I got an email from Irv Gerber of Fair Lawn on September 21 informing me of the passing of Mimi Lief, of blessed memory.
Mimi was older than my mother, yet we had an unusual long-distance friendship. I kept 35 letters from her, the oldest dated January 2008 and the last June 2017, when she was 90 and was losing her sight and hearing.
We became acquainted, if I recall correctly, in early 2007, when I wrote an article for the Record about the American Red Cross Holocaust Victims Tracing Center. Mimi had been trying desperately for years to find out exactly where and when her father was murdered by the Nazis. When we spoke, we felt an instant kinship. So after I moved to Israel in August 2007, we became pen pals.
It was always a thrill to get an actual handwritten letter in an envelope with the return address from Berdan Avenue in Fair Lawn. And Mimi was the only person to whom I sent actual letters. I remember an Israel Post clerk looking at me in disbelief when I requested old-fashioned blue aerograms. She did some digging in a back room and came back with a handful of aerograms, the very last ones available, because nobody sends snail mail anymore.
Every letter from Mimi was permeated with concern about Jewish and Israeli current events, seeking my opinion and describing her efforts to advocate for Israel and the Jewish people through countless letters to world leaders, newspapers, and members of the press.
In a letter dated January 1, 2008, she expressed regret that moving to Israel was not feasible for her, “so I will just continue to agitate for Israel’s cause by trying to shape the opinions of people to help, while also contributing what funds I can to many causes in Israel. … I have not ceased writing to people in power, like President Bush here and Olmert in Israel. (Bush sometimes replies, Olmert ignores me.) If I did not do what I can, however I can, to help Israel, I could not live with myself.”
I met Mimi in Jerusalem in 2009, when she came with her daughter, Dr. Debbie Dienstag of Lawrence, N.Y., to visit Debbie’s daughter in seminary. I recall being surprised at how tall she was; we expect old ladies to be little, but Mimi towered over me, with a presence that was at once gentle and commanding.
It wasn’t until 2011 that she received the grim facts she’d spent years searching for.
In a letter to the Jewish Standard that March, she shared that she had “only just now been informed by the researchers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., that my dear father, Markus Mordko Wald, was killed in Serbia by Nazi killing squads. They took the men of the town of Nis, to which my father had fled from Vienna, and brought them to a hill called Bubanj, where they systematically shot all the men.”
Her father had already survived about a year of hell in Dachau and Buchenwald. She learned that in Buchenwald he’d risked his life to save a fellow inmate who was too ill to work.
“My mother managed to get my father out of the concentration camp by a ruse, so he would leave Austria; she had obtained a fake permit to go to Palestine from a cousin who lived there,” Mimi wrote. “Only he had nowhere to go. My brother, sister, and I were already in the United States, and my mother had a visa to come here also, but when she begged the American consul to also let my father come, he rejected her plea, citing the quota system and the fact that my father was on the very tiny Romanian quota.
“My mother wanted to remain with my father, but he would not hear of it; he insisted she go to America to the children. We will be grateful to him for this forever because, had he not sent her here, she would also have been killed.”
The family’s attempts to get her father to the safe shores of the United States were met with callous uncaring by President Roosevelt, the governor of New York, and even by Eleanor Roosevelt (“to whom I had written a heartbreaking appeal thinking she would have a softer heart”). Mimi’s bitter frustration was multiplied by the easy entrance of former Nazis to America after the war.
Despite carrying this tragic burden, Mimi cultivated an attitude of gratitude. She was a faithful Jew, filled with extraordinary kindness, intelligence, and passion for doing the right thing.
She took much joy from her daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren (two of whom were born just before she died). I got in touch occasionally with Debbie — not often enough, I regret — to check on her mother after she was no longer able to write letters.
On February 25, 2012, Mimi sent me a typewritten poem she had composed as she faced worsening health issues. I re-read this poignant poem on the eve of Yom Kippur, a few days after her passing.
“My house, the ‘house’ I live in,
The shell that encompasses my Soul, my Being, my ID,
I’m watching it crumbling from beneath me.
Day by day, I see more of this ‘house’ deteriorating;
I can hardly recognize what I always used to think of as ME.
“But that isn’t really ME; it’s only my house,
Given to me by G-D as a temporary dwelling place
For my soul: To live in, to do my work,
The tasks that G-D prepared for me to accomplish.
“So now I question myself: Have I done well?
(Oh my L-RD, have I fulfilled my destiny?
And where will I be when this ‘house’ goes to its final
Have You, oh my G-D, prepared a place for me in Gan Eden,
together with my mother and father and all my loved ones who have left earth?
(I weep, not knowing. L-RD, my G-D, comfort me as only You can.)
“Thank you, Ribono Shel Olam; for now I know what
I must do:
Just go on, keep on repairing this house.
Looks like it’s got a few more years. (And I must not
try to count those.)
Just go on, doing whatever I can.
My job is not yet done; much work awaits me.
Thank YOU, HASHEM, I’m ready for my next assignment.”
Mimi Lief, you are missed. May you rest in peace in the embrace of your parents and the God you served with love and faith for nearly a century.