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.Continued...