Love, Destiny and Luck Bring Pair Together Again

T he fact that you stay with me, even though we seem to have no future, means a lot to me. That is my life.

Henry Robert Leon, the one everybody calls Bob, wrote those words to Erica Gunker on Sept. 18, 1939. She still has the letter, and many others too.

Erica was in Budapest then. Bob had already reached the promised land: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Erica was planning to join him--they became engaged through the mail--except then Italy entered the war and ships were not crossing the Atlantic anymore. Erica was trapped.

A Jew in occupied Hungary, she was almost killed.

We are decades and worlds away from all that now, in a complimentary ocean-front suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point, yet the past is still very close.

The good times, that is. Enhanced with age.

And Bob has been writing again, just this morning in fact, at 3:15 a.m. Last night's champagne woke him up with a thirst, so he had some more. What the heck, you only live once.

Or is that really true?

Bob stands now to read what he wrote, one elbow leaning slightly against a desk, his back to the ocean and the dancing palms. He is striking a bit of a pose.

Bob will be 79 in May. Nobody can call him old.

Reaching out, touching the hand of Erica, I came to Earth. The bed with its enormous size represented the world. She was barely visible on the other side, and I could hardly reach her with my fingers. As I did so, suddenly the "creation of Adam" from the Sistine Chapel came to my mind. As our fingers were touching, there came life.

Erica is sitting on the couch, grinning like a schoolgirl who's just been kissed. She and Bob stare into each other's eyes.

Who could have known that love would get so much better with time?

Fifty-three years since Erica wrote to say that, yes, she would be his wife, Bob and Erica were married this past Valentine's Day, at the retirement home in Los Angeles where Bob works.

"Let me tell you something," Bob leans toward me and says. "I've never had so much fun as I'm having now."

I never had a doubt.

So how do you explain all this? Bob and Erica try as best they can. It takes nearly four hours of talk, a lavish lunch and wine. The consensus: love, destiny and luck.

Love came first.

"We used to go out walking," Bob says of those days in Budapest, the city where he and Erica were born. "And just to show you how different things were back then, I reached over and wanted to hold her hand and she said, 'What kind of girl do you think I am ?' "

After Bob left Hungary for New York--"There was no future for Europe and especially no future for any young Jewish boy"--he tried to get his loved ones out as well. His father came, and later, his mother made it out in the nick of time.

Erica, with no legal connection to Bob, stayed with her mother. She was an only child, and her father had already died.

"Going to America, it was like grabbing a hand that reaches out for you and saves you from drowning," Erica says.

Bob wrote, pouring out his love.

"He would write these 10-, 15-, 24-page letters," Erica says. "Then one day they stopped coming. I knew that could happen. I was very, very sad for a long time, and everybody wanted to console me, take me out. I didn't want to go. I couldn't just change overnight."

"She runs deep," Bob interjects. "Like a slow river."

Finally, when Erica allowed herself to love again, her heart broke. The man she loved was sent to a labor camp, tortured and eventually killed during the war.

Many other dates are etched in Erica's mind. The Germans invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944. She married a factory worker on March 28 that same year, changing her last name to Rudas. Then on Nov. 15, Erica was rounded up--she and others forced to wear a yellow star.

She was taken to a brick factory and from there, she says, the next stop was to be Vienna, then the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Erica kept stepping to the back of the line.

"I thought I shall die," she says. "I thought better to die in the good fresh air than to die in this terrible place."

But when she could stall no more, Erica says a Swedish man--whom she later learned was Raoul Wallenberg--finally took her passport and, after lying to other officials, told her she had the necessary documentation that would allow her to go home.

"Then from there, every day we had to find a way to survive," she says.

Erica's marriage lasted 42 years, ending when her husband died four years ago. They never left Hungary. Erica has a 30-year-old son.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, Bob was cutting quite a path. He opened a photography studio, Leon Portraits, which stayed in the same Brooklyn location from 1939 until 1972.

Bob married, and divorced, twice. He was with his second wife for 32 years. He too has a son. Erica hardly ever crossed his mind.

Then at a New Year's Eve party at the Riverdale, N.Y., condominium complex where Bob and his wife lived, a neighbor called him over to meet some friends who had come over from Hungary. The year was 1977.

"The woman looked at me," Bob says. "She asked me if I had two sisters, if I had a photo studio, then she asks if I knew Erica. She was her best friend! She says, 'I knew about you for 40 years! Erica told me all about you.' "

So Bob got Erica's address and later sat down to write. Which was a bit of a tricky proposition. Both of them were otherwise involved.

"On April 4th, I had just told the story of Bob to my son," Erica says. "Then 10 days later, I got Bob's first letter and it was dated April 4!"

"There were just too many coincidences," Bob says.

Bob and his wife, American-born, traveled to Hungary the following year. It was the first time that Bob had ever wanted to return.

"I thought it was the 50th anniversary of my high school graduation," Bob says. "But I made a mistake! The reunion was in 1979."

Sure, Bob, a year off.

"And, also, you know, underneath the surface, I wanted to see Erica," he says.

"You know, it was much more evident than you thought it was," Erica adds, with a smile.

So Bob returned to Budapest in 1979. The high school reunion was on, except now Bob was alone and divorced.

He saw Erica, and her husband. They were all friends.

Or at least that's what they think they were. Nothing was ever said out loud.

For 13 years, Bob and Erica corresponded, now only in English. Bob sent Erica English-language books. He renewed her subscription to National Geographic each year. He moved to Los Angeles.

"Then again comes the mystery," Bob says. "In my back yard, I have a hummingbird feeder. I used to watch the hummingbirds, and I really loved it. One night, I dreamed a story about the hummingbird, and I recognized that it was really about myself and my family."

Bob was again inspired to write, this time a poem called "The Hummingbird." He told Erica it was a love poem and sent it to her in the mail.

Hummingbird, hummingbird

You must come to me.

Why only in my dreams

Do I dare to see

Your flashing eyes?

Make it a reality.

Stay for just a while.

There was more, but Erica didn't need much convincing. She sent back a poem of her own right away.

Years were coming, years were gone

And I always knew somewhere is one

Who understands what I do and think

Who knows about me everything.

Erica arrived in Los Angeles on Dec. 5 of last year. She had no plans to wed.

"I wanted to have a good friend," she says. "I was so inspired to come. I never thought I would marry him. I never thought that."

But, you know, things just sort of worked out. Bob actually proposed, again, on stage during a New Year's Eve show at the retirement home. This time he was on his knees. None of this was in the script.

"Erica would you like to be my hummingbird?" Bob said.

So the love birds were married, in the chapel of the Hollenbeck retirement home in Boyle Heights.

I saw the pictures and the video. Everyone seemed to have a ball.

The music, sung by a co-worker at the home, was "Que Sera, Sera."

"Hey, what else?" says Bob. "With a story like this."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World