My mother died last week. She was 93.
Having lived in Lubień, Poland, she was robbed of her youth when the Germans invaded in 1939.Thirteen years of age at the time, Manya Rak was thrust into the maelstrom of the Holocaust, and none of her parents or siblings survived. She was able to escape the Warsaw Ghetto by passing as a peasant Pole, but she was captured shortly thereafter and spent the war in labor camps, finally imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen.
As the war was ending, the Germans forced the camp inmates into a death march, and my mother, realizing what was to come, escaped with several other young women and hid in a barn. The German owner, cognizant that the Allied forces were on the way, sheltered my mother and her companions.
Nearby, my newly liberated father, Eli Kleinman, was on a mission to find provisions for the displaced persons (DP) camp in which he resided. He heard of the pretty young women in the farm and met Manya. They married the next year and lived in Landsberg, Germany, one of the largest DP camps for four years. My brother Abe was born there, and eventually my father received sponsorship papers from his uncle in New York to come to the U.S. They arrived in New York with an infant, and with Manya very pregnant with me. They were penniless, did not know English, and had few prospects for employment.
But over the ensuing decades they lived the American dream, moving from poverty in the Lower East Side, where I was born, to the Bronx, and ultimately purchased a home in Pelham Parkway. My father had a successful business career and became a communal leader, serving as president of the Young Israel of Pelham Parkway for 19 years. In those years he was always busy, attending meetings, presiding over fund-raising for the shul, soliciting purchases of Israel Bonds and donations to UJA, and organizing the annual Łódź Ghetto commemoration, housed at the synagogue.
And my mother was the glue who kept the family, now with the addition of my sister Lillian, together. She ensured that we did well in school and mediated between the mischief we created with our disciplinarian father’s strict approach. She was an ardent Zionist, active in the Mizrachi Women’s Organization (now known as AMIT), and very social with a sparking personality — “spunky,” as my wife, Gail, described her. My mother’s two passions in life were her family and her Judaism, although she was most accepting of, and kind to, all people. She accepted our daughter-in-law Alicia, a Jew by choice, with open arms.
My brother Abe remembered her as “a woman violently snatched from the innocence of her youth, from the joys of young womanhood and the loving embrace of her family. A woman who, despite the agony of persecution and pain, stayed true and steady in her course of redemption…. A woman whose house, home, and porch became a gathering place, constantly open to all who stood near, with exclamations of pure joy.”
Lillian extolled her virtues, saying that my mother was “always smiling, always happy. She needed so little in the material world. She could make a dried challah into 10 dishes…. She never threw out one morsel of food. She and my dad created a world of fellow survivors that was joyful, spiritual, and enormously grateful for the lives and families they created. They were always laughing and running around and having fun.”
Now that you know my Mom and Dad, here are some lessons I gleaned from their lives:
Like most of their fellow survivors, my parents were resilient. They didn’t wallow in self-pity, but believed in the future and raised three children, their legacy now standing at 23 descendants and counting.
Resilience is a key factor in leadership success, as discussed by social psychologist Angela Duckworth in her best-selling book, “Grit.” And Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote in the Harvard Business Review that “the difference between winners and losers is how they handle losing.”
In today’s world of rapid change, there will always be setbacks. How we handle those challenges and rebound is the key to success. Yet college administrators and professors infantilize their students by indulging them with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and censorship, which has the effect of dulling the capacity for resilience.
In contrast, Rabbi Harold Kushner invokes the “11th Commandment” in his book “Conquering Fear”: Don’t be Afraid. In other words, be smart and cautious to avoid danger, but don’t let fear paralyze your daily living. This is echoed by Dr. Marc Siegel in his book, “False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear,” writing, “Our infectious fears spread faster than any bacteria and ignite a sense of imminent danger that far surpasses the reality. Anthrax is not contagious; fear of anthrax is.”
Zionism and love of klal Yisrael animated my parent’s lives. They knew that if there was a Jewish state to accept refugees during the Évian Conference in 1938, millions of Jews could have been saved. Instead, our people lost a third of its numbers. This was a major factor in my parents’ overwhelming acceptance of all those who identified as Jews. We all have our opinions about the U.S. president, Congress, and the prime minister of Israel, but in the age of BDS, it’s incumbent on us to follow my parents’ lead and stand united on the essentials.
My parents lost their entire family, so they built a social support system of fellow survivors. My siblings and I never knew our grandparents or our aunts and uncles, but we were treated by other survivors as if we were their own kin. In fact, my parents led the way in purchasing garden cottages in Monticello, N.Y., and other survivors soon followed in acquiring bungalows of their own. There they played and worshipped together for over 25 years. Our visits to Monticello were like an extended family reunion.
So we mourn the loss of my parents, but their descendants will carry on their legacy of resilience and supporting others, and their love of Israel and the Jewish people.
Max L. Kleinman is president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation; from 1995 to 2014 he served as CEO/executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.