Boris Feldman’s Eulogy
Mendel Feldman was a member of the Class of 1939. No, not the Yale College Class of ’39 – although people who saw him walking around in his Yale hat and windbreaker might have thought so. Rather, he was a member of the Survivors’ Class of 1939. In that year – at the age of 22 – he matriculated into a ten-year nightmare, surviving hell on earth and ending up, in 1949, in the land of freedom, to build a new life. 55 years later, as he leaves us to rejoin Frieda, he leaves behind a legacy of strength, faith, and love.
Mendel was born in Sokolow, Poland, in 1917. His father, Ephraim, was chronically ill and died in 1935, when Mendel was 18. Mendel’s mother, Chinka, was a pillar of strength. She raised Mendel, his two brothers, Fischel and Moishe, and his sisters, Shoshana and Sarah. Two other children, Shepsel and Boruch Elie, died in childhood. The family was poor, and Chinka made a living as a grain merchant. Mendel’s paternal grandmother, Ruchella Fischel, lived near them and was a towering figure in his life, embodying both piety and shrewdness.
Although the dominant features of Mendel’s landscape were poverty and anti-Semitism, he was a young man of boundless energy and enthusiasm. He had a strong “rascal” gene, which passed undiluted to at least the next two generations. As a Jew, he was both Orthodox and modern. He was a committed Zionist at an early age. And he was a relentless suitor of Frieda Altman from the time he met her in a Zionist youth group at the age of 18. In the world of Poland between the two wars, he was as happy as one could be.
Everything changed on September 1, 1939. The Nazis invaded Poland. Within ten days, they had occupied Sokolow. Frieda was assaulted by Nazi troops and decided to flee. She asked Mendel to go with her. He made the most difficult decision of his life: to leave his mother and siblings behind and to join Frieda in exile. In October, the Russians temporarily occupied Sokolow. Mendel and Frieda seized that opportunity to flee to Bialystok. They took with them Frieda’s mother, her sister, and her sister’s fiancé. Mendel and Frieda wed in Bialystok, in a double-ceremony with Leah and Velvel. Then they all boarded a freight train to honeymoon in the Ural Mountains.
Mendel and Frieda lived several lifetimes in the next six years, between the ages of 22 and 28. They bounced back and forth between western and eastern Russia, often with Nazi troops a few dozen kilometers behind them. They had one son, Avraham, who died at the age of two. They had two other sons, Fred and Irving, who miraculously survived illness after illness. The young family – always together with Frieda’s mother – endured hunger and privation, as well as several arrests of Mendel by the KGB, from which Frieda invariably sprung him.
In 1945, the nightmare ended, with the Allies’ defeat of the Nazis. Despite the ongoing pogroms in Poland after the war, Mendel disguised himself as a Russian soldier and went back to Poland to look for his family. The Nazis had murdered his family – along with all the other Jews of Sokolow – in Treblinka, on the day after Yom Kippur in 1942. Only Mendel’s sister Shoshana, who had emigrated to Palestine in 1933, survived.
For the next four years, Mendel, Frieda, and their family were stateless. They initially returned to occupied Poland, but could not abide the anti-Semitism. So they walked across Europe– through Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary -- until they crossed the border into Austria and came under Allied control. They walked at night and hid during the day – for three months. Little wonder that, when we would later ask Mendel to join us on hikes, his invariable reply was “hiking, schmiking.” Mendel, Frieda, Fred, Irving, and Bubbeh lived in a variety of Displaced Persons camps until 1949. That year, Frieda’s uncle, Joseph Rosenbaum, sponsored them as refugees and brought them to the promised land: South Bend, Indiana.
Mendel and Frieda lived the American dream in South Bend. Mendel worked as a machine operator on the New York Central Railroad, where he was one of those rarest of things: a Jew with dirt under his fingernails. He had no formal education, but he approached his work with the commitment and perfectionism of the most accomplished professional. He earned a modest salary, but his family wanted for nothing. He was a proud, devoted member of his union, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees of the AFL-CIO. To his last day, one of his proudest possessions was his lapel pin marking 50 years as a union member. While he worked day and night, Frieda shouldered the burden of raising Fred and Irving, along with the two American children, Charlotte and Boris. The Feldman household was dominated by love and Yiddishkeit.
Mendel never complained about his lot. He endured many physical challenges: struck by a train while working near Gary, Indiana and nearly killed; a heart attack; two quadruple coronary bypasses; deafness induced by the roar of the machines on the tracks; and more rotator cuff surgeries than there are rotator cuffs.
After he retired from the railroad, it was time to pick up roots once again. First, Mendel and Frieda moved to Rockville, Maryland, to be near Charlotte. Later, they decided to go West and join Boris and his family in California. As Frieda – who had cared for Mendel all his life – descended into Alzheimer’s, their roles switched. It was now Mendel who cooked and cared for her, with a compassion that we had never known was there.
In what should have been his twilight years, Mendel embarked on a second “career”: teaching chess to Jewish schoolchildren. It turned out that the patience he had not always shown us as children had been stored in reserve. He now drew on it to guide five-year-olds in the proper pronunciation of “rook” and “castle.”
Mendel’s faith in G-d and devotion to Judaism grew stronger every year. His davenning in our schul transported the congregation back half a century to the old country.
We were blessed to have Mendel in our house for the last four years. He was my companion on trips to the farmers’ market and to Costco. When he wanted me to do an errand, such as ordering a book for him, he would write out the request longhand and then duplicate it on his treasured photocopier. Every night, when I went to my study, a fresh copy of the request would be on my chair. He informed me that he would continue to leave a copy every night until I did what he wanted. It worked.
Mendel was the most relentless person I have ever known. That is why he survived. That strength of will, that can-do attitude, triumphed over the Poles, the Nazis, the New York Central Railroad, and even the California DMV. As his body gave out over the last month, his spirit did not. He was determined to make it to his beloved Talya’s bat mitzvah last week, and he did. Mission accomplished.
Mendel worried constantly that he was a burden to us. In reality, he was our energy source. The last four years with him at our table and in our lives was the greatest blessing that one person can give another. His return to Frieda leaves a gaping hole in our household.
In the Jewish tradition, chai – the equivalent of the number of 18 – represents life. Mendel leaves a legacy of chai plus one: four children; four children-in-law who, he might note in passing, were all Jewish; and 11 grandchildren, each of whom he treasured, and each of whom reminded him of the brothers and sister that had been stolen from him in 1942. With Mendel’s departure from this world, those 19 will carry his spirit in their hearts forever.