This year’s Memorial Day post to honor our servicemen is from a very personal perspective-A Tale of Two Heroes. Two men who outwardly could not have been more different. One Living in Budapest attending gymnasium (the Hungarian equivalent of high school) and looking forward to a future as an architect. One who served as a survivor of the death/work camp known as Malthausen, taken prisoner by the invading German army into Hungary at the age of 19. The other lived in California, not yet sure of his life’s path other than to know one thing-he wanted badly to enlist in the army and serve at the ripe age of 16 and was eventually deployed overseas in 1947 -his unit’s mission ; to help the Allied restoration of the vast amount of refugees and removal of the Concentration camps after the waning days of World War 2. The first man was Jewish, the second, Catholic. Born half a world apart, these two men could not know their lives would intersect 50 years later.
The first man, was captured in the Nazi takeover of Hungary and ripped apart from his family. He had no idea whether they lived or died during his years of captivity. He was young, healthy and smart- thus the Nazis considered him an asset which undoubtedly saved his life as he was sent to Malthausen on the “work” side of the camp and ultimately conscripted as the “personal servant “ (read-slave) to The Commandant. For years he subsisted on scraps of what the Nazis considered enough to keep the workers alive. Years later he would describe in the rare times he spoke of such, of eating literally scraps. Week old pieces of horse-meat was considered a treat as were spoiled rotten shreds of mutton. Most days he was lucky to get old crusts of moldy bread if anything.
The second man was also young, smart and healthy which earned him an enlistment at age 16. When the second man was sent with his unit overseas in 1947 as part of the Allied army of occupation, he saw indescribable horrors and he too endured months of living conditions that most of us could never imagine.
When the Allies prevailed, the prisoners in the camps were liberated and the first man, like many others cried tears of joy when the Allies swung open the gates of hell and the first man, like many others literally walked out with scraps of clothes on his back, and no shoes. He walked the unending miles from Austria back to Budapest, not knowing what he would find. He walked miles, hungry, exhausted but free. He would describe 50 years later the story of finally reaching Budapest and turning down the tiny street where his family had lived in a second floor apartment that had a tiny balcony. His grandmother would sit out for hours on the balcony sunning herself, hooking her cane over it’s rail. When he turned down onto their street the sun broke through the clouds, it’s rays beaming down for a moment directly onto his family’s balcony. And there he saw his grandmother’s cane hooked as always over the railing. He ran the rest of the way and discovered his entire family still alive and intact.
The second man would come to describe years later the looks on those in the refugee camps, many skeletal concentration camp survivors when his unit came in to help the restoration efforts. I imagine the displaced refugees who flung themselves into soldiers arms with their skeletal bodies weeping tears of absolute joy. This man had no words to describe the ultimate swaths of devastation he saw wreaked by the Nazis.
The first man ended up being sponsored for a Hillel scholarship by a man whom he had never met but who would become his lifelong best friend. The first man came over on the boat in 1947; destination Ellis Island. He was sick to his stomach the entire trip, having lifelong seasickness. But it mattered not as he was free. He spoke no English. The scholarship was to a small school in Ohio where his sponsor was on the Hillel Foundation-Miami University of Ohio. But the travails before being allowed to even get there were numerous as entire shiploads of refugees were held at Ellis Island until cleared for “entry.” He was finally cleared and released onto the streets of New York City with 10.00 in his pocket and his sponsor’s name and address. Somehow he got to the University where he obtained his undergraduate and architecture degree while teaching himself English and working. This man’s sponsor by the end of college was now living in Chicago and urged his friend to come to Chicago. The first man took a job out of architecture school at the world famous Skidmore, Owings & Merrill where he was offered a job at the “bottom” as a junior apprentice draftsman.
The second man, after the war, also ended up in Chicago where he applied to the Chicago Police Department, also with a sponsor who became a dear friend. After passing the Chicago Police Department tests, and the academy, he too started at the bottom; walking a foot post in the 41st District of Rogers Park.
The first man worked his way up through Skidmore eventually becoming managing partner of this high profile international architecture firm. The first man would go on to be the chief design partner for the John Hancock building and many other world renowned structures. Along the path his sponsor, now his best friend, made him go on a double date to be set up with one of his best friend’s wife’s two best friends. Midway through the date, the two couples being set up switched as each had a connection with the other’s date. The first man got married a year later and after the birth of their first son and daughter, moved to Highland Park where his best friend lived.
They had another son six years later and were married for 22 years when his wife died of cancer at age 42 leaving him a widow with three devastated children. Four years later on another fix up, he married his second wife who was actually friends of their family as were her two kids. They were married 40 years. The first man retired in 1988 and eventually built his dream house on the Florida gulf coast where he could be surrounded by all his kids and grandkids during vacations.
The second man met the love of his life in 1952 in front of a pool hall in Chicago, a few short miles north from where the first man and his wife lived. The second man married this woman of his dreams in 1954, the year the first man’s first son was born. He and his wife raised two boys in the Belmont-Oriole neighborhood in Chicago. The second man worked his way up the ranks of the Chicago Police Department becoming an Area Detective-sergeant handling many high profile killers, cases, and criminals along the way. He was the primary detective on one of the biggest cases of its time-the murder of two police officers in the 70’s near Cabrini Green. He retired in 1990, after 33 years of decorated service to the city having received numerous commendations. He and his wife will celebrate 64 years of marriage.
Little did these two men know that fifty years after the war, the first man’s daughter would meet the second man’s son in 1985 and their paths finally crossed when the son brought the daughter home to meet the family. Four years later, they married and the families were forever intertwined.
The first man is my father -Robert Diamant, whose story I have often told but in my opinion cannot be told too many times-a heroic man whose tale is that of a true self made man climbing from the abyss of horror to go on to emigrate to the United States and years later build one of the world’s most famous buildings. But true to character , his proudest moment was passing the citizenship test and being able to sponsor and bring his parents to emigrate to the United States, and ultimately settle and take care of them a few blocks from our family home.
The second man is my father in law, Richard Morask, whose story is equally heroic-it is the story of the Everyman, our true heroes, who served his country in war ravaged Europe and then his city for years, risking his life on a daily basis; his family at home never knowing if he would make it home -always dreading the “phone call”. Dick is a man who also instinctively and empathetically is always there for not just his immediate family but any of the numerous aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces or friends needing help.
Both of these heroes lived their lives without seeking public acclaim, fame, credit or fortune. Each was and is a self made man who cared more about family than fame, who instinctively were leaders of men and always there for friends and family in any emergency. It is incredible to me that each were part of this war in such different ways and each served and made such vast contributions, sacrifices and service to our country.
The parallels in their lives is eerie-my father and father in law share the same birthday-April 2nd. My father came to America in 1947 after briefly attending the Hungarian Polytechnic Institute before winning the Hillel scholarship. My father in law got stationed in Germany in 1947; ships passing in the night. My mother and step mother shared the same birthday-July 3rd. My in laws had two sons three years apart in age. I have two sons three years apart in age. My father and mother had my oldest brother and I three years apart. My father retired in 1988 two years earlier than my father in law, in 1990. Each of these unsung heroes were survivors of the hardest “knocks” a life can have but without fail got back up, and showed up to fight another day.
These two men, the unsung heroes, became fast friends. They immensely enjoyed each other. Even living miles apart after my father retired in Florida and Dick retired in Niles, at every family gathering the two would be found deep in conversation sharing a cocktail discussing either the events of the day, or their shared passion for golf. My father is gone now. He passed away in January, 2015. My father in law with whom I am fortunate to have a great relationship, has been like a second father to me. When pregnant with my second son, my father and step mother had flown in from Florida for the birth but were downtown when I suddenly had to get to Northwestern Hospital from Park Ridge. My husband was in mid closing argument at 26th and California. My father in law was at my house within three minutes of calling, rushed me down, and delivered me intact to the Labor and Delivery floor where my father and husband were waiting to thank him profusely.
My father was my rock and anchor for 60 years, extricating me from sticky situations-flying at a moments notice across the country for emergencies and joining to commemorate our family milestones and celebrations. We would talk every week late into the night about life, family, politics, and the legal thrillers and TV shows we both loved. He loved to hear about my legal cases and offered sage advice and strategy. He always put family first.
So too my father in law. Cut from the same mettle, he is a steadfast source of strength. He has shared countless hours of help, advice and just being there. Too many times to mention, he has whipped into his car to get one of the kids to the doctor in those growing up emergencies young boys have when both parents are miles away downtown. He too always puts family first.
So this Memorial Day, I dedicate to these two men, who while born continents apart into vastly different worlds would come to intersect 50 years later. Men who quietly and enduringly touched and changed countless lives far and near-a Tale of Two Heroes.