The Wisdom Project at Moment: Inspirational conversations with wise people who have been fortunate to live long lives
This week’s conversation is with Manny Lindenbaum, 91, of Jackson, New Jersey.
Manfred (Manny) Lindenbaum remembers being an angry kid. Separated from his family and his faith by the Holocaust, he was seven when he and his older brother Siegfried escaped from Poland on a Kindertransport boat leaving for England. His parents, Otto and Frida Lindenbaum, and his beloved sister, Ruth, died in Auschwitz.
Manny was born in Unna, Germany. His father owned a clothing store and as Nazism took hold, his business dwindled. Siegfried was bullied at school for being Jewish; when his mother complained, the school’s head told her there was nothing they could do. Then, on October 27, 1938, came the knock on the door, forcing the family to flee to Poland. Manny was six. Almost a year later, with the German invasion of Poland brewing, the family rushed to the train station in Zbaszyn to flee to the Russian border. Manny’s life changed in a moment there. His parents sent him and Siegfried off with a stranger who offered them passage to England on the Kindertransport.
In England, Manny lived with a few Christian families in the town of Ely, near Cambridge. He acted out his rage at every turn with his host families and at school. He finally settled into one family for three years before coming to America in 1946 with Siegfried, who had lived with a Jewish family in Brighton.
The brothers went to an aunt and uncle’s chicken farm in New Jersey, where Manny ultimately became a chicken farmer. Married to Annabel, the love of his life for 66 years, Manny has three children, and nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He credits Annabel and family with transforming his entrenched sadness and anger into positive action—and talk.
For years, Manny stayed silent about his Holocaust experiences. Now he works tirelessly to help refugees through HIAS, and shares his story and passion for volunteering with students, prisoners, immigrants and visitors to Holocaust centers. Recognized for his generous and genuine service by then-President Barack Obama in 2015, when Manny lit the Hanukkah candles at the White House, he has no plans to slow down. In President Obama’s words, “Imagine the world we could build together if all of us took our cues from Manny and truly lived up to the ideal that we are all God’s children. That none of us should turn our backs on a stranger.”
Moment sat down with both Manny and Annabel.
What happened that day at the Zbaszyn train station?
The scene was chaotic and, there in the midst of the chaos, very brutally, my mother and father suddenly pushed me over to a stranger who said she could get us on a Kindertransport. I remember a friend screaming and crying, and his mother, who obviously loved her son, came and kissed and hugged him and took him with her. [Mother and son both died in a concentration camp.] My parents made me go. I was angry about that for years. It was the worst day of my life. I didn’t see that, obviously, my mom and dad were heroes. I just saw that in the midst of that chaos, they took off and left me.
Where did you go from there?
We spent ten days going across Poland to the port. On the way, we met up with my sister. There, somebody told her, you’re not coming; you’re too old, or you’ll go on the next boat. When I heard that, I ran away, but she dragged me back. They shaved my head to take off the lice. They made sure I got on the boat with my brother. First my parents had left and now my sister. That was the second worst day of my life.
What happened to you in England?
A nice Jewish family whisked my brother away. He was very bright and had been teaching himself English. He’d won a bag of coins for his ability, which he gave to me. My cousin [who was also in the transport] was taken in by a Scottish family that wanted a daughter. I was by myself.
My first English family was able to put up with me for 24 hours. I actually met the woman later, and she was so apologetic. And I told her, I totally understand—this kid didn’t speak English and he was very angry. He wasn’t crying, he was just screaming. At the second home, they found the bag of coins my brother had given me and I got my first whipping in England as a thief. How else would I have had a bag of coins?
How do you see the Kindertransport experience now?
It was amazing. They saved the lives of 10,000 kids and a lot of those kids had beautiful memories with beautiful families.
What was meeting Prince Charles (now King Charles III) at a Kindertransport reunion like?
I thanked him for what the British had done. And he said two things: “I wasn’t alive then, I didn’t do anything—no need to thank me. And, my [paternal] grandmother took in three Kindertransport kids. I’m representing her, not anybody else.” I found that to be a beautiful comment.
Who do you especially remember from your time in England?
The local vicar’s wife. Her kindness was unbelievable. I told this to a guy at a reunion and he took out his phone and said, talk to her. It was more than 50 years later! [So I start] talking [but I’m getting] no response from the other side. And then I said, “Don’t you remember, your daughter came home from college and gave me a stamp collection? Which I still have.” And she said, “That’s me.”
When we hung up, I asked the man, “How did you have her number or even know about her?” And he said, “Do you really think that you were the only troubled kid in that little village? She reached out to all the troubled kids.”
What did you learn from that encounter?
I realized what a difference she’d made. When I thought about how she and others reached out to this rambunctious kid who was making trouble for everybody, who was a real pain, it made me realize that maybe I could make a difference for other people, too.
What keeps you doing good?
I have my sister Ruth looking down at me all the time and asking me, why did you survive? And what are you doing? So, every time I do something good, or my children or grandchildren do something good, she smiles down on me.
Recently, on a bike ride in Arizona, you and the head of HIAS crossed the Mexican border. Why?
Yes. Annabel joined us. We wanted to meet the refugee kids. There were hundreds and hundreds of them.
How did seeing the children hoping to come to America affect you?
I was upset. They were too polite. They were too quiet. They were waiting in line for food. They were so courteous, and the idea that anybody could be worried about them [being dangerous] or talk about gangs just made me crazy.
Did it bring back memories?
Yes. They had been separated from their parents. I remembered how long it took me to get over that, probably till I got married. And I know other people who were separated from their parents as kids, who never got over it. They’re 80 years old and are still walking around with a shadow over their head and trying to get beyond that.
What do refugee children ask you?
They ask how long it took me to learn English. They ask, how come I have such a positive attitude?
What’s your answer?
The positive attitude comes from making a difference to others. You feel so good about yourself. You always get back more than you receive. The joy of my life, besides being married to Annabel for 66 years, comes from volunteering and making a difference.
Was there a particular volunteer experience that stands out for you?
I used to have my stomach tighten up when I met Germans. Then I went and volunteered for six months on a kibbutz. A whole group of German kids were volunteering there, too. I came into contact with more German kids at demonstrations in New York and New Jersey. If it was a protest against atomic weapons, if it was for the environment, if it was for peace, always there were German young people. And I realized that the horror for them must be to know that your [relatives] were either Nazis or bystanders. So I managed to get over my [resentment] of Germans.
In 2014, you took a trip with your family to retrace your journey back to its start. What was that like for you?
It was wonderful. Annabel and two of my grandchildren joined me for 28 days. We traveled 1700 miles total, biking the last 200 miles in Germany. At that point, we had I think seven of my grandchildren and my children and some friends.
What was a highlight of your trip?
In my hometown, an artist who wanted to make a difference had made 30 or 40 stones with names of people who were killed in the Holocaust. Now there are thousands of those stones in that town, including one each for my mother and father and sister, who were all murdered. And one also for a brother and another sister who were chased out.
The ceremony [for placing the stones] was conducted by a minister from the church. I asked him why he had tears in his eyes; he wasn’t old enough to even have been alive then. He said it was because his church was complicit in its silence.
How can people avoid being complicit in evil and wrong doings?
Don’t stand by. When people bully or beat or harass people, you can be responsible by screaming out, getting others to scream out, to stop them. Would there have been a Holocaust if the bystanders had not been silent? Absolutely not.
What do you remember about arriving in America?
My aunt couldn’t stop hugging me. I didn’t remember ever having been hugged in my life. I remember thinking, “This is kind of nice.”
How did you resolve your anger?
I got beyond it when I got married. I didn’t speak to Annabel about my past. I didn’t speak to my kids about it. But by the time my grandchildren were there, I couldn’t stop talking. I spoke to them personally. I finally knew I had to tell the story to make a difference.
How did you know that?
Whenever I did anything that I felt good about, I felt better about myself. When you volunteer, you meet people who have the same passions that you do. I was concerned about the environment, what kind of planet we were leaving to our children. So when I started demonstrating and being involved, I found people with the same ideas. The joy of feeling that you’re making a difference, there’s nothing to compare with it in life.
What makes you kvell from your grandchildren?
I feel so overjoyed when my grandchildren tell me—and they all do at one point or another—how they’re making a difference.
If somebody had told you when you were that angry, frightened, little troublemaker, what you know now about making a difference, would you have believed it?
No. I was convinced in England that there was nobody in the world for me at all. I was convinced that I had no future. So when I heard about children being separated from their parents at the Mexican border, I went berserk because this is not a temporary thing. Those kids, even the ones who were reunited with their parents, some of them will not recover. When I see them, my mind goes back there.
What was lighting the Hanukkah candles at the White House like for you?
When I first heard about it, I looked at the picture of my sister over my desk and I was feeling sad. My granddaughter, who’s very wise, called me. I told her why I was feeling sad. She said, “Zaide, don’t be sad. Make a copy of the picture and take Ruth with you to the White House.” When I was telling Michelle [Obama] this story, the president heard and came over to me to see the photo. He summoned a photographer. So I have this beautiful picture of President Obama holding my sister’s picture, and it means so much to me.
Annabel, how did it come about that you didn’t know Manny’s story for so many years?
If someone says they live with their aunt and uncle, you accept it. Sometimes people set up barriers and you know you can’t ask certain questions. That’s not so surprising, knowing many survivors. Twenty, thirty, forty years went by and no one said anything. We grew up with the message that Jews keep a low profile. Forget about it. Move on with your life.
When our first grandchild was born, that was the magic button. And then he just had to talk and he never stopped.
At one point, he said to one of our granddaughters, I think I gave you a lot of baggage. And she said, you did. But it was good baggage.
The survivors are leaving us. This is their last opportunity to be heard.
Manny, any advice to young people today?
I tell kids, if anyone ever thinks they are superior to somebody because they’re different, it’s because they have such a low opinion of themselves. The only way they can feel good about themselves is to look down on somebody else. You don’t need to do that. You can find goodness within yourself and goodness in everybody else.
What can people do if they’re feeling alienated and lonely and angry?
Reach out. There’s somebody out there who wants to make a difference by helping you. Try not to strike out too much.
And, when you see a kid in trouble, be their friend. On my first day of school in America, a boy came up to me and said, I just heard about you. I’m going to be your friend till you meet everyone. I’ll never forget that. I saw him years later and told him how much that meant.
Reach out. Listen. Listening is much more important than speaking.
Top image: Left: Manny and Annabel eloped on May 18, 1957, Brooklyn, NY. Right: At Manny and Annabel’s 50th wedding anniversary party, Jackson, New Jersey.