly liberated Germany. They married, and emigrated in 1950 to Montreal, where my sister Goldie and I were born.
My father was tormented for decades by night terrors of Nazi stormtroopers kicking down his door to take him away. Yet I never experienced any doom and gloom in his presence. His arrival home at the end of the day was a time of celebration.
Time spent with him was full of laughter, silliness and games. Ping-Pong was a staple in his life, and therefore ours. Goldie won a school tournament. Our basement Ping-Pong table became a hangout for my friends, and if my father heard us playing he was sure to come downstairs to join our marathon tournaments. My younger brothers, Yann and Benny, each became excellent players, and family tournaments were fierce battles. Regardless of the outcome, there was always a handshake, a hug and a kiss from my father.
He had a natural, delightful interest in people and their stories. On family vacations in other countries, we all knew he would sit up front with the taxi driver and engage him in conversation, using one of his seven languages. He was kind, engaging and lighthearted, and people warmed to him instantly.
Most of all, though, my father loved his family. Until the very end, his eyes would light up whenever his wife of nearly 30 years, Arlene Leibovitch, walked into the room. He was happiest when surrounded by Arlene (his third wife), his children and grandchildren, and our gatherings were always occasion for toasts, singing and laughter. At one gathering in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I told a joke at dinner and everyone laughed. A few minutes later, my father burst out laughing again.
“What are you laughing at?” I asked.
“I just got the joke,” he answered.
“Then why did you laugh when I first told it?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It seemed funny at the time!”
My father’s life wasn’t all fun and games. He believed in something, and was in full battle mode from 1967 through 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the abortion laws, and even later as he fought government restrictions in several provinces.
Yet his spirit never wavered. He knew he was doing important work to improve the lives of women. Everywhere he went, people recognized him and expressed support and appreciation. For me it was like being the son of a rock star.
One thing that struck me, though, was that he always asked well-wishers about themselves – where they were from – and I could see in their faces that their brief encounters with Dr. Henry Morgentaler were memories they would cherish.
The toughest moment for me was escorting my father to prison in 1974. Even there he fought, writing open letters on the indignities of prison life.
It would be impossible to overstate my father’s influence on me. As a child of 6 or 7, I got into an argument with three boys on my street about who was the best player on the Montreal Canadiens. I said Jean Béliveau, they said Henri Richard. “We all agree,” said one of them, “so you must be wrong.”
That night, I asked my father about it when he came to kiss me goodnight, and I remember his words today as if he’d just spoken them: “You can be the only person in the world who believes something,” he told me, “and still be right.”
That was clearly a guiding principle in his life, and it became one for me as well. In my professional life I blazed my own trails and challenged a number of orthodoxies: establishing the first comprehensive men’s health centre in the United States and disproving the universally held medical belief that testosterone therapy was risky for prostate cancer.
I was with my father at many key moments. I visited him at the maximum-security prison in Bordeaux, returned with him to his hometown of Lodz and then Auschwitz, saw him receive his honorary doctorate from the University of Western Ontario, and watched Governor-General Michaëlle Jean pin the Order of Canada on his lapel.
Looking back on his life, what strikes me as the great mystery of Henry Morgentaler is how a man who had experienced so much grief and loss, and witnessed man’s inhumanity to man, could continue to believe to his dying day that people are basically good.
It wasn’t always easy being Henry Morgentaler’s son, but it was thrilling. I sat at the knee of greatness, and learned that one individual could change the world armed only with courage, conviction, intelligence and determination, leavened by kindness, optimism and humour. What a life. What a father. What a man.
Abraham Morgentaler lives in Brookline, Mass.
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