Father’s Day, 2009

Yesterday, 20 June 2009, would have been my father’s 99th birthday.

He was the sixth of eight children (counting the two who died in infancy) of Julius Helfer and Katalin Schnur, born on 20 June 1910 in a small city known then as Nagyszentmiklós in Torontál county, Hungary. It was also known as Groß Sankt Nikolaus in the Banat of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and is now known as Sânnicolau Mare in Timiş county, Romania. This was in the much-disputed territory known as “The Banat of Temesvár”, part of the borderland between Central Europe and the Ottoman Empire. The town itself is best known for the “Treasure of Nagyszentmiklós”, an ancient collection of decorated gold objects discovered in 1799, and as the birthplace of Béla Bartók. Since 1920 the eastern part of the Banat has often been considered part of Transylvania, so in some sense Dad was born in Transylvania.

Dad’s name, like that of his birthplace, varied by the language of the document. In Hungarian he was István; in German he was Stefan; in Chicago he became Steven. Somewhere along the way he acquired two middle names, Frederick and Francis, and thus became Steven F. F. Helfer for formal use, but Steve to almost everyone.

Dad’s father emigrated to Chicago in 1911, and his mother followed with the children in 1912, so Dad grew up in Chicago in a period of ferment. The First World War, the “Roaring 20s”, Prohibition, and the gang wars of Chicago marked his childhood; the “Great Depression” marked his young adulthood; and then came the Second World War.

Dad didn’t live to know my children, which makes me sad sometimes. I know he would have loved to spend time with them, to watch them grow and learn, and I would have loved to see him with them. But even though they never knew him things they do or say sometimes remind me of him, and it pleases me to think that he’s not gone completely, as long as I remember.


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