He’d call when the Bucks, Badgers or Packers had a game.
“Dad wanted to know at what time and on what channels his teams were playing,” Milwaukee’s Judy Hudson said as she talked about her late father, Otto Feller. “He didn’t know most of the rules, but he sure loved watching sports.”
Those calls could be frustrating, though she laughs about them today. “Inquiring about baseball, he once asked my husband, ‘If one team never bats, can they still win?’”
Just weeks after her dad’s death, Hudson already misses those calls. “Never thought I would. What can I say?”
Hudson’s memories of her father, who died in late December at age 100, are grand.
He was brave, strong and determined. His life, anchored by his upbringing in Romania, forged by the fires of the Holocaust, upended by a Communist upheaval in his native country, and grounded anew in Milwaukee, was marked by resilience.
That’s the word – resilience – Hudson thinks captures her father’s life.
Hovering over her loss is trauma. Hudson, the only child of Feller and his wife, Aggie, who is 93, could not be at her father’s bedside as he breathed his final breath. She had Covid-19. Her last conversation with him was on FaceTime the day before he died.
“The trauma of not going to see him was the worst part of his passing. I just hope he understood why I wasn’t there.”
This anguish, though, cannot eclipse the fact that she was there – for the last 55 years of her father’s life. Born when her dad was 45 and mom was 38, Hudson was the child they thought they’d never have.
Feller was born on June 22, 1922, in Timisoara, a major city in western Romania. It was not always an easy place for Jews.
“We suffered a lot of verbal and physical abuse from many in the street and government officials,” Feller remembered in a memoir he wrote at the urging of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
“When I walked to or from school, children from other schools often tried to attack us, yelling obscenities against Jews. Whenever I went out, I had to worry about attacks from people who hated Jews. I tried to avoid them if I could, but they still tried to hit or spit on us and remind us that we were dirty Jews.”
As the Nazis came to power, Romanians collaborated with Hitler’s murderers. Not yet 20, Feller was interned in a slave labor camp. He’d spend four years in slave captivity until the Russian army liberated him in August of 1944, a month before he was to be deported to Auschwitz, a notorious death camp.
“Our main boss was a captain trained by the Nazis. He treated us worse than animals. We were assigned each day to dig in a certain area, barefoot in mud full of blood suckers and bamboo plants,” Feller wrote. “If somebody couldn’t finish his job, he was punished by not getting food for the day. If somebody tried to escape, he was beaten with a double belt on his naked behind, sometimes 25 times. We had to watch to learn from it. If the person yelled with pain, he got extra hits.”
After the war, Feller stayed in Romania. Family and friends who survived had returned home and that is where he wanted to be. He began building a career based on his creative talents – commercial art and music. Through his music endeavors he met his future wife, Aggie.
The stifling nature of communism in the 1960s, along with a new antisemitism, would cause the Fellers to leave Romania. Family members from Europe had settled in Milwaukee through a program run by national Jewish agencies. That’s how the Fellers wound up in Milwaukee where their daughter was born in 1967.
As they began life in the Badger state, Feller became a commercial artist in the field of textiles. His love of music continued. He became a cantorial soloist at Congregation Sinai and Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. He also became part of the Milwaukee Jewish Community Chorale and Congregation Shalom Choir.
On Dec. 28, 2022, six months after celebrating his 100th birthday, Otto Feller died. He was buried Jan. 3, 2023. Hudson, able to attend the funeral, talked about her dad in a phone conversation two days later.
“He survived a lot of things. He was a strong guy – on the inside and outside. He was tough physically, mentally and emotionally. He was powerfully proud of what he had accomplished and was fiercely protective of my mother and me.”
As the phone conversation ended, Hudson circled back to those game-time phone calls – the ones that would invariably come when one of his beloved teams was playing. “I’m gonna miss that guy,” she said with laughter sprinkled with tears.