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.