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Guest Post: My Zayda, the Refugee.

Jan 28, 2016

Blog Post

Jacob Lindenbaum

The author (R) biking with his grandfather, Manfred Lindenbaum.

(Jacob Lindenbaum)

HIAS holds an incredibly special place in our family. For as long as I can remember, every time a discussion on helping the world or donating comes up (which is frequently with my grandparents) HIAS’ work is at the forefront.

My Zayda, Manfred, became a refugee at age six when the Nazis forced him, his family, and thousands of other Polish Jews out of Germany in the fall of 1938. After a year as a refugee, he escaped with his brother to England, which had agreed to rescue 10,000 refugee children. His sister Ruth, along with 1.5 million other children, perished in the Holocaust.

For the last 77 years of his life, Zayda has made it his mission to fight against hatred and teach all of us the danger of being a bystander. It was with this mission in mind that he set off on a 200-mile bike odyssey through Europe to retrace our family’s route in the Holocaust.

What started as a simple desire to revisit his past quickly turned into a family affair with his wife, three kids, eight of us grandchildren, and many friends. There was no question that my Zayda wanted to use his odyssey to highlight refugees and HIAS’ work. It was HIAS, after all, that brought my family to the United States seventy years ago and paid for the medical attention they needed.

But even so, I cannot put into words what an honor it was - for all of us - to attend the White House Hanukkah celebration. When HIAS first invited my grandparents, my grandma called me to share the news. In the face of the current Syrian refugee crisis, I could not think of two better people to attend the Hanukkah reception at the White House. As the news set in, I found myself, as I so often do, swelling with pride and respect for my grandparents.

After a few minutes my grandma handed the phone to Zayda, but before he could say two words he hung up. He called back 30 minutes later and explained - he had been looking at a picture of his sister, Ruth, when he heard from HIAS President Mark Hetfield that he had been invited to light the White House menorah and was too emotional to talk. 

Every Lindenbaum, from Minneapolis to Philadelphia, from Scotland to Israel, watched the President's remarks with nachas and a glistening eye. Of course, Zayda went on stage with a picture of Ruth in his pocket and showed it to an enthusiastic Michelle and Barack. 

The moment was, above all else, a call to duty for me and my cousins. For the longest time, I could not come to understand why my Zayda did what he did. Why he spoke with incarcerated youth, marched in countless rallies, led anti-hate seminars. Why he forgave Germans when I was still so angry. But he continues to show all of us that fighting for what’s right and loving everyone is the only path. And watching him light the candles with the President, the First Lady and my cousin Lauren reinforced this message. 

Our trip to Washington culminated with meetings on the Hill with Congressmen. These meetings were in stark juxtaposition to the celebration at the White House. We witnessed vast obstacles within Congress that play a role in preventing refugees from seeking asylum.

Still, on the way home the President’s words echoed in my mind: “Imagine the world we could build together if all of us took our cues from Manny and truly lived up to the ideal that we are all God’s children, that none of us should turn our backs on a stranger."