It was August 1996. Susan Kushner Resnick had finished swimming at the Striar Jewish Community Center in Stoughton and fetched her baby from the day-care room when Aron Lieb approached.
“What’s his name?” Lieb asked in a heavy Yiddish accent.
That simple question launched a conversation between the elderly Holocaust survivor and the young mother that would last nearly 15 years and would, for both of them, become a lifeline. He helped pull her out of postpartum depression and inspired her to take courage in her convictions, and she became the family he’d lost to the Nazis decades before.
“You saved my life,” he would tell Resnick. “The day I met you and Maxeleh.” Max, now 16, was the baby he had met at Striar.
Resnick felt the same way about him, and named her recent memoir of their friendship: “You Saved Me, Too: What a Holocaust Survivor Taught Me About Living, Dying, Fighting, Loving, and Swearing in Yiddish.” A scattering of cherry Life Savers, Lieb’s favorite, adorns the book’s cover.
“Hearing his stories brought me back to life,” says Resnick, 49. “Aron was sort of like rehab for me, like a halfway house.” She’s sitting in her Sharon home with Gus, the family Portuguese water dog, who’s wearing a gray 2012 Democratic Party T-shirt. “I had this man who was keeping me busy, who was making me feel better about myself.”
She was attracted to his stories, his cheerfulness and quirkiness, his devotion to her and to her family: Max; daughter Carrie, 20; and husband David, a lawyer.
For Lieb, his beloved “Zoo” — that’s how “Sue” sounded in his Old World accent — became his life manager, the one who made, and made sure he kept, his medical appointments; who had his power of attorney and health care proxy; who saw him at least every week; who had him to her home on holidays; who was with him when he died.
Resnick was 33, Lieb 76 when they met. When he died last year at 91, she was the only person there besides the nurses. He had no one else, except an indifferent brother who lived in another state, and who died a month later.
The rest of his family — parents, grandparents, three sisters, another brother — died in the Nazi camps. Lieb told her of how he had survived several, including Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Dachau, where he endured starvation, forced labor, death marches, and beatings that left him mostly blind in one eye.
From early in their relationship, Resnick, a former reporter for the Providence Journal who has written two other nonfiction books, wanted to write about him, and told him so. She’d take notes or tape-record their regular coffee outings.
She sent the book proposal out and got several rejections. No one wants to read about the Holocaust, she was told. But Lieb kept asking, “How’s the book coming?”
Resnick didn’t figure out how to write it until he died. “I realized I still wanted to keep talking to him,” she says. In the preface, she writes: “How can you not be able to tell him how it ended, what that nurse said at exactly the right time, whether the evidence he promised to send proving heaven exists ever arrived?”
And so the book, published by Globe Pequot Press, is written as a series of journal entries to Lieb, chronicling what she learned of his poverty-stricken childhood in Poland, his time in the death camps, his long and loveless marriage, his depression and anxiety, and his return to a happier place in which he found a nice lady friend, “adopted” Zoo, and told her his stories.
The other part is Resnick’s own story of how he changed her life. “He saved me by forcing me to navigate situations that taught me what’s important in life,” she says. “Doing the decent thing, being kind to people, hanging in there. If I hadn’t known him, I may never have learned those lessons firsthand.” When they met, she says, she was a “recovering nutcase.”
When Resnick and her young family first moved to suburban Sharon, she found the community cliquey and the somewhat rural town boring. She felt anxious and lonely. They finally met a couple of families who became close friends, but then one moved to Seattle, the other to London. A woman friend dropped Resnick after she missed a lunch date. She had never found a best friend — until Aron came along.
“As my depression lifted, due in part to your consistency, I lost my splintery edges,” she writes to him in her book. “I returned to smooth and solid, as if I’d been sanded.”
It would be easy to call him a father figure, but that wasn’t it. For one thing, Resnick has a father she loves. For another, Lieb never had children, and wasn’t the fatherly sort.
“He wasn’t a dad substitute,” says Resnick. “He was too crazy for that. He wasn’t this wisdom-spouting guy. It might sound corny, but I think Aron was my soul mate.”
Not in the romantic sense, she is quick to add. “I think it means that you’re the same person, in a way. You’re the other half.”
At his wife’s behest, David Resnick would also visit Lieb in the dark days when he was severely depressed, sitting in his subsidized apartment for the elderly in Sharon, with the shades drawn, saying he wanted to kill himself. He’d obsessively call 911 to complain of chest pains that, once in the emergency room, proved to be nothing more than anxiety. He took his own blood pressure constantly, and was certain he was always about to die.
“Aron was not an easy guy,” says David Resnick. “He was tough; he was very tough. Sue wouldn’t let him get away with these things. They loved each other dearly, and they were always arguing.”
Sue Resnick told doctors she thought he had post-traumatic stress disorder from a lifetime of deprivation, both physical and emotional. There were antidepressants, not always taken; a couple of stays on a psychiatric ward; a diagnosis of failure to thrive.
At 87, after his lady friend suffered a stroke, it became apparent that Lieb needed skilled nursing care. For years, the couple had spent a good bit of time together and looked after each other. Now, Lieb’s psychosomatic symptoms and 911 calls became more frequent. But getting him a bed in a prominent Jewish nursing home in Boston proved a Sisyphean task that nearly took more money, time — and patience — than Resnick could muster.
She details the situation in her book, but the bottom line: He needed $10,000 to pay for the 39 days before Medicaid would kick in at the nursing home, which she does not name.
Resnick writes: “I thought that when he needed help, the Jewish community would flock to him, lift him up, and take him to the most comfortable, nurturing place that exists in our world. I figured that those rich folks and the giant organizations they also fund — organizations that throw around slogans like ‘No Place for Hate’ and ‘Facing History’ and the ubiquitous ‘Never Again’ — would have a contingency fund and special sanctuary for a man who symbolized all that they claim to fight for.”
She thought wrong. Her letters, calls, and meetings on Lieb’s behalf were met mostly with indifference or outright hostility. Resnick writes of the stone walls she encountered in the Jewish philanthropic community — and with a particular wealthy woman involved in Holocaust causes — and it is not a pretty picture.
When others told her she was expecting too much of organizations overwhelmed with obligations to strengthen the Jewish community, she was stunned. She writes: “Aren’t we trying to build and strengthen the community in large part because the Holocaust knocked it down? So isn’t neglecting the Holocaust victims the ultimate hypocrisy?”
In the end, Resnick went local, writing an e-mail to her rabbi at Temple Sinai in Sharon, which she belongs to but seldom attends. He sent a condensed version to the congregation, and a few days later, a 4-inch stack of envelopes arrived at her house, containing checks ranging from $15 to $500, and totaling more than $7,000. With donations from family and friends, the $10,000 was raised and — Resnick feigns mock surprise both in the book, and in person — the nursing home found an immediate bed for Lieb.
She credits Lieb’s life story for giving her the courage to take on powerful people, to do the right thing. “I used to live in a lot of fear,” she says. “But because of his life, I realize bad things happen but you can get through them.”
Throughout the book, Resnick weaves in letters to his mother, Zelda, who died at Auschwitz, letting her know how Aron is doing. After his death, she wrote: “I guess this is the last time I’ll talk to you. It’s your turn, again, to take care of our boy. Good luck, and I hope they have crullers up there. Love, Sue.”
About those crullers, she has a letter in her book to Dunkin’ Donuts, begging the chain to bring back the crullers he so loved. “Come on — you have time to invent something called a sausage pancake bite, but no time to twist a cruller?”
There’s even an entry to Hitler, written on Lieb’s birthday. “Dear Adolf, This morning Aron Lieb, ne Libfrajnd, graduate of Auschwitz, who your staff left to die in Dachau in April of 1945, turned ninety-one years old. You lose.”
Throughout their friendship, Lieb begged Resnick not to let him die alone. She promised not to, and when she got the call from a nurse, she made it in time to hold his hand and say goodbye.
But death was not necessarily the end of their communication. There’s the book, of course. And there’s the pact they made: When he died, he would send her a sign if there was a heaven.
“How will I know?” she asked him.
“When you dream about me,” he replied.
Resnick, who describes both herself and Lieb as more spiritual than religious, says she’s had two dreams in which he has appeared. Whether or not this is evidence of heaven, she’s undecided. “But the interesting thing,” she says, “is that the second time, it was on my birthday. So maybe it was a little gift from him.”