Tracing a legacy

Tracing a legacy

A historian examines his cousin Raleigh Weintrob's influence on Senator Frank Raleigh Lautenberg

Andrew Almanza with Frank Lautenberg at the senator’s Cliffside Park home in 2009.

In many of the commentaries that have been published since Senator Frank Lautenberg’s death, the centrality of his roots to his identity has emerged as a dominant theme.

Another, more personal theme has emerged for me. Frank Lautenberg was named after a cousin of mine, who died tragically too young but whose life influenced the senator’s and whose first name the senator carried as his own middle name.

Some observers have noted that Lautenberg was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Indeed, he made clear that he had drawn richly from his early experiences with privation to nourish a robust legislative agenda. However, he also emphasized repeatedly that he received inspiration from his forbears.

Part of his inspiration flowed from their examples and their attempts to surmount their circumstances. Keeping this well-rounded perspective on the past is important, because an overemphasis on rugged individualism disconnects an individual from an intricate web of social and affective relations. Such omissions encourage us to forget that lives fall along a continuum; they don’t begin in a vacuum where a birth is the genetic equivalent of the big bang.

Compressing lives into a Horatio Alger mold risks distorting the unique contours of an individual experience and manufactures stock characters out of the real people who helped shape the hero’s worldview. Historical memory suffers through such readily accessible tropes. The most inspiring germ of the American story – renewed possibility – is neglected.

When he announced his retirement in February, Senator Lautenberg again invoked the memory of his progressive father, Sam, who led him into the Paterson silk mills and taught him about the value of education and the perils of chemical toxicity in industry. Sam succumbed to cancer in 1943, likely a victim of the very hazards he had counseled his son to avoid. Gone too soon was the admirer of Gandhi, the yoga student, the nature lover and aspiring farmer, the health food and fitness guru. But the imprint of his lessons survives in part today in the long trail of health and environment-conscious legislation and a cancer research center that Senator Lautenberg left as a part of his expansive legacy.

In his retirement speech, Senator Lautenberg reminded us that his immigrant parents did not have objects of material value to bequeath him, but “they left values. And that was what inspired me, because I saw what they were willing to do to move our lives along.”

Significantly, then, a pair of monogrammed gold cufflinks bearing the initials “R. W.” was the only tangible valuable that Senator Lautenberg’s mother, Mollie, gave him when he became an adult. She had held onto them for decades, although it might have been far more useful for her to pawn them.

They had once belonged to a man the senator never met but who gave him something intangible that he would hold all his life – his middle name, Raleigh. In Hebrew, the name was Raphael, which means “God will heal.”

It was not until he died that most media outlets published Senator Lautenberg’s full name. It was Frank Raleigh Lautenberg.

Somehow, an obituary seems more complete and more dignified when we choose to include the full name. Conferred before character forms, a name is the prefatory material to a life. It represents mere promise. Recalling it in obituaries fittingly binds the opening and closing chapters of a person’s story, as we can take stock of his or her evolution.

On January 17, 1924, six days before Frank Lautenberg was born, one member of the household where he would first see daylight was late arriving home after work. Word soon reached 86 Fair Street in Paterson, where the man lived with young expectant parents Sam and Mollie Lautenberg; Mollie’s mother, Esther Bergen; and her younger sisters, that their friend and employer – who effectively had become family – wouldn’t be coming home that night.

Eighteen hours was all it took for the Bergen-Lautenberg family – and the Paterson Jewish community – to realize that he would never return. The following afternoon, Paterson dailies carried banner headlines that told the grisly, tragic tale. Raleigh Weintrob, a 36-year-old former local public school principal and Jewish community leader, and another man, a school employee, had been driving at night. Raleigh did not see a train approaching the unprotected grade crossing. His employee leaped from the car, but Raleigh stumbled and fell on the tracks. He could not extricate himself, and the train crushed his legs. After languishing in the hospital all night and into the morning, shortly after noon the next day he succumbed to his injuries. He died surrounded by his brother, sister, and members of the Bergen-Lautenberg family.

Rabbi William Wittenstein, who had officiated at Sam and Mollie’s wedding the year before – Raleigh had served as primary witness – delivered a eulogy. Rabbi Wittenstein reviewed Raleigh’s leadership in civic movements and Jewish enterprises, said that he had been loved by Jews and gentiles, and concluded by asserting that “Raleigh Weintrob will live long in the memory of thousands.”

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, that confident forecast did not prove prophetic. History’s unsentimental dispensation is oblivion for most of us.

Faded type alone testified to the rabbi’s comments. Raleigh’s obituary was the first hint that he had enjoyed some stature in his community. In 2000, as I began to coax him out of yards of darkened microfilm, a cousin rewarded me – I was a teenager at the time – with an interesting bit of family trivia: Senator Lautenberg was named after my great-great uncle Raleigh.

Frank R. Lautenberg’s story did not require nearly so much digging. I already knew him as my senator, who flashed across my TV screen as he promoted various causes and campaigned for political office. I knew that he came from a humble background and understood his record to be liberal/progressive, but I had not familiarized myself with most of the details of his life or his public agenda.

Thanks largely to my extended family and Senator Lautenberg’s irrepressible cousin David Nochimson, I was able to meet Lautenberg several times and identify new family archival resources.

As I researched both my great-great uncle and Frank Lautenberg, some biographic parallels emerged. Both were the first American-born sons of immigrant parents with strong-willed mother; both had managed to graduate from Columbia University; both had been United States military veterans in war; both had extraordinary energy and drive.

Themes emerged. Transportation was prominent. Raleigh had taken a leave of absence from his job as a school principal to train as a military aviator during World War I. It was a defining experience that captured his imagination and accelerated his ascendancy in the Paterson community when he returned from the service.

“Unquestionably it’s the most exalted, godly sensation human beings ever experienced,” the idealistic Raleigh wrote. “After the war, when flying becomes more common, it can’t help but affect the temperament and character of humanity. I can’t see how a man can remain petty-minded and small-souled after he has ascended into the heavens and seen half the world beneath him.”

He later flew over the city of Paterson in the kick-off parade to the last of the World War I loan drives. Just five years later, though, his life was cut short.

Nearly a century later, his advocacy for the nation’s railroad and transportation infrastructure became a keynote of Senator Lautenberg’s political career, as he worked for safety on the nation’s roads, rails, and skies.

Another theme was concern for the poor or persecuted. Before World War I, Raleigh opened his school in the evenings to the largely immigrant community in his neighborhood, who used it as a social center. He befriended the family of Senator Lautenberg’s mother Mollie, with whom he boarded. He helped the family when Mollie’s father, Frank Bergen – Frank Lautenberg was named after his maternal grandfather – died at 38 in February 1923.

Raleigh also helped to bring Senator Lautenberg’s great-grandmothers to the United States to escape the Polish pogroms that came on the heels of the Russian Revolution, and he was outspokenly critical of proposed United States immigration policies that severely curtailed persecuted minorities’ entry into this country.

Senator Lautenberg, in turn, supported legislation to protect the rights of the poor, immigrants, minorities, and those who need a voice in government. Most notably, that included the Lautenberg Amendment for Refugees, which for two decades has provided asylum in the United States to hundreds of thousands of immigrants in need of a safe haven.

Perhaps the strongest theme the two shared was Jewish identification. Raleigh was an aspiring Jewish leader in Paterson who admired Nathan Barnert, the most revered Jewish philanthropist and Paterson political figure of his day. Near the end of his life, Raleigh appeared alongside Barnert at various Jewish community functions. As the leader of the Paterson Zionist movement who supported the Keren Hayesod, Raleigh chaired a city-wide parade and mass celebration meeting to herald the Palestine Mandate, which assured a place for the Jewish people in the ancient land of Israel.

In opening the meeting, Raleigh declared that the land was not just for the Jewish people of the Middle East, but for the Jews of the world. He then introduced Nathan Barnert to the cheering throngs and yielded the floor to the aged “Grand Old Man” of Paterson, who also spoke.

In a way, long after the cheering died out, Raleigh yielded the floor not to Barnert but to the man who would carry his name. Frank Raleigh Lautenberg – who would become Paterson’s most renowned Jewish political figure after Barnert – became chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, and in that capacity declared that “we are all Zionists!” In 1924, Raleigh’s name was posthumously inscribed in the Golden Book of the Jewish National Fund, but Frank Raleigh Lautenberg saw Israel come to fruition and has actively encouraged its success.

Despite his meteoric rise, by his own reckoning Raleigh was a man in constant battle with chance. He soon lost that war. “Old Dame Chance,” he wrote in his World War I diary, “she has always turned a cold eye on me.”

And it was true – although Raleigh hoped to see Israel one day, he never made it. Less than a year before his death, he attempted to get international Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann to come to Paterson during his American tour, but the plan fell through. Raleigh protested against restrictive immigration policies, but he could not influence them. He started in business during a postwar depression, and he struggled mightily. “Everything I lay my hands on turns to mud,” he wrote to his sister dejectedly, five months before his death. Plodding along and mocking himself, he wrote, “there’ll come a time some day – in my next reincarnation ““ when visions will become realities.”

What Raleigh lacked in luck he made up for with an eerie prescience. During a happier moment, while writing in his war diary, Raleigh had mused that his favorite expression was “good name.” Concluding his first phase of training and anticipating his new life as a flyer, Raleigh felt a serenity that so often would elude him. He was sure that “things have worked out right.” They have, in the long arc of history.

I recorded the final parallels in the stories of the senator and the man whose name he bore on the day of Senator Lautenberg’s funeral: both caskets were draped with American flags; both men were sent off with processions escorting them to trains that would bear them to their final resting places. But the most poignant synchronicity came in the conclusions to their eulogies.

On the morning of Raleigh’s funeral at the Barnert Memorial Temple, a memorial service was held at the Barnert Hebrew Free School in Paterson The eulogy ended with the words, “There was a man.” It was “stirring and heart-rending,” the newspaper reported.

Vice-President Joseph Biden chose to conclude his eulogy to his friend and former Senate colleague with an Irish expression. “He was a man,” Biden said, in an inadvertent echo.

It is an eloquent affirmation of a life’s promise fulfilled.

read more: