Mordechai Leib Shmulevicz
Mordechai ben Esther v' Shlomo haLevi z"l
1916 – 2008
Adonai natan, Adonai lakach. Y'hi shem Adonai m'varach. Adonai has given. Adonai has taken. May the name of Adonai be Blessed
I have been anticipating and dreading this moment for quite some time now. I will never forget that day in mid-April when Martin called me in my office and shared the news of his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. “There's nothing they can do for me,” he said. “I have just a few weeks.” Well those few weeks turned into more than 7 months, during which time so many of us were blessed to spend magical and inspiring moments in Martin's presence, learning from him and receiving the rich spiritual and emotional gifts, which he drew from his seemingly endless pool of blessings right up to the last moment. For most of the period of his illness, I would say that Martin was not ready to leave. He still had work to do in the world and, for much of that time, his spirit was agitated and restless as he let events and people bother him and disturb his peace, often kvetching about this or that. This changed so dramatically towards the end and in the last week, we witnessed a man at peace, with a deep serenity in his soul. The last time I saw him breathing was on Friday afternoon about fifteen hours before his last breaths. I asked him if he was ready. I asked him if there was anything unresolved, unanswered. His eyes were open gazing heavenward and with such a warm, radiant smile, he nodded a gentle but clear affirmation of his readiness. We chanted some of the traditional prayers and psalms as a precious life comes to an end and, all of us who were there, sensed his silent consent. This restless man who had looked death in the face many times in his life, survived unspeakable horrors that haunted him in his dreams almost every night, was as still and calm and ready when he left this physical world as he had ever been in his life. While we are so very saddened by this loss, we are comforted by the tranquility and dignity of those final moments as he left the world early on a Shabbat morning, the second day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which brings the miracle of light in the face of darkness in the form of the Festival of Hanukkah. Martin was like a Hannukah candle whose persistent flame shone light and depth, love and hope into a world constantly threatened by darkness and despair. Martin left the world during Thanksgiving weekend and there is so much about his life for which we are all truly, deeply grateful.
In the Jewish tradition, a human being is likened to a sacred Torah scroll, to be treated with the utmost respect and honor, even after it can no longer be used in a ritually functioning way. This concept seems so appropriate for Martin, in life and in death. Talking about our holy Torah, the sage Ben Bag Bag says: “hafoch bah v'hafoch bah d'chola bah – turn it and turn it for everything is in it.” (Pirkei Avot 5:25)
Doesn't this feel like Martin? A deep, complex, sometimes illusive and mysterious man whose life has been a series of rich, painful, joyful stories, always with something to teach us, even if the message is not always immediately clear. The poignancy of this Torah metaphor is, of course, even richer because one of Martin's last dreams was to bring a new Torah scroll into our sanctuary at Bonai Shalom. Headed up by our president Bruce Wildman and with the generous support of so many in our community and beyond, Jew and Christian joining together, we were able to help Martin achieve this dream and we are blessed with a beautiful scroll, which like Martin is a holocaust survivor and will always be the Martin and Doris Small Torah.
A Torah is described as holy black fire on holy white fire; the defined black letters in a sacred dance with the mysterious white spaces of the parchment. This is Martin's life too. We are all so blessed that a few years ago, Vic Shayne, an artist and writer, came into Martin's life and was able to help Martin achieve his other great dream – to write his book, the Torah of his life, Remember Us – from my Shtetl through the Holocaust. What a gift that we are able to read this wonderful book, so we can know Martin better.
Born in the Winter of 1916 in a now lost world, the Shtetl of Maitchet in Poland, Mordechai Leib Schmulewicz was born to Shlomo and Esther. Until he came to America, he was know mostly as Mottel and inhabited a rich, joyful Jewish world in his childhood, observing the Holidays and Shabboses in the warm hearth of a nurturing family and learning the sacred texts of our tradition in Yeshiva. I was always amazed how much of his childhood knowledge Martin maintained and I always, or at least most of the time, enjoyed his commentary on my sermons, which often left him with the last word! The dark cloud of the holocaust soon spread over Maitchet and Martin saw his childhood friend become a cruel, sadistic enemy caught up in Nazi hatred. Most of Martin's family were brutally murdered and his most extraordinary story of hiding, running, suffering, fleeing began, ultimately taking him to the gates of hell in Mauthausen Concentration Camp, where his fellow in-mates called him “the rabbi” because, amidst the horrors, Mottel would chant the ancient words of prayer. On May 5th 1945, a half dead skeleton, he was liberated by an American soldier of the 65th Infantry Division. The amazing Torah of Martin's life would later lead him, in the most miraculous way, to meet his own Mashiach, his personal savior, Jim Curry, who by pure chance, or deep fate, befriended Martin years later in Central Park, New York, where he was a mounted police officer. Not until Martin and Doris had already moved to Colorado years later, did they discover that Jim Curry was that same soldier who carried Martin's lifeless form in his arms. After the war, Martin joined the thousands of DPs, displaced persons, regaining his strength and slowly coming to terms with what he had been through and the loss of his family. He ended up in Italy for two years where he got involved with the Jewish Brigade, helping the struggle to build the Jewish State. In 1948, he went from Italy to Cypress and, with about five hundred other refugees, crossed the Mediterranean to Palestine, where their landing was accompanied by a tear-filled rendition of Hatikvah, the eternal song of hope, as these survivors entered the Promised Land. Martin was then actively engaged in the War of Independence, based on Kibbutz Negba on the Egyptian border. He fought to see Israel become an independent land and he continued to love Israel his whole life. After the war, he went back to Italy to await his visa to America and on January 26th, 1950, Martin got to see another emotional sight and symbol of hope from the deck of a ship - The Statue of Liberty. Greeted in New York by one of his only living relatives, his Aunt Frieda, his mother's sister, and not speaking a word of English, Mottel started his new life in America.
Mottel toyed around with a few more American sounding names until he came up with Martin and then a friend said to him, “Shmulevicz is too hard to pronounce. This is America. You need a name that's not so big.” His answer was, “Small is not big.” And that's how he became Martin Small. Shortly after arriving, people tried to find him a wife. He was on his way to a blind date and, not excited by it, he asked his cousin Bernie to let him out of the car because he wanted to see his friend Yossel. After a bit of a fight, Martin ended up in Yossel and Esther's apartment, where their roommate was hosting two sisters, Doris and Ida, German holocaust survivors. Yossel suggested that he and Martin join them in a game of cards and partnered Martin with Ida and himself with Doris. “No,” said Martin, “I'll play with Doris, because she'll be my partner for the rest of my life.” Everybody was stunned, but after much determination and persistence on the part of Martin, Doris did indeed become Martin's life partner and they had a very simple, small wedding in July 1951 and both went back to work the next day. Martin and Doris were married for 57 years last July and have shared the joys and sorrows of life's journey together. It is wonderful that Doris's sister, Ida and her family Helen, Margie and Sid and the grandchildren Daniel and Rachel are here today to honor Martin's memory with the rest of us.
In the last few days of Martin's life, every time, Doris left the room and came back in again, Martin would open his eyes and say over and over again, “Doris, I love you.” Like all marriages, they had their tough moments, but nothing was tougher or more tragic for them than the sudden loss of their 11 year old son Stuart in 1968. Yet more pain on a couple who had known so much pain. Stuart's older sister, Miriam, was born in 1952 and she and her family have given Martin and Doris much joy. Doris has been such a strong life partner for Martin, always at his side and, in spite of her own failing health with her two major hip surgeries aerlier this year, Doris has cared for Martin, nursed him and fed him right up to the last moment. Doris says of Martin that “he would give up his own right arm for anyone.” Even through tough years of not much wealth, as Martin worked hard managing real estate, he always wanted to give to others in any way he could. He was such a quick learner and so gifted with languages, learning good English within a couple of months of arriving in New York, to join his Polish, Yiddish, German, Italian, Hebrew and, later on, Spanish. Martin did everything around the house himself – painting, fixing always managing to figure stuff out, but it wasn't until after he had retired and Martin and Doris were living in Long Island, that Martin discovered his unbelievable talent for art. People used to ask Doris, “how did you get such a talented guy?” She would answer that she didn't know she had until so much later! Many of us are blessed to have pieces of his unique artwork; his woodcarvings, paintings, mezuzah cases, many of which reflected the horrors of the holocaust, and others depicting beautiful images from Torah and Judaism. In his retirement, Martin also strongly reconnected to his Judaism and became a very beloved teacher to many bar and bat Mitzvah kids in their Long Island synagogue.
It's not always easy growing up as the child of holocaust survivors, but Miriam, Tiger, as she's more commonly known, has been a devoted and loving daughter and speaks so proudly of her father's generosity, his love of people, his gift as a storyteller and his utter determination, which surely counts for his survival against impossible odds. Miriam moved to Colorado and with her wonderful husband Bill, gave Martin and Doris grandchildren and great grandchildren, Jacob and Jenniffer and their partners Jennifer and John, and great grandchildren Julian, Jaden Elka, Ezra, Vance David and Graysen and Samantha. They all loved Martin so much and are devastated by his loss.
It is our great blessing that Tiger and her family chose Colorado as their home, because eventually, of course, Martin and Doris followed them here and we have been so honored, enriched and inspired by their presence. Martin and Doris quickly became very active members of our synagogue and Martin regularly led services, read Torah and chanted the Haftarah, the weekly readings from the Prophets that compliment the Torah portion. I can see his face and hear his melodic, slightly broken voice so clearly in this sacred task he embraced with such love. Our little community here in Boulder was so hugely privileged to have the gift of Martin in our midst for as long as we did, but Martin's influence did not stop with the Jewish community. Since moving to Colorado, Martin started telling his story in a way that he had not done before. Like so many survivors, the horrors are too painful to speak and name and there is a haunting silence. Martin completely broke that silence and telling his story with its passionate and compelling message, “Remember us!” became the absolute meaning of his life. In speaking out, he touched so many lives; lives of students at university campuses; Jews in synagogues of every denomination and also many of our brothers and sisters in the Christian world, with Martin and Doris' deep connection to Faith Bible Church, Regis University and other organizations. In May 2007, Martin and Doris received the high honor of Civis Princeps award at Regis University to unprecedented cheers and a standing ovation from the students who love them so much. It was an honor to be there. We welcome all of those from the Christian world who, like all of us, have been so inspired by Martin and are here to honor him and his legacy, the great Torah of his life.
So, what is that legacy? Martin's vision of love and healing coming from his pain allowed him to build bridges. In this week's Torah portion, Vayeitze, we read the story of Jacob's dream of a ladder, straddling heaven and earth with angels going up and coming down. At the end of his life, some of us saw Martin's eyes gazing heavenward, as if he were glimpsing those angels linking heaven and earth, as he straddled two worlds. In his life, too, he straddled many worlds and built many bridges. He, with Vic's help, brought us vivid pictures of the lost world of his childhood; he brought life where there had been death; hope where there had been despair; he brought heaven to earth and now he is taking earth to heaven, as his soul ascends the ladder, which is crowned with all he achieved in his life and all those he touched in his life. More than anything, Martin Small's message to us is: remember us, which means, don't forget who I am, because if you do, you will forget who you are. “Never let anyone remind you who you are!” Martin used to tell us, meaning that if we don't stand up for ourselves and for everyone else; if we don't commit not to stand idly by in a world with the potential to destroy itself with the fires of hatred, then we will have forgotten Martin. But, Martin, we will never forget you. You are part of us all.
This is much longer than most eulogies, but how can we sum up the essence of Martin Small in anything less? Besides, let's face it, he would have liked a long eulogy! Hafoch ba, hafoch ba. Turn it, turn it for everything is in it. Martin Small is an eternal, sacred Torah scroll, whose teachings and mysteries will continue to reveal themselves to us. May we keep learning from him and keep being the best we can be, and doing the best we can do, because this is the truest way to honor him and to ensure that he will never be forgotten.
Zichrono livracha – May Martin's sweet, precious, sacred memory always be a blessing to you Doris and you Miriam and all your family and to all of us for the rest of our lives.
|Eulogy by Rabbi Marc Soloway of Congregation Bonai Shalom on November 30, 2008|