A Goodbye to Walter Roth, the Grandpa the World Needed

It’s hard to write a story the night before the last time you see someone so important to you, but when you know what you want to say, you know. And I also knew that when my grandpa died there’s no way I’d be able to coherently write.

But I’d be devastated if I couldn’t tell my grandpa’s story, so I wrote this the night before I last saw him, knowing I’d publish it when he passed. He died two weeks later, on the first night of Passover, two weeks after a boost of miraculous adrenaline gave him what he told me was “one of the best nights of my life.”

Just two days before writing this, I thought I had lost my grandpa before I got to say goodbye. I got a call from my mom that he was in hospice care and that the nurse had told her “this is the end.” He was barely conscious, but I got to FaceTime with him for a few seconds of lucidity. I flew out to Chicago 12 hours later, wondering if I would make it in time.

When I arrived, he was certainly far weaker than the last time we’d talked, just a month before. But he was up and thrilled to see my brothers, my wife, and I. He’d been hallucinating before I arrived, but when I got there, he wanted to talk about the COVID relief bill. He tried to subtly set up one of his nurses with multiple grandkids. He laughed and flashed his sharp mind despite his entire body giving out. Two days after the supposed “end,” he was cracking jokes at a big family dinner, surrounded by his kids and grandkids, engaged in every conversation. The hospice nurse, who came earlier that day, threw up her hands and said, puzzled, “it’s incredible!” But that was nothing new for Walter Roth.

My grandpa joking with the family, and my mom as happy as I’ve ever seen her, just two days after being “a mess” (her words).

I’ll cherish that night forever, and I wished it meant he’d turned the corner. After all, this is the guy who at 75 years old was told by his doctor that he had the heart of a 25-year-old. When I left, I spared both of us an emotional goodbye and told him I’d see him soon. I always thought he’d meet my kids. But I knew deep down that this was the last time I’d see him. His supplemental oxygen was nearly maxed out, and a 95-year-old heart is a 95-year-old heart. He died two weeks later.

Even though I thought my grandpa was invincible, I’d known for years I’d write something like this after his death. That’s because I want the world to know what they had in him, and how it’s worse off today. I’ll remember my grandpa for what he’s done for me and how he’s impacted my life, but he made the world better for those who never knew him.

Walter Roth was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1925, in the working class neighborhood of Bockenheim. His father co-owned a butcher shop with his uncle. And he was Jewish.

When I was growing up, I only heard wonderful tales of my grandpa’s childhood. I knew that he escaped to the U.S. after Hitler rose to power, but he mostly told us grandkids his famous “Bobbi Stories,” about the mischievous horse, Bobbi, that the family owned. He even self-published a book of Bobbi Stories.

Only later, when we would have our long talks about history, did I learn about what he truly went through as a child—about losing friends during the rise of anti-Semitism, about getting kicked out of public school for being Jewish, about having to watch his every move as laws started to target Jews, and about needing help from a neighboring family to supply the butcher shop after Jews were barred from buying animals at the market. He escaped in July 1938, just four months before Kristallnacht. His uncle, who co-owned the butcher shop, was killed at Auschwitz. Another aunt and uncle were killed upon being deported to Latvia.

Grandpa arrived in New York without speaking any English. He got put in an all girls school (I still don’t know why) and eventually learned English and graduated from high school, despite his family having next to nothing and living in a small apartment in Washington Heights. He was drafted into the Navy during World War II and built airstrips for the Seabees in the Pacific Theater—he handed in his gun after the war and told a less-than-thrilled Navy officer, “never used.”

After the war, he went back to New York and enrolled in engineering school at City College. He met my grandma at a dance at Hunter College. They fell in love, and even though her parents—Belorussian immigrants—wanted her to marry an American, she married my grandpa anyways. They moved around a bit before settling in Deerfield, Illinois, where they raised four kids. My grandma was a teacher and my grandpa worked as an engineer, eventually becoming a vice president at the company, also finding time to serve as school board president. He stayed there until he retired, but he wasn’t exactly into the idea of a chill retirement.

After retiring, Grandpa went to law school at Northwestern, just because it sounded interesting. I’m not sure he would have even practiced law had he gotten his degree, but my grandma made him drop out after a year because he was studying too much. He took continuing education classes at Northwestern before the school shut the program down, and he helped start a new program at National Lewis University. He even taught courses, explaining to me once that he was going to teach an “objective, historical” course on the Bible (apparently this got rave reviews despite being taught by a Jew). He joined a number of book clubs and dedicated himself to always challenging his way of thinking. At one of his birthdays, the store asked what they could draw on the cake. For instance, they said, they tend to draw golf clubs for old men. My mom asked instead that they draw books.

I was always close with my grandparents growing up, since I lived just three hours away. But when I went to college at Northwestern, we got particularly close. Those were some of the toughest years of my life, as I struggled with depression and anxiety that hit me like a ton of bricks. But I knew no matter what that my grandparents were there. When I needed a pick-me-up, I’d go to Deerfield or they’d come to Evanston for a meal, and we’d talk about politics, sports, and whatever else was on my mind. When I introduced them to my wife Maddie, then just my girlfriend, they took her in as part of the family and treated her like a granddaughter.

Even after I left Evanston for Chicago, the regular meals continued. And since I worked from home, I could meet in Deerfield, just 40 minutes up the Dan Ryan Expressway, any time. I became the on-call IT expert—once I drove from Chicago to Deerfield to plug in the computer my grandpa claimed was broken because it wouldn’t turn on—and would stop by to fix things or do yardwork, knowing I had a nice long meal to enjoy afterwards. We’d even find ways to go to the Art Institute and to Cubs games.

When I moved to Texas in 2017, my grandma’s health started to deteriorate to the point where we couldn’t have conversations. But Grandpa and I would still talk on the phone, mostly about politics. He even told me he wanted me to help him write a book about the rise of fascism through democratic means. He spent his last fall on this earth terrified that what he experienced as a child was going to happen again. But after the election — getting more frail by the day and just months before his death — he called to tell me that we needed to get going on this book. He even sent me an outline.

My grandpa’s life was extraordinary, but what I’ll remember the most is just how much he has impacted every part of my life. Most importantly, he’s shaped how I think and view the world, and he and my grandma have shown me what I want my marriage to be.

My grandpa has always been a critical thinker, and he’d let me know I needed to be, too. Back when I was a sports fanatic, we would often watch Chicago Bears games together. He was undeniably a Bears fan, but he would often turn to me and say, “this is a terrible game,” referring to the head injuries players suffered. He was even more dismayed about college football and the exploitation of college athletes. As a typical fan boy, I refused to acknowledge the obvious. I was a meathead and wouldn’t let moral dilemmas ruin my weekend escape.

But in college, something hit—Grandpa was right. I remember thinking about him when I realized that I needed to start challenging my own comfortable worldview, when it came to sportswriting, politics, and my interactions with people who grew up different from me. I started writing about the very real brain science behind football head injuries and the exploitation of athletes. I started to recognize my own privilege and to think about social issues through a framing I didn’t have growing up as a middle class white kid in Iowa. This isn’t to say I adopted my grandpa’s views. I was certainly to his left—he accused me of being biased against Amy Klobuchar because she was a prosecutor, for instance. But he forced me to start thinking critically and to examine other points of view. I will always be grateful for that gift — one that I’m not sure I would have gotten without him.

He is also the reason I went to law school and have the job I do today. I’m a capital defense attorney, and while there are lots of reasons for that, my grandpa probably had a greater influence on my career path than anyone else. As a kid who would often feel bad about empathizing with the struggles of people who were sent to prison—even when, again as a middle class Iowa kid, I was told they were the “bad guys”—I was always fascinated by my grandpa’s relationship with Germany.

I don’t think it’s fair to say my grandpa ever forgave Germany for what the country did to him. He certainly didn’t. But he also didn’t shy away from it, either. In fact, he seemed to almost actively seek out reparations. He traveled there a number of times for work, brought his kids to see where he grew up, and went on a trip to Frankfurt as a guest of the city in a return to his hometown. He even became pen pals with the mayor of Frankfurt.

I struggled growing up in a binary world, where there were good and bad people. That never sat right with me, even when I was young. Whether he knew it or not, my grandpa made me realize that what I really craved was understanding—trying to figure out why harm happens, and how to fix it without throwing people away. It’s why I always asked him about his relationship with Germany, and it’s what makes me so enthralled by capital defense—a profession that demands recognition that understanding harm is far more important that assigning labels to people within a false binary of good and evil. Without his urging and his guidance, I wouldn’t have the career I feel called to.

But most importantly, my grandpa showed me what kind of husband I want to be, both now and as I grow old. My grandma and grandpa were truly best friends. They did literally everything together, from traveling the world to grocery shopping. Whenever it seemed like my grandma needed something, grandpa would lean over and say, “How are you doing, Cookie?” She’d translate for him (read: yell into his ear) when his hearing went bad, and he’d make sure her coffee and eggs were done just the way she liked them. When my grandma’s health deteriorated, my grandpa put all of his mental and physical health into caring for her, even in his 90s. He’d be exhausted each and every day, yet do it all over again. I’m convinced it’s why he deteriorated as fast as he did, but to him, it was all worth it. Their relationship is the one I seek to emulate with my wife, now and as we grow old. It’s the story of best friends who had truly found their person in life, and who lived up to the ideals of a perfect marriage every day.

I’m also aware that beyond my own wonderful relationship with my grandpa, the world is slowly losing so much more. My grandpa was one of the only people alive who could truly remember the rise of anti-Semitism and fascism in Germany. He was 12 years old when he left — just old enough to know what was really going on. But his life was also a reminder of just how close we are to that history. (It blew me away when I learned he was born before Anne Frank). Now, we’re losing that generation and the people like my grandpa who offered prescient reminders from their youth. I’ve written about his warnings before. I cherished our talks about politics and history, and I was comforted to know he could share them with the world. We’re slowly losing that lived experience, even as fascism is on the rise worldwide, and it legitimately scares me.

But on a personal level, apart from the existential, I knew when I wrote this that the time for long talks about politics, sports, philosophy, and law had ended. Even after he bounced back from “the end,” Grandpa struggled to talk. Earlier this year, we’d been talking about plans for his book on fascism, but it was clear he just didn’t have the strength for those conversations anymore.

For better or worse, I’m usually pretty stoic and level-headed in the face of tragedy and hardship. But it’s hard to say goodbye to someone like Walter Roth.

My grandpa seemed ready. Despite his resilience and the adrenaline that allowed him to have a lovely, laugh-filled last dinner with family, he knew his time was running short. He told my mom and his caregivers goodbye and thanked them for all they’ve done. He was at peace.

But that doesn’t make it easier to lose one of the best people this world has ever known.