You're moving through life, trying to make it to the end of the day, when a stranger approaches. You immediately calculate a response: Open the door he's knocked upon or pull it tight and turn away? Many factors come into play. Is he dangerous? Is your world too full of good things or too cluttered with bad for you to bother with someone new? Are you shy or embarrassed by how much you need to talk to somebody?
When it happened to me, I talked back. The man had stopped me in the lobby of a Jewish community center as I put my baby in his car seat.
"Vhat's his name?" he asked in an accent full of history.
I sized him up: an old fellow wearing a cap and glasses. He appeared to be clean and unarmed, plus his eyes twinkled. Probably just a grandpa who missed his own cherubs, I thought.
I told him my baby's name, asked him about himself and learned that my grandfather assumption had been way off. He didn't have children or grandchildren. He only had one living relative because everyone else had been killed during the Holocaust.
Aron Lieb had spent the war in a ghetto, in forced labor camps and in several brand name camps: Auschwitz, Birkenau and Dachau. After American soldiers welcomed him back to the living with chocolate bars, he came to America. Here he worked as a deli counterman while enduring an unhappy marriage until his wife's death.
It was a sad life, yet he had those twinkly eyes. I wanted to know more.
I suggested we meet for coffee the following week. This wasn't something I'd ever done before, but it felt right. What harm could one coffee do?
No harm at all, it turned out. That morning changed my life.
At first we were just coffee mates. Then he started coming to my house for holidays, bringing my kids birthday candy and telling me all of his stories. You might think that he sprinkled his tales of tragedy with bits of wisdom, Tuesdays with Morrie style. But that wasn't his way. Instead, he told jokes, complained about the headache he'd had since before the war and flirted with every woman he saw.
Then his eyes stopped twinkling. That's when the life lessons commenced.
The Red Cross did many helpful things for survivors after the war, but I don't think they provided counseling. Now we know about PTSD, but it was around then, too, and Aron had buried his symptoms for years. As one ages, psychological defenses break down as much as collagen and muscle tone do. He became depressed and anxious, requiring psychiatric care. When I realized that he didn't have anyone to help him navigate the medical system, I signed health care proxy and power of attorney documents, essentially adopting him.
He recovered, but after a while, the misery returned. He spent all of his time alone in his apartment, eating not much more than rice and pills. When he threatened to kill himself, I knew he needed more than I could provide. But due to a complication in how this poverty-level Holocaust survivor had spent his German reparations, he couldn't get into a Jewish nursing home until I collected a pile of money for expenses.
Organized religion can be wonderful and terrible. Fighting Aron's battles showed me both. I'd expected the established Jewish community to provide anything necessary to help him die with dignity. When they wouldn't, I was heartbroken. Already ambivalent about the religion I'd been raised in, their refusal to do what was right almost caused me to quit altogether. But my faith was restored when the rabbi of the small congregation I infrequently attended asked congregants for help. Soon, people who knew neither of us donated whatever they could -- some sending checks for $5 and $10 -- to keep Aron safe.
Aron used to tell me that I'd saved his life, but he actually did most of the saving. He gave me the gift of being able to help somebody. He exposed me to the best and worst of humanity. And he showed, through the example of his entire life, that we humans can endure everything.
All because I talked to a stranger.
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