Thursday, May 9, 2019

Mom's and what they teach us...

This past week I had the unbelievable pleasure of spending two days with my dad at the Teen Symposium on Holocaust Education in Scranton.  Over 1500 students attended the event. They heard from both liberators and survivors and learned about this horrific time.

The first morning we were eating breakfast and my dad got his favorite - sunny side up eggs.  He always eats them the same, he eats all the egg white first, leaving a perfect circle of the yolk, and then eats the yolk all at once.  It is so cute watching him eat his eggs!

So there we are, sitting in the booth at 6:30am eating breakfast, and he giggles at me as he eats his eggs, saying "This totally reminds me of the time I stole that egg."  So I give him puzzled look and say, "You mean when you got the boiled egg on the side of the street, right?' (for those that have read the book you may remember this scene).  He looks at me and immediately corrects me "No!  When I stole the egg?"  So now I am completely confused.  I thought I knew all the stories there are to know, but clearly my dad has just had a recollection of something that he has never shared.  I insist that I have never heard this story and implore him to expand and share more.

"One day we were hiding in the attic of a barn" he begins.  I lean in, so excited to be hearing something new.  "I was just SO hungry.  It was nighttime, Zosia and Baba (that is Mamusia to those that read the book - my grandma) were sleeping.  I quietly crept down the ladder to the barn and started to look around for something to eat.  I quickly noticed an egg on the ground near the chickens.  I didn't think, I didn't hesitate, my hunger was guiding me to that egg.  I quickly picked it up, made a hole in one end and drank the delicious liquid inside.  After indulging, I ground up the shell and hid it in the dirt.  I then quietly snuck back up the ladder and went to sleep.  The next morning, the owner of the farm came into the barn.  We heard him walking below us and getting very frustrated.  He started to curse and get angrier and angrier each minute.  Finally, we heard him coming up the ladder.  He looked at my Mamusia and said ' You stole the egg!' Of course she had no idea what he was talking about. ' What egg?' she replied. 'I would never steal from you!  I would ask you before taking anything. I swear I did not take anything!'"

At this point I interrupt my dad and ask "Oh my G-D! Were you scared they would figure it out? What did you do?"

A sneaky smile forms on his face as he recalls what happened next.

He continued, "Well, my mom looked at me from the corner of her eye.  I was sitting VERY quietly in the corner, and with one look she knew.  Once the owner left, she immediately turned to me and said 'Manek- did you take the egg?' . 'No!' I replied, 'She continued to look at me and very sternly once again said ' Manek! did you take the egg, tell me the truth'  I caved. 'Mamusia, I was so very hungry, I am so sorry!' She started to yell at me! 'Manek - do you know what you have done? We could get kicked out of here!  They are helping us and you steal from them?' I just started to cry and apologize.

Soon after the owner returned, and my mother went down the ladder and asked to speak to him. She confessed my sins, told the owner that she figured out it was her son that took the egg. 'I am so, so very sorry. I understand if you would like us to leave. He was just a hungry child. I have no way of repaying you. We are so very sorry.'' Well that owner was kind. He understood and forgave my father.

What amazes me the most of this story is the character of my grandmother.  Even in this horrible situation, she kept her integrity. She didn't have to tell the owner the truth. He would never have figured it out. But even when all humanity was being stripped from them, she held onto who she was. She taught my father to be honest, to own up to your mistakes.

To all the mom's out there - the way your children perceive you and your action shape the type of people they become.  I have always known what a good man my father is, he taught my sister and I the importance of family, the importance of truth and the fact that all we have is our word and reputation.  I now know he learned this lesson at a very young age.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Now What?

How to start? I just broke down. I was overcome with this overwhelming feeling of helplessness and despair.  What can I do? I am just one person and the world feels as if it is crumbling around me.  How did they survive? This was just one incident, 11 beautiful souls were lost to us.  How did they cope with hundreds of their neighbors being lost?

The actions this past weekend in Pittsburgh were horrific, that goes without saying. But Now What?  This news cycle will pass, people will go back to their lives, every so often someone will bring up the topic, but in general - Now What? What can we do differently?  How do we affect change?

Anti-Semitism exists, it always has, just look at history.  Hatred exists.  Look at the world today.  This weekend this hatred manifested in anti-Semitism.  Next week it may be against black people, or gay people, or Muslims.  How do we combat hate? I live in a nice area, well educated people surround me, and yet my own children have faced this discrimination.  My daughter had pennies thrown at her, and most recently a young man told her "if Hitler was still around we would live in a Utopia".  Yep - that happened here.  Now what?  She wants to do something, make a change, educate her peers.  I give her a lot of credit. She recognized that it most likely was not a statement coming from a place of knowledge, but rather a statement coming from a place of ignorance.  Children hearing things, whether at home, or from their peers, and not truly understanding the meaning behind those words.

So Now What you say? You have heard this before - we must start with our children.  Not every home will be loving, not every home will embrace the ideals of love, respect and tolerance, so it is up to our school systems to embrace the change.  Teach our children the true meaning of respect and tolerance. Use the lessons of the past to shape the future. Do not just teach history, truly learn from it, apply it to today and create actionable results.  Get our youth to understand the differences between us all and appreciate those differences for what they are - the beautiful tapestry that makes this country as great as it is.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Challenge for the Polish Government... Don't rewrite history

This week Poland passed a controversial Holocaust bill into law. In essence, this new law makes saying some holocaust statements a crime and it makes it illegal to accuse the nation of complicity in crimes committed by Nazi Germany.  For instance, you no longer can say "Polish death camps" in relation to Aushwitz and other such camps located in Nazi-occupied Poland.

It is a true that making the statement "Polish death camps" is misleading.  Make no mistake about it, Nazi's are the ones that built those camps.  We need to educate people and work towards countering misleading speech.  However, it is also a fact that there were certain Polish groups and individuals that collaborated and worked with the Nazi occupiers.  To try to rewrite history is very dangerous and destructive.

As many of you know, my family was saved by good non Jewish Polish families.  Many Polish people were murdered, both Jewish and Non Jewish. However, it is also true that there were many that worked closely with the Germans and collaborated, whatever their reasons.  Some would say they were just trying to survive - to protect their families. And although, that may be true to an extent, the reality is that this period of history allowed many  anti-Semitic personal beliefs rise to the surface and gave them a mechanism to act on them.

Many times, when my dad and I speak, there are many people that can not believe that the area he was from was so accepting of Jews.  There really was not much, if any, anti-Semitism.  But this was not true throughout the country.  My mother, who lived in Poland for 5 years as a teenager after the war, remembers the derogatory comments her classmates made to her and how she was bullied for being Jewish.

The definition of the term "history" is "the study of past events, particularly in human affairs".  By Poland making it illegal to discuss events as they occurred, they are in essence trying to change history and rewrite it in a way that makes them feel good and comfortable.

I have a question and challenge for the Polish government.

Instead of running from the past and trying to rewrite it, how about trying to learn from it and figure out how to teach the new generation the lessons that can be learned.  Embracing and accepting the past can be liberating.  Saying - "Yes there were those that collaborated, but yet at the same time, we must remember that many Polish people perished, many were good and tried to do the right thing.  Let's remember those people and celebrate their lives and the lives lost."

And for those that turned down the dark path - let's remember that there is always darkness in war, there are always those that will use any excuse to allow their hatred, bigotry and intolerance to come to the surface and prevail - but look at how the world came together to fight against that.  Poland is a beautiful country, with strong wonderful and kind people.  Please don't continue going down a path that will lead the world to only remember Poland and it's people as an intolerant and anti-Semitic country that is not willing to accept and remember history as it occurred!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

It's OK to have Dust in the Corner: A tribute to my Grandma Vera

For those that know me well, this quote is one that I have lived by for almost two decades.

Let me explain.  Many years ago I attended a Women's Jewelry Association Conference called Women in The Know.  I was a young working mom with a small toddler at home. There was a panel of speakers talking about all sorts of topics.  One topic was how to handle a busy work schedule and still be a mom.  One woman, Randi Shinske, made the comment, "It's Ok to have dust in the corner". When I heard this it was as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I had such an AHA moment.  You mean other women struggled to do it all? You mean other women sometimes felt inadequate? It was the most unbelievable feeling, to know that I was not alone, and there were other women who just couldn't make the bed everyday and live up to that perfect image of what I thought it meant to be a mom.

Yesterday, I left to go on a business trip to California.  When I landed I found out my Grandma Vera had passed away.  I hopped right back on the plane and came home.  Thinking about all the great memories I have of her, and all the wonderful times we had, the one thing that sticks out is that throughout it all, she always worked.  She was the one who saved every penny and invested it, allowing her and my grandfather to have a little kitty when they retired and enjoy life.  This was back in a time when most women did not work. There wasn't the support structure and acceptance of it back then as there is now.  I wish I talked to her more about it, how it made her feel and how she managed it all.  I can only look to her actions and use them as my examples.  Ironically, I never saw dust in her corners. She seemed to do it all. But now I wonder, how did she make it appear so easy? Who was her support structure?  

I realize being a mom is not about brining cupcakes to the class, or making sure the house is perfect. It is about so much more. It is about being there for your children. It is about being a role model for your sons and daughters. My grandmother was always there for us. She made it seem so easy. She was such an inspiration.  She always made me feel special and important.  She encouraged me to follow my dreams, and always told me that she knew I could do it.

As for being a working mom - sometimes it is just so hard to be present and in the moment, but that is what counts.  We always made it a point to have family dinners. No - I did not cook everyday, I tried to some days, but the reality is that it did not matter who made the food, just that we ate together.  No TV on in the house during dinner.  Phones were put away.  We talked. That was our time.  Yes, it get's harder the older they get, the more activities they have, but that just meant that some nights we ate later.  Did we eat together every single night? No. Between their schedules, and my busy travel schedule, that would have been impossible. But we really tried to as much and as often as we could.

I was listening to the news today, and heard a segment about Senator Tammy Duckworth.  She is the first sitting Senator that will be giving birth while in office.  And New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who is also pregnant.  She made a comment "I am not the first woman to multitask".  Women have been working and having families for many, many years.

Today I think we have come a long way.  Women supporting women is such a strong system, and allows us to thrive.  I remember feeling guilty about missing things when the kids were young, and feeling inadequate sometimes, and a friend told me "Guilt is a useless emotion.  A happy mommy makes happy kids, and if working makes you happy - go for it!"

So to all you working moms out there - know you are not alone - you are perfect in your own way.  My grandma always told me how wonderful I was - so I am telling you too - you are amazing! Remember - It's OK to have dust in the corner!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

2017: The most amazing thing I was reminded of...

As I look back on 2017, reflecting on the year, I am amazed at the people I have met and am excited to see what 2018 has in store. This past year, my father and I have had a chance to speak to people of all ages.

One of the most profound things I learned was the different perception children have in the world depending on where they are growing up. I always knew this theoretically of course, but being faced with it head on was a stark reminder of where we are in the world. This past year my father and I were speaking to 5th and 6th graders in Newark NJ. This was a group of hispanic and African American children. They had read the book as part of their class and were all so excited to meet my dad. When they first saw him their reaction was amazing - it was as if Beyoncé had walked in. The morning was wonderful, with so many great questions coming from the students. However, it was what I found out right before we entered the auditorium that really struck me. We were speaking to the teacher of the class and she told us about reactions the students had to reading the book. She told us that the biggest takeaway the students had reading the book was... that they did not realize that there was white on white violence. They just assumed if you were white you had it made. That hit me hard.

The thing is that to most people perception is reality. Having the opportunity to teach the young that we are all really the same could be life changing. We may all not be in the same place in our lives. Different social and economic standings of course influence attitude and opinion. But showing them that someone that is was once hunted, someone that experienced discrimination to the worst degree, that experienced a hatred like no other, can actually come though the other side and not only survive but thrive through hard work and perseverance is a lesson that needs to be taught.  We look forward to the year ahead and hopefully being able to make an impact on even more lives.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

We must be louder!

The events over the past week have not only troubled me, but the entire country. I have been wanting to sit down and write this all week, but the words would not come.

At the end of this past week I was involved in an incident that was quite unique to my life. I saw something wrong happening, and my instinct immediately was to call 911. It was not even registering at the time that I was probably inches away from loosing my own life. I was in the middle of gun fire and all I thought about were the young children I spoke to in Newark, NJ earlier in the year.  They had written letters to my father and I about how they were so excited to meet him since he was a "survivor". They felt as if they were surviving each day. They were fearful that if they went to the corner store for milk, they may not come back. "People are getting shot right outside our house" one student wrote to us. OMG- this was 20 minutes away from where I grew up! This could not happen HERE!  But there I was on Friday afternoon right in the middle of what these students live with each day, I could not stay silent.  And even after the detective called me at 1:45am to question what I saw (apparently they were involved in an active investigation and I could have had some information that they needed) I still knew I would not have changed a thing I did. Not one other person called that day 911, and I was not the only one that witnessed it for sure!

Some of my friends and family were afraid for me to get too involved. "Stay out of it" "Mind your own business" - I couldn't, I can't. We each need to take stand against violence, against hatred, against bigotry, against racism, against anti-Semitism. For me, I hope to never have to live through something like that again. I pray that the children I have met and those that live with violence each day can somehow find the rainbow of sunshine beyond that and find hope and peace.

I have watched, I have read, I have listened to so many over the last few days. And amongst all the ugliness and hate what I have seen are people coming together in love and peace, all over. I have never believed that violence is the answer. Whenever I speak to groups of people, whether they are children or adults, I always end my speech with this message:

"There will always be hate and intolerance. The only thing we can do is to continue to speak up and make sure our voices are louder than theirs."


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Let's not only remember, let's learn.

Over the last month, and now in the coming week, my dad and I have had the privilege and honor to speak to students from all over, including Newark, NJ; Norwood, NJ; Old Tappan, NJ; and we will be speaking in Harrison, NY tomorrow.  In each case the students continue to amaze us. These students range in age from 5th graders all the way up to 11th graders. Each situation is unique. Some students have already read the book and are coming into the assembly with questions formulated and an understanding of what my dad went through. In other schools, these students had no idea what they were about to hear. They knew that they were going to hear about a Holocaust survivor, but the details were never shared.

It's amazing how different many of the questions are depending on where these kids are being raised. Yet their is a common theme to them all.  When we speak to a group of students that have many immigrants in the audience, they are very interested in how my father got here, what were his experiences. If the students are being raised in an atmosphere of violence, their questions tend to turn more inward - How do you live without hate? How do you get over it?  But regardless of where theses students reside, their is a common theme to their questioning - What can we do?

Think about that for a moment.  No matter where we go, our youth is yearning to know if they can make a difference. Can their voice be heard? For us to be able to speak to them and explain to them that yes - they are our future. It is about them, about what they take away from this story. The story is not pleasant. It brings up a subject matter that makes many uncomfortable. It is hard to try to imagine that this man standing in front of you today was once a child that suffered so much. And to see that he went on to live a full and complete life, and yes even a happy one, is truly amazing.  But it is not about just his story. That would not be enough. It is about teaching the lessons that we can learn. 

I know it may sound corny, but I have to believe that he survived for a reason.  Perhaps that reason is exactly what we are doing now. To take these experiences and teach the next generation about tolerance, respect, perseverance and hope.  Even if we can reach just a few, it is a few more than we had yesterday. I am hopeful for us as a society. I do truly believe that deep down most people are good. If we can get those voices to rise louder and stronger than the voices of hate we have a chance, and to do this we must start with the youth.

This weekend starts the week long commemorations for Yom Hashoah -Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this remembrance day let's not only remember, let's learn.