Paying homage to a Holocaust survivor’s firm grip on life
His hands. I won’t forget them, the way they wrapped tightly around mine last summer, the first time we met.
I remember thinking: " These are the hands of a man who has lived longer than a century?”
They were old hands, but also firm, sure, strong hands. The hands of a man who endured the very worst a human being can endure and then lived on ... and on ... and on, making the most of every decade, every day.
Until last week.
On Dec. 28, in the early morning, Leon Weinstein died. He was 101, the oldest survivor of World War II’s Warsaw ghetto uprising, according to Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust expert at the American Jewish University.
Weinstein passed away where he wanted to: in his house, in his bedroom, on his own terms. How fitting. These facts can be seen as his final rebuke to the Nazis who terrorized him and wiped most of his family from the Earth.
They tried their best to kill him. But he had a life to live and a little girl to save.
How lucky I was to get to know him, to pick up some of his wisdom, to tell the story of his survival and of the against-all-odds search for his daughter once the war ended.
How lucky I am, and honored, to write about him here one last time.
“My face can still feel the tears I cried that day,” he told me during one of our first interviews.
He was talking about 1941 and the Warsaw morning when he was forced to give up his daughter, Natalie, 18 months old at the time. Weinstein and his wife, Sima, had been on the run, doing their best not to be caught by the Nazis.
Figuring they’d be killed if they were caught, they hatched a plan. Sima would hide with a Polish family. He would head for shelter in the ghetto.
And Natalie? That morning he ended up leaving her on the front steps of an apartment building, praying someone would take her in as an orphan, figuring it was her only chance.
“The little girl,” he said, “she had to live.”
After leaving her, he joined the Jewish resistance in the ghetto. On the first night of Passover in 1943, the Nazis began a final push to clear all inhabiting the walled-off, 3.5-square-mile stretch of squalor, and Weinstein was part of the small band of men and women who fought back.
He survived that clash, then spent days scuttling through bombed-out buildings, a hunted man.
He ended up being one of the few resistance fighters to escape. He lowered himself into the city’s rat-infested sewer system and emerged in pre-dawn darkness on a street outside the ghetto’s walls.
Allowed to hide with a Polish couple he’d met before the fighting began, he evaded the Nazis until the war ended. When it was over he looked for Sima, his parents, siblings and cousins. All had perished.
When I talked to professor Berenbaum, he noted that, in a symbolic sense, by the time the war was over Leon Weinstein had already died twice. “The first death was when his entire world collapsed as the Germans invaded Poland and so many family members were killed,” Berenbaum said. “The second death was in the ghetto, where death became a constant companion, where he saw it intimately and daily. During the uprising, the resistance fighters never expected to live.”
The fighters were making a powerful statement: If they were to die, they would die their way, standing defiantly against their persecutors, proudly on their feet.
Knowing this, it can hardly come as a surprise that Weinstein didn’t give up on his daughter. When the war ended, he found out she’d been part of a large group of orphans who’d been shuttled throughout Poland by Catholic nuns as they fled the fighting.
Weinstein used an old bicycle and pedaled from village to village, searching for her. One month passed, then three, then five. He circled back to Warsaw, walked through another convent and didn’t see her. Then, on his way out, he looked up and saw a bony, frightened child being carried by a nun.
The girl was Natalie.
His daughter, Natalie Gold Lumer, 71, is a psychologist living in Los Angeles not far from her father’s home.
Reporting their story last summer, I spent several Friday evenings as their guest for Shabbat dinners. When he wasn’t playfully defying his daughter by plucking nibbles from his dinner plate and feeding them to her small dogs, he told stories, and I listened and watched. As remarkable as his tales was the way Natalie could finish his every sentence, the way he could do the same with her, the way he made her laugh with a wink or blush with a feisty, politically incorrect comment about world politics. They were as bonded as any two people I’ve ever met.
But by my last dinner visit, a few months after the story’s August publication, Leon Weinstein wasn’t quite the same.
He was still sturdy, but not as steady. He still laughed, but not as fully. He told more stories that night, but his tales were shorter and quieter, and he didn’t last as long before telling his daughter that he wanted to go home and rest.
He and I didn’t get much chance to talk that night, but at one point he put down his Scotch and drew me close.
“Thank you for telling my story,” he whispered. “Nobody should forget what happened. Thank you.”
My gut told me it would probably be our last visit. Somehow I couldn’t be sad. To have lived through hell without ever giving up on anyone or anything he loved -- what a life.
During Weinstein’s funeral last Friday at Mount Sinai Mortuary, I sat in the back, remembering him, his sly humor and his stories, thinking of what can be divined from the strength of old hands.
Weinstein’s friends and his rabbi traced the arc of his postwar years.
How he married another survivor, Sophie, and how they had a son, Michael.
How he ended up in Los Angeles in the early 1950s.
How he became a successful businessman, the owner of a high-end sweater manufacturing company headquartered in Hollywood.
How he became a stalwart of the city’s Jewish community: For over 50 years devoted to the 1939 Club, a survivors group dedicated to Holocaust education; for just as long a backbone member of Congregation Atzei Chaim, the Beverly Grove synagogue where he prayed nearly every morning.
Further tragedy did not dim his embrace of life. In 1993, Michael died in a car crash. A dozen years later it was Sophie, lost to heart failure. But after grieving, Weinstein always kept on, unshakable, looking forward to another day and another chance to spend as much time as possible with his daughter and her sons, Robert and Ed.
As her father’s funeral wound down, Natalie walked slowly to the podium, dressed in black, the last to speak. She called him her hero, her role model, her friend, her rescuer.
“I don’t expect to be half the person you were,” she said, turning to his pine casket. “But I will try.”
There were tears in her eyes, but she spoke firmly. As firmly as her father’s grip.