Hero

Jack Mandelbaum always managed to surprise me.

Every time I told Jack’s story, I would check online to see if we’d lost him. Every time, he’d still be there. Into his 80s, into his 90s, a living memory and a living victory.

Last week, I checked again. Not this time. A few months ago, he had quietly left at the age of 96. An accomplishment for anyone. A statement for him.

You see, Jack was 15 when he went into a Nazi concentration camp.

I met him in 2004 when a book based on his life, “Surviving Hitler,” won the William Allen White Children’s Book Award in Kansas. He appeared in front of the schoolchildren as he’d appeared in front of so many, talking about the “game” he’d played as a teenager – one where the object was to outlast his captors. Each new day claimed another victory.

He won. Again and again. In the camp and beyond it, keeping the memory alive so that the reality would stay dead.

And again and again, the victory cost him.

Every time he spoke, he told me, he would have nightmares afterward. The memories came back to life in his dreams, bringing the horror with them. But he kept on, talking to children, to adults, to anyone who would hear. He had to. Even decades later, he still would not let the evil win.

In short, he was a hero. One with no weapons but the truth, no armor but his own stubbornness. But a hero nonetheless.

Hollywood has given us some pretty wild ideas of what being a hero means – usually punctuated with fiery explosions and a billion-dollar special effects budget – but every so often, a little bit of the truth shines through. Superhero fans like me like to point to a moment in “The Avengers” where the villainous Loki demands that a German crowd kneel to him … and one elderly man refuses.

“No. Not to men like you.”

“There are no men like me,” Loki responds with a smirk.

“There are always men like you.”

No superpowers. No dazzling gadgets. And every Marvel fan will agree that he was the biggest hero in the film.

That’s the kind of hero Jack was.

That’s the kind of hero any of us can be if we’re willing to see evil clearly. Stand firm in the face of it. And keep empowering others to do the same, whatever the cost to ourselves.

No one should have to endure what Jack did. But you don’t have to survive his experience to learn his lessons. That’s why he kept teaching them.

He’s still teaching them now.

And as we in turn teach and heal and strengthen and stand, we help win yet another round of Jack’s game.  

Did I say Jack left? I should know better. The great survivor is still surviving. This time in a way that no camp can touch. The difference he made lives on.

And frankly, that’s not surprising at all.