Mendel Feldman (1917 To 2004)

 

A Remembrance by Fred Feldman

 

 

Schmuel Mendel was born in Sokolow Podlaski, a small stadtel east of Warsaw, Poland on April 24, 1917 to Ephraim Yitzhak Felman and Chinka Schwarzbard Felman.Mendel was one of 7 children: Shepsil, Baruch Eli, Fishel, Shoshana, Mendel, Sarah Rifke, and Moshe Velvel.Shepsil and Baruch Eli died as children and Shoshana fled to Israel before the war, but all the rest of Mendelís siblings were killed at Treblinka.

 

Mendelís father Ephraim Yitzhak was sick for as long as Mendel could remember and so he had to work to help his mother since he was 5 years old.Mendelís grandmother, Rucheli Fischel Bloch lived with them, a short red haired woman, very religious and feisty, that my mother Frieda remembered as a ďfighterĒ for what she believed in.

 

Mendel grew up in a strong family environment.He attended cheder and remembered fondly growing up in a family and town where Judaism was important.My mother Frieda (Freyda Elka Altman) was born in Warsaw in 1914, one of 4 children but where two of them (boys) died very young.Only she and her sister were left to grow up in Warsaw.Her father, Avraham Altman died when Frieda was only two years old and her mother (Chaia Brucha Rosenbaum) took her and her sister Leah to Sokolow where her grandmother (Bayla Rechl Rosenbaum) lived, a very sick woman who couldnít care for them.

 

Frieda grew up in Sokolow helping her mother sell geese at the town market and met Mendel as a young girl.Mendel and Frieda became sweethearts, and I have a picture that I treasure of the two of them strolling on the streets of Sokolow.Sweethearts!†† Mendel must have been about 19 years old and Frieda about 22.


 

I have other pictures of that time, too.I have a wonderful picture that the two had taken together – vibrant, full of life and hope.Beautiful!I have a picture of my father at that time, dressed up in a nice suit and tie.A beautiful young man.And I have pictures of the two of them as they joined a Havurah, a Jewish youth group, beautiful young people who met to discuss Jewish literature and history and who became early on Zionists, dreaming of going on to Israel to start a Jewish life there.What incredible hopes and dreams they had, dreams torn apart by the coming war.Few of them survived.

 

When Germany occupied Poland, their little town was overrun and occupied in just days.There were German troops in the street and, when Frieda was attacked, they decided the only choice was to leave.At an early point in the war, the Russians pushed the Germans back from the town, and the two packed a few things quickly to leave.Mendel hired a cart and horse for them to go across the river Bug into Russian territory and he took Frieda and her sister Leah and their mother to leave.He tried to convince his family to also go, but his motherís response was, ďTo where will you go?What will you do?You have nothing over there.Itís not good here, but weíll stay until the war is over, and weíll start again.ĒShe refused to leave.And Mendel took Frieda and left all that he knew behind.Once in safe territory, he tried one more time.Leaving Frieda temporarily, he went back to try again to convince them to go but to no avail.He went back alone and the party of 5, Mendel and Frieda, Friedaís mother, Friedaís sister her fiancťe Velvel set off.They arrived at a large city, Bialystok, where Frieda and Mendel,Leah and Velvel were married.

 

They spent the war on the run, just managing to stay ahead of the German army.They traveled from place to place in Russia, sometimes in cattle cars, sometimes on a regular train.They lived for a while in Crimea (Southern Russia), left when the Germans were approaching and headed for Azerbaijan, aiming for Baku the capital.I was born near there in the Ural Mountains.They lived some time in Mahachkala and other towns in the area where Mendel looked for work.Several times, Mendel was arrested by the Soviet army and accused of espionage, treason, other trumped up charges.Many times beaten, threatened with death.The stories of how they survived, of how my mother fought to get him free, are unbelievable.

 

When the war was nearing end, they went back – from Baku to Mahachkala, from Mahachkala to Crimea, where my brother Irving was born in Saki.From Crimea they finally were allowed to return to Poland as other refugees were.Dropping his family at a collection point, Mendel went back alone to Sokolow to find what happened to his town, to his family.All were gone.All had been taken on one day in September 1942, on the day after Yom Kippur, to Treblinka, where they all perished.

 

Father returned to his family and they were all sent to displaced persons camps in Austria.They walked from Poland through Czechoslovakia and Hungary to the camps, and I have a picture of my brother Irving and my cousin Loretta sitting in the baby buggy on that trip with me and my cousin Barbara pushing it.

 

They were there until October 1949 when they finally left to come to the United States, sponsored by my grandmotherís brother Joseph who had settled in South Bend early in 1900.We came on a steamer, the SS General Sturgis and arrived in New York harbor on October 25, 1949.My father came with a few worn suitcases, with less than $100 in his pocket, with Frieda and my brother and me, with Leah and her husband and two children, and with my Grandmother.Despite unbelievable hardships and tragedy, the group he had left home with had survived and come to the golden land to start finally a new life.Without him, none would have survived.

 

In South Bend, Indiana they got their first apartment in the middle of a black ghetto while my father looked for work. Charlotte was born in that apartment, the first American citizen in our family.Boris was born five years later, in the first home that they bought, a ramshackle old house in which we all grew up.My father worked for almost 30 years as a laborer for the New York Central Railroad.He ran a huge machine that repaired the tracks, kept them straight and clean, and in the winter he worked by shoveling snow away from the tracks in ungodly cold.He worked hard all his life and had a strong and true ethical framework for which he commanded great respect from all his fellow workers.When he retired, they held a special retirement party for him that my wife and I went to, and they gave him a small model of his machine on tracks.He was always proud of that, and I was proud of him.

 

Iíve heard these stories for over half a century, and every time Iíve listened Iíve learned something new about their lives and their journey.But even with the many times Iíve heard them, itís hard to believe that all of that happened in one lifetime, what they went through, and what they accomplished.How can we possibly understand what it meant to leave all that you have and all that you know forever behind and strike out into the total unknown, especially in a time of war?†† How can we comprehend what fortitude and willpower it took to survive all that they did?

 

And what blessings came from their lives.Two poor Jewish children, Mendel and Frieda, one who went only through the fifth grade, the other only through the third grade.†† They started with nothing but at the end left behind a respected scientist son (Fred/Froimele); a son (Irving/Srulikel) who became an accountant in Ottawa Canada and started a beautiful family there, a daughter (Charlotte/Chinkele) who became a journalist/a congregational aide, a modern professional woman who was the pride of my motherís heart; and a lawyer son (Boris/Burachul) , one of the best in the country, who wrote winning briefs in a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.And the loving grandchildren they left behind, David (Dovid Fischel Moishe), our son, named after two of my fatherís brothers, who is a computer scientist in Boston; Aviva, and Ilana, and Benji beautiful children of Charlotte, my sister; Kimberly and Amanda and Danny in Canada, children of Irving, that they never stopped taking pride in, and the wonderful grandchildren here that they loved so much, especially at the end of their lives – Natalie and Avtalya and Eli and Sam.They loved us all and they loved us equally, no matter how different we were, and no matter how much they worried about us.And they came to love our spouses as well, my wife Rhoda, Irvingís wife Linda, Charlotteís husband David Jacobs, and Borisí wife, Robin, whose kindness toward them in the last stages of their life was beyond measure.Robin, who cared for them lovingly and helped them when they were old and could no longer care for themselves, who in the last days of their life helped them more than any of the rest of us could.

 

We learned much from their lives about overcoming difficult hurdles, and we learned, as they became old, how much they came to mean to each other, even as they came to appreciate it more.We came to learn never to put off until the last days to tell each other how much we mean to each other and to treat each day as the precious gift that it is.

 

In my mindís eye, I still see them as beautiful young people, strolling locked arm in arm and enjoying eternity together.