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.

One Day More

They called themselves the Battling Bastards of Bataan. Their story is well-known – a 65-mile march as Japanese prisoners of war in the Philippines, a march that killed 11,000 of them, just about one in every seven.

It’s a story Albert “Doc” Brown told a lot longer than anyone expected.

Brown died this week at 105, the oldest survivor of the Bataan Death March and the three years of captivity that followed. He’d been battered and weakened by it all, so badly he couldn’t resume his stateside dental practice. So badly, his doctor told him to enjoy life while he could, because he wasn’t going to make it past 50.

He made it just a wee bit longer. And for three generations, a lot of people have wondered how.

“He had this incredible spirit to live and overcome,” his biographer Kevin Moore told the Associated Press.

Amazing? Yes. Incredible? I’m not sure. Incredible is literally something that can’t be believed. And I can believe that kind of stubborn spirit – I’ve seen it in the face of concentration-camp survivors, Battle of the Bulge veterans and others who had to endure constant, unrelenting trial.

It’s like trying to chew your way through solid rock. A bit here, a bit there, not able to see the end but not able to stop either.

Life becomes small bites. It has to. No one starts out saying “I’m going to survive three years in a camp” or “I’m going to tell my story 50 years after I should be dead.” It’s too big to contemplate. It crushes you if you try.

Most, I’ve found, told themselves “I’m going to make it through today.” That was enough.
And a lot of todays strung together look mighty impressive when you come out the other side.

One leukemia survivor I know is fond of the phrase “If you’re going through Hell, don’t stop.” He strung enough one-more-days together to eventually run a marathon.

A friend I met in Kansas, Jack Mandelbaum, survived three years in a ghetto and three more in the Nazi camps, as a teenager. He considered every day a victory over Hitler, another move in a game he planned to win. It’s a game he’s still winning.

Most of us won’t ever face anything like that. But we’ll face our own enduring horror, our own pain that has to be met. Our own trial that calls for just one more day of strength. And one more. And one more after that.

Steps in another march.

In a way, it’s its own kind of heroism. A kind that Captain Brown knew very, very well.

His own march has ended. But his journey lives on, an inspiration to others.

May your own road, whatever it may be, know the strength that he found.