As we close the terrible year of 2020, we are confronted by monumental challenges. How do we mitigate the spread of the covid virus rampaging through our country as we roll out the covid vaccine to the populations most in need? How do we unite behind our newly elected president while tamping down on partisan bickering, as we try to address our serious economic problems? How do we get beyond the manufactured divisions of blue vs. red, race, gender, sexual identity, and perceived victimhood to galvanize our body politic behind what’s printed on our currency: E Pluribus Unum?
As Angela Duckworth has written in her bestseller “Grit,” resiliency, the capacity to rebound from setbacks, is a key ingredient we need to face the challenges but also the opportunities afforded to us in this rapidly changing world.
As I write this, we are commemorating the 76th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the second deadliest battle in American history. In a surprise attack — and one of our worst intelligence failures — more than 250,000 German troops barreled through a lightly defended section of the Allied line held by 80,000 soldiers, in an attempt to reach the key Allied supply port of Antwerp.
Lester Bornstein, who died several weeks ago, was on the front line. He and his fellow GIs knocked out the lead tank in a German attack, forestalling the German advance. I remember Lester regaling me with all the pertinent facts on a flight to Israel as I peppered him for more information. For his heroic action, he received the French Legion of Honor.
Lester later served in the Korean War, received his degree in public health, and for many decades was the CEO of the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, the first non-medical doctor to hold that post. During his tenure, the hospital became a leader in heart transplants and was the first in the area to hire Black doctors, because he did not forget the anti-Semitism Jewish doctors faced in employment. And he worked with our Jewish federation to provide medical coverage for the thousands of Soviet refugees who came to our community in the 1990s.
Bob Max was not as fortunate as Lester. He was captured in the early days of the Battle of the Bulge. He was not treated as a POW, in accordance with the Geneva protocols. Instead, he literally was enslaved and lived in inhuman conditions. Weighing less than 100 pounds, he escaped from a death march and after his liberation required more than a year of rehabilitation to regain his strength, including time spent at Grossinger’s in the Catskills. He was both a liberator and a survivor, and his story is captured in his memoir, “The Long March Home.”
Bob was successful in his business career, he was a leader in the Jewish federation, helped found Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, was president of the State Association of Federations, and most recently president of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey. He spoke to hundreds of students about his unique experience as a GI and survivor as he delivered his message — the need to combat hate wherever it’s encountered. Bob died several months ago, and the Historical Society dedicated the Bob Max Jewish War Veterans’ Archives in his memory.
Harry Ettlinger was one of the lucky few who came to the United States as a refugee after Kristallnacht. And like so many other young immigrants from Germany, he served in the Allied forces after Pearl Harbor. As a German speaker, he became the mainstay of the army unit established to capture and preserve the art treasures stolen by the Nazis, primarily from Jews. His role was immortalized in the film “Monument Men,” directed by George Clooney. For his efforts, Harry was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. He had a successful career as an engineer and was very active with the Metrowest Holocaust Council, speaking to hundreds over the years about his experiences and the lessons to be gleaned from them.
There are many other stories to be imparted from veterans and survivors. Like Peter Hirschmann, who just celebrated his third bar mitzvah. While we were vacationing in Florence, he told me about the worst day in his life, when he was captured in the Battle of the Bulge. A German refugee, he had a successful business career and for many years was a stalwart of our UJA campaign.
Before the Battle of the Bulge, the Allies thought that victory would be in hand in weeks. After the surprise attack and the ensuing battle, when we had tens of thousands of casualties, our commanders and soldiers didn’t lose hope. They were resilient. General of the Army and Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower knew that the Germans had advanced too quickly beyond their secure supply lines, and that it was a matter of time before the Allies would be victorious.
Like the example of resilience demonstrated by our elders, we need to go beyond the daily bickering and games of gotcha that so frequently exemplify the zeitgeist. We need a new spirit of resilience and unity of purpose as we seek to rebuild the America so battered by natural and man-made causes.
A hero of our times, even as he was imprisoned in the Gulag for more than nine years, Natan Sharansky wrote that “when a man is afraid and accedes to fear, he was always find arguments to justify his surrender.” Yet Sharansky did not surrender. Instead, he prevailed as an inspiration for Jews and freedom loving people.
Let the beginning of a new year be our guidepost in meeting the challenges but also opportunities that lie ahead.
Max L. Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014 and he is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.