It was on Sunday afternoon February 24, when I saw him. We were both at the gate waiting for our flight from Denver to Newark. I hesitantly approached him and said, “Shalom Aleichem.” He replied, “Aleichem Shalom.” I asked him if was visiting family in the Denver area and he nodded.
As I moved close to him I could see that he was more than elderly, he was quite old.
I introduced myself and he replied, “My name is Harry Leebstein, however, I prefer Zvi-Hersh.”
“Where were you born?” I asked.
I am always interested and intrigued by Jews who lived in pre-war Europe and I am always eager to hear first-hand of their experiences. I asked, “What was it like in Vilna before the war?”
He reverted to Yiddish for the first sentence and then continued in English. “Es iz geven zei’ir geshmack… ich hob gevolt vern a rebbe…” (It was very wonderful, I wanted to be a rebbe). However, on June 22, 1941, just a few months before my Bar Mitzvah, the Nazis invaded Lithuania and there was no more Bar Mitzvah. Within a few months, I also had no parents and no siblings. I never fulfilled my wish to be a rebbe.” He looked so sad.
We began to board the plane together. The stewardess noticing his advanced age asked, “Sir, do you need any special assistance?” My friend didn’t hear what she said so I quickly answered for him, “No, he’s fine, I’m watching him.” He asked me, “What did she say?” I just shrugged and mumbled, “Nothing really.” As we approached his seat, I placed his hand luggage in the overhead compartment. I was conveniently seated next to him.
“How was your visit with your family?” Looking straight ahead he said, “I think this is the last time I will make the trip. Not that I can’t. It’s just too painful.” I looked at him with a confused look.
Sensing my confusion he explained, “This trip was different than any previous trip. I know that I am not as young as I used to be. My ears don’t hear as well as they once did. I know I need to have things repeated, however, it’s not because I don’t understand, it’s because I am over 90!
Until this last visit, I was still a contributing member of the family. My opinion counted. This time for the first time I noticed a difference. No longer was anyone waiting to hear what I had to say.
No longer did they speak louder or repeat themselves. I became a glass man in their eyes, someone who you can see right through.”
Mr. Leebstein paused, wiped his glasses with his handkerchief and continued. “As I was sitting in the kitchen my granddaughter asked her mother, “What does Zayde like for breakfast?” I was sitting in front of her! It was as if I had turned to glass. Even though I was sitting two feet from where she stood, she looked right through me, as if I wasn’t there. I was no longer included in discussions and people spoke as if I was invisible and not present. That is what I meant when I said it’s too painful. When people start answering for you as if you are not able to answer for yourself. And when people don’t even see you, that’s when the pain really hurts.”
I sat silently. He asked, “Do you know what I mean?” I nodded. Again, he asked, “Do you really know what I mean?”
I attributed the annoying repetitiveness to his age so I nodded again. I am not sure when the epiphany finally penetrated my dense mind, however, at last, I realized that Zvi-Hersh was not just talking to me, he was talking about me! I was guilty of doing exactly what Zvi-Hersh was so hurt from. Hadn’t I had answered for him when the stewardess asked him a question? And I didn’t even have the decency to tell him what she said when he asked me. I realized I had treated him as if he was a glass man; as if I could see straight through him. I felt so bad. “I am so sorry…” I mumbled.
We sat in silence for a long while. Finally, the stewardess approached, “Would your friend like a drink?” I smiled, “I am sorry, however, I cannot speak for him. He is perfectly capable of answering the question.” R’ Zvi-Hersh nodded and asked if he could please have a glass of seltzer. He then turned to me and smiled, “You learn very fast!” I smiled back and said, “With a rebbe like you, how couldn’t I?”
He beamed contently as he took a long slow sip from his seltzer.