David's Lessons

For David:

There are certain people I have come across in my life, who I know will be in my heart forever. In the face of tragedy, misfortune, even death, David’s lessons remain eternal. David is the kind of person that makes a God seem possible. David was put on this earth so others could learn from his story and wisdom. His wisdom will linger in the minds of everyone who had the honor of hearing his delicate voice. This is a tribute to him, to his immortal and precious soul.


It did not hit me until the second hour of his shiva. A recognizable face walked past, and then paused. He turned around and said, “You, I recognize you. Are you the girl in the picture?” He noticed my eyebrows clinch together, so he rephrased,  “You are the girl who interviewed David with your sister, right?”

“Oh yes! What picture are you talking about?” I asked. He responded with a slow and determined pace to a familiar wooden table. On the table sat two bottles of vodka, a bowl of herring, a glimmering candle with a blue Jewish star printed boldly on the front and three pictures, framed in two inches of detailed silver.  Two of the photos were with family, and the third was with me. They were the three photos David kept on his nightstand.

Seeing the picture, as one of three to honor his life, gave me a feeling I had never experienced before.  I felt humbled and grateful to have known such a momentous man. Yet, I was sad, almost to the point of anger, that I would never feel the warmth in David’s hands. If you have lost a loved one, you understand the contradictory feelings of celebration and pain. The last time I was at this table, I was sitting next to David, like in the picture, listening to his vibrant stories and passionate lessons. This time, I realized that I would never experience the picture and sit next to David, or see the eager kindness in his eyes, ever again. Moments of joy, sadness, laughter and tears I shared with David flashed through my mind.  I will always cherish the time I spent with David.   

David was a compact man. He was just over five feet tall, but his colorful personality seemed endless. His body was frail with age, but his hands were strong and warm. His voice was just soft enough soft to hear and his Polish accent was just heavy enough to understand. 

“Shayna mamelah (my little dear),  you learn something from everybody. In my life I learned a lot, otherwise I wouldn't be here to tell you about it. I have some rules for you that I have to tell you, I might not be here next week! I’m getting tired. I think I lived too long!”  Surprised, I responded “No David! Never say that. I love coming here and listening to your stories because I always learn from you. I want your advice.” 

“Nah, OK, mamelah. You are wonderful, so I will hang around a just a little longer for you…” he whispered delicately. And so he began…

*The following lessons were adapted from audio recordings with David in the weeks before his death.

1.     I remember the first kiss a girl gave me. I felt like I was king. Everyone needs to feel confident, somehow. Be it, from a compliment, a good grade or someone else liking them.  Try to make people feel confident.
2.     I am very happy with myself because I know how to say “thank you.”
3.     I’m walking slowly, but I’m still walking. That’s all that matters.
4.     I remember everything that happened, as if it’s right in front of me now. Yesterday and from 60 years ago.  People will remember the way you treated them forever.
5.     You ask, how do I remember? Start with the ABC’s…I’m not kidding! If I forget my name, I start with A. Then I think, no, that’s not it. B? No. C? That’s not it either. D? Oh yes… that’s D for David!”
6.     I was hungry in the camp. Whatever food they gave me, I gave to my children. Always eat what is on your plate.
7.     I am happy and nervous in the mornings. I wake up and read the paper. If I don't see my name listed in the back, I’m good, I know I’m alive!
8.     Life is one big game.
9.     I was meant to be dead. The Nazis killed my first child. They murdered my wife. I heard them shoot her in the forest when we ran away. They killed my parents. I survived. I always ask myself, “Why am I alive?’ I cannot answer this question. I should be dead. So, I do not take life for granted.
10.   The partisans took me in. For three years I lived in the woods.  I lived on bugs and animals for those years. It is hard to believe that I survived, as a Jew. Always believe in perseverance. That is why I am alive.
11.  I’m not a religious person, how can I be after what happened to me? But I still have faith in religion because I have also seen kindness more than evil.
12.  Be nice to other people, and expect other people to be nice.
13.  Life is very precious. Do everything you can to breath deeply and think. That is how I spend most of my time.
14.  I am not a scientist or a philosopher, but I have spent 103 years with myself. I have learned to like myself, and you should too.
15.  I wish I got an education. I never graduated from what would be your high school. I left because I made a little mischief.
16.  Don’t be afraid to make a little mischief. It makes for good laughs.
17.  A lion is lion and a dog is a dog. A dog alive is worth more than a dead lion. This is my philosophy.
18.  I do not feel any anger towards the people who caused me such pain, because I cannot move forward by being hateful to my past. Always forgive.
19.  I’m a very simple guy, destiny wanted me to be here, you cannot explain it any other way. This is true for all my life, if destiny wanted it to be, it was. Everyday, say thank you to your destiny.
20.  The nicest proposition a person can get, I got. My son, who was born in the Displaced Persons camp said to me 30 years later, “Do you want to live with us, Dad? Under one roof with my family?” And I said yes, and that’s why I’m sitting here now, talking with you.  Always be gracious.
21.  When people talk to you, listen. Truly listen.
22.  When I thought I could not love anyone, I found love in the Displaced Person’s camp. Life can preform miracles sometimes.
23.  Always be fond of your mother.
24.  It was chance that we were born into our situations. We had no control over that. What we have control over is our happiness and our ability to make other people happy.
25.  What is the secret to a long life? Be part of a family. Be good. Be kind. Be grateful.