Mr. Glass-half-full

by Peter Vogel

On January 17th Bob Vogel, my father, was sitting in his favourite chair, chatting with my mother when he suddenly closed his eyes and slumped forward. He was dead by the time the ambulance arrived.

An hour later I was sitting next to him in a small private room at the hospital. It was so peaceful. It was wonderful to be able to farewell him with no agonising about unfinished business, no regrets about what I did and didn't say to him while he was alive.

Ten years ago it would not have been so easy. Like many men, at that time I wasn't entirely sure who my father was; I didn't really know his story. And although there was great love between us much was unspoken. Through my newfound interest in male psychology and participation in men's groups and gatherings, I came to realise that to understand myself better, I needed to to find out more about where I had come from.

I had only a vague picture of Dad's life. I knew that he had been through some extraordinary experiences, fleeing Austria as a boy of 16 and keeping just one step ahead of the Nazis, but it was not something he liked to talk about - "It's not very interesting", he would say.

When he asked me to think of something special he could get me for a 40th birthday present, I had a brainwave - I asked him to write down his life story. It took him a while, but eventually I was presented with a tape which I transcribed. He then got out his shoebox full of old photographs and we went through them and selected ones to illustrate the story.

One of dad's most remarkable features was his optimism - he was definitely a "glass half full" man. He chose not to be resentful about the events of the holocaust which shattered his family.

His generosity of spirit was always obvious to me, but I recall one incident which said it all.

After finding his way to Britain, he and 2000 other "enemy aliens" were herded into the hold of a ship, the Dunera. They were not told their destination. They were being transported to Australia. They were very badly treated on the journey, some died and some suicided.

A few years ago a group of the people who had been on that ship were planning to sue the British government for their inhumane treatment, and as Bob was the youngest on the boat, he would be their best witness. Bob however refused to testify. How could he sue the British, he said, when they had saved his life?

Ironically, the day before Dad died, I had been in Melbourne, visiting a friend who is very ill and may not live much longer. We got to talking about death, and she asked me what I thought happens to people when they die. I said I don't know, except that it's clear to me that when someone dies, they do not cease to exist altogether. Even though their body is no longer animated, their spirit lives on through their effect on the world and the people that remain.

On that day I did not imagine that I would soon discover how true this is. Not a day goes past without encountering something of my father which lives on. Bob was a very resourceful craftsman; the original do-it-yourselfer. He rebuilt most of the house I grew up in, and the furniture he designed and built 30 years ago is still there and looking good. My 10-year-old-boy memory of holding pieces for him while he screwed them together is still very much alive, as are the many pieces of practical knowledge handed down in the process. "Rusty nails hold better than shiny ones" - I clearly remember the moment of this revelation. "If you drop something small on the ground, look down before it stops moving, or you'll never find it" is perhaps one of my most frequently used pieces of his fatherly advice.

Dad also loved to use his talents to help others. For example, he was active in Technical Aid for the Disabled, a group of volunteers who create devices to make disabled people's lives easier. He also helped another organisation that provides drivers for elderly people to get around.

His workshop was always full of things people brought him to be fixed; he hated nothing more than seeing something thrown out that could be repaired. When mirror on his car had been smashed once and he picked up all the little pieces with tweezers and glues them back together. He got great joy from solving that jigsaw.

Of course, when I built my house Dad had a field-day, helping with all sorts of jobs. Fortunately he particularly enjoyed the fiddly jobs, like cutting tiles to precisely fit an irregular area. Every day as I walk on the tiles he laid, sit on a chair he fixed, or look out a window he glazed we exchange a silent greeting.

Like most men of his generation, my father's actions spoke louder than his words.

My father's autobiography can be read at

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