Parenting

He lived alone

He was a guest at my parents’ home on Purim and Sukkos. The rest of the time—weekdays, Shabbos and Yomim Tovim—he was alone, in a small apartment at the edge of our Queens neighborhood. He did not join us for lack of an invitation; on the contrary, my parents had plenty of “regulars” and would have been happy to have him as well. Nor was it a preference for his own company, for although quite reserved, Mr. Landau was not a loner. It was a part of the human pysche that I only understood when I grew older—pride. As much as Mr. Landau enjoyed companionship, his pride would not allow him to be a regular guest at members of the community Shabbos table. He came on Purim, when the observance of the day seemed incomplete without a seudah with cheerful company, and on Sukkos, to fulfill the mitzvah of eating in the sukkah. He was friendly to us children in a formal, European manner, and was especially delighted when he had an audience for his recollections of his childhood in Leipzig, his experiences on the Kindertransport, in England and as a new immigrant in America. My mother, despite the hectic pace of our household especially at those times Mr. Landau chose to come, always found time to inquire in detail about his health, his children and grandchildren.

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One time, my curiosity piqued, I peppered my mother with questions about our infrequent guest. “Mr. Landau has children?” I remember asking. “Yes, yes, he has two sons.” “So where are they? Why doesn’t he go to them? How come you always say he’s such a lonely man and it’s a big mitzvah to have him over?” “They live in Eretz Yisrael, honey, so he’s alone here,” my mother explained patiently. “So how come he never goes there? And why don’t they come here?” “He does go. He goes for Pesach every year. And I don’t know if they visit him or not. Please take in the Splenda, Sara’le; Mr. Landau was told to watch his sugar recently.” “Does he have a wife?” I persisted. “No. Please take in the Splenda.” The abruptness of my mother’s reply hinted at a story that she had no intention of telling. I soon forgot the exchange. When I was a teenager, Mr. Landau became part of my life on more than a biannual basis. When he turned 90, it became necessary for him to move out of his apartment to a place that would provide eldercare. My father helped him check out various facilities.

Unfortunately, there were no openings to be found within walking distance of the shul he was part of, and Mr. Landau moved into a nursing home quite far from our neighborhood. He was upset at leaving his familiar community, and our family became very involved in arranging rides for him to get to shul for some of the tefillos and his fortnightly shiur. When I got my driver’s license I occasionally took Mr. Landau myself. An aide would come out to the car to help him in and out and Mr. Landau would never forget to thank me very politely for my time and trouble. One day I was driving Mr. Landau home from Minchah. It was Asarah B’Teves and he had asked to be taken to shul, as this was the day he kept yahrzeit for his parents and sister who were murdered by the Nazis. He was in an emotional mood, and as I braked outside the nursing home, he added many blessings to his usual reserved thanks for the ride. “…And may you marry the right one and have happy years together of lasting joy. And may nothing come between you and may the happy years last till 120 and leave only a sweet taste behind.” “Amen, and thank you, Mr. Landau. Have a good night, and ‘Ad bi’as Goel’ to you.” I was a little bewildered at the wording of his brachah for my marriage, although not enough to forget the Yekkishe yahrzeit wish I had heard the older generation use. When I got home I repeated the old man’s words to my mother and she shook her head. “Yes, of course he would say that. The poor, lonely man.” “What, Ma? Why did he say that? What did he mean?” My mother looked at me, considering for a moment, and then she spoke quietly. “The poor man. Mr. Landau had a very happy marriage. I remember his wife.

She was a sweet, quiet woman, also European— Dutch, I think—and they had two sons and were a very close family. He was a contented immigrant who didn’t pursue the American Dream; he just appreciated being safe here in America and having a family.” “And then? What happened?” “She was niftar quite young. People said she had suffered during her years in hiding during the war and was never very strong. One son had married and moved to Israel, to a kibbutz, I think, but the other one still lived here when the wife passed away. A few years later the second son made aliyah. Mr. Landau was left here alone; no one of his beloved little family lived near him. He didn’t want to follow his sons because he was only 50 years old and still able to work. He didn’t have enough savings to retire on. And besides, he had already started over once when he arrived here as a young adult after the Holocaust; he didn’t want to uproot himself again. Kibbutz life wouldn’t have suited him either. A short while later he remarried. His second wife was an English lady, also very Yekkish. It was a second marriage for her, too.

They seemed to have had a lot in common. You always saw them together, walking home from shul and taking walks in the park. They seemed very content. And then, you just didn’t see them together anymore, and we heard that they got divorced. “He later told me that his older son had come from Israel for a visit when things began to go sour. I don’t know whether the son didn’t like the new wife, but the son definitely didn’t like what he thought would happen to his father’s house.” “He had a house?” For as far back as I could remember, Mr. Landau had lived in a tiny apartment. “Yes, of course. A modest-sized one, but still, prices were already going up in that area, it was a detached house…it was worth a lot of money. Apparently when Mr. Landau remarried he didn’t make clear legal arrangements specifying that the house would go to his children after his death. His son thought the property should rightfully be divided between him and his brother, and he was evidently afraid that since there was a wife who might survive their father, there might be far less for them to inherit. He involved his brother and between the two of them, they managed to persuade their father that the English lady had married him for his house.

Finally, they convinced him to divorce her. His children meant the world to him, so he did what they wanted. He had to go to court over the finances, and in the end, after a long and expensive court battle, which ate up a lot of his savings, he was forced to sell the house to provide his wife with a substantial settlement. Mr. Landau then moved into a small apartment and he wound up spending his days alone. I’m afraid that now that he has a lot of time to think he may realize that his sons’ analysis of his second wife’s motives was very biased. He probably misses her; he has spent almost thirty years alone, although his sons have managed to buy homes in Israel with what remained from the sale of their father’s house. He loves his family, but that love has cost him dearly. I think that’s why he’s wishing you that nothing come between you and your bashert.” I thought about Mr. Landau and his family a lot after that. We took him back and forth to shul countless times. By now he was too frail to travel to Eretz Yisrael for Pesach, and one year he came to us. His sons dutifully visited about twice a year, occasionally with their wives or children. They phoned regularly and sent pictures and cards and even videos. Mr. Landau reveled in his nachas and would show these tangible tokens of love to everyone he met. But most of the time he sat alone in his room in the nursing home.

Although he had been a reserved man, as he became older he had a need to talk, and the rav arranged a rotation of visitors for him. One day we received an urgent call from one of the aides at the nursing home. Mr. Landau wanted somebody to pick him up to take him to a levayah. When I arrived to take him, this usually stoic, stiff-upperlipped gentleman was not himself. His face was pale and he appeared grief-stricken. I didn’t know the person who had been niftar, but they said it was an elderly Yekkishe lady, originally from England. Her two children from England were praised at the levayah for their dedication and regular visits, but the rav also mentioned that she had led a hard life, spending her last thirty years alone. I looked over at Mr. Landau and his face was shadowed in pain. I turned away.

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