Quest for Eter­nal Sun­shine: A Holo­caust Sur­vivor’s Jour­ney from Dark­ness to Light

  • Review
By – December 29, 2020

A posthu­mous mem­oir may seem improb­a­ble, but that is pre­cise­ly what Mendek Rubin, a Holo­caust sur­vivor, and his daugh­ter Myra Good­man present to us in Quest for Eter­nal Sun­shine. Rubin, who died in 2012 at eighty-sev­en from Alzheimer’s Dis­ease, left behind an unfin­ished man­u­script that he had asked Good­man to edit decades ear­li­er. Begin­ning that task while grow­ing a nation­al organ­ic farm­ing busi­ness (Earth­bound Farms), and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly rais­ing two chil­dren proved impos­si­ble. Good­man rel­e­gat­ed the project to her par­ents’ attic, where it remained until she found it after her father’s death. 

Except for the book­ends of Goodman’s mod­est intro­duc­tion to her father and grace­ful epi­logue, the book is entire­ly in Mendek Rubin’s voice. It reflects a forty-year inter­nal jour­ney that is often as fraught and coura­geous as the Israelites’ jour­ney through the desert towards free­dom. By the end of Rubin’s jour­ney, he, too, is whole and tru­ly lib­er­at­ed. The facts of his life fol­low a trag­i­cal­ly famil­iar Holo­caust tra­jec­to­ry, yet the man­ner in which Rubin reflects on the life-shat­ter­ing events of his child­hood in Poland to make him­self at peace and full of grat­i­tude in Cal­i­for­nia forms the core of his memoir.

Jawarzno, Poland, a coal-min­ing town, was home to approx­i­mate­ly three thou­sand Jews — a small enclave in a Chris­t­ian coun­try. Tal­mu­dic acu­men was of supreme val­ue to Rubin’s father, who came from a ven­er­at­ed rab­binic dynasty. Rubin, how­ev­er, dis­played no incli­na­tion to fol­low in his father’s foot­steps. A boy with nim­ble hands and a pre­cise, cre­ative mind more adept at envi­sion­ing and fix­ing things than in engag­ing pages upon pages of rab­binic dis­course, Rubin was an end­less source of ire and embar­rass­ment to his father. Rubin felt a sense of per­son­al fail­ure even before the Holo­caust oblit­er­at­ed his per­son­hood almost entirely. 

The Nazis occu­pied Jaworzno in 1939. While work­ing in the coal mines, Rubin was wit­ness to a scene that would haunt him for near­ly his entire life. March­ing along the high­way past the mines were peo­ple guard­ed by Ger­man sol­diers bear­ing machine guns. Women car­ry­ing chil­dren, old men who could bare­ly walk. Rubin knew even then, at bare­ly twen­ty years old, that he was wit­ness to dead peo­ple march­ing. Indeed, the pris­on­ers’ des­ti­na­tion was Auschwitz, a mere fif­teen miles away. Over the four decades, this scene pre­sent­ed itself over and over again in Rubin’s mind. What if the sol­diers had looked into the eyes of the men, women, and chil­dren they were herd­ing towards cer­tain death? Would the sol­diers have seen the human­i­ty of those marching? 

Rubin sur­vived three labor camps. Upon see­ing Ger­man sol­diers retreat­ing after lib­er­a­tion, he was struck by how small and human they looked — not unlike him. Although he was unable to artic­u­late it for years to come, Rubin sensed that these seem­ing­ly omi­nous fig­ures, who decid­ed life or death with their trig­ger fin­gers, were mere­ly peo­ple. After years of being debased, Rubin was begin­ning to sense his own human­i­ty, too.

A cousin of Rubin’s who had set­tled in New York secured papers for Rubin and his sole sur­viv­ing rel­a­tive, his sis­ter Bro­nia, to Amer­i­ca. Rubin served in the Kore­an War and, upon his return to New York, went into the jew­el­ry man­u­fac­tur­ing busi­ness with his cousin. The part­ner­ship thrived. Rubin met the love of his life, Edith, on a trip to Israel. A Holo­caust sur­vivor as well, she fol­lowed him back to Amer­i­ca where they mar­ried, even­tu­al­ly set­tling into a com­fort­able sub­ur­ban life. Out­ward­ly, Rubin was thriv­ing. He had achieved a mate­r­i­al com­fort that he nev­er dreamed exist­ed when he was a child in Jaworzno. 

Yet Rubin remained severe­ly depressed. Unable to ful­ly grasp the hor­rors he had endured, haunt­ed by recur­ring visions of marchers en route to Auschwitz and of his par­ents whom he felt he aban­doned to die, Rubin under­went the forty-year jour­ney in his inte­ri­or desert. He began hyp­no­sis, and then he and Edith spent years unlock­ing their neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences and find­ing their core selves. Rubin envi­sioned the places that had giv­en him solace as a child. He imag­ined the peo­ple dear­est to him in his ear­li­est years — his uncle Yos­se­le, who always encour­aged him, and his moth­er, who had pro­tect­ed him. 

After an ardu­ous jour­ney, Rubin turned the grace he had dis­cov­ered with­in him­self out­ward. The love giv­en to him before the war, and by Edith, his chil­dren, and ulti­mate­ly his grand­chil­dren allowed him to embrace the world and its inher­ent beau­ty and rich­ness. There is much that can be learned from Mendek Rubin and his life. Though his gen­er­a­tion is pass­ing, his wis­dom and unabashed belief in the good­ness of mankind should give us all hope for years to come.

Rab­bi Reba Carmel is a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in Jew­ish Cur­rents and The Jew­ish Lit­er­ary Jour­nal and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Rab­bi Carmel is a trained Inter­faith Facil­i­ta­tor and has par­tic­i­pat­ed in mul­ti­ple Inter­faith pan­els across the Delaware Region. She is cur­rent­ly in the Lead­er­ship Train­ing Pro­gram at the Inter­faith Cen­ter of Philadelphia. 

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