A Life of Leadership
Eli Zborowski: From the Underground, to Industry, to Holocaust Remembrance
By Rochel and George Berman
Ktav Publishing House and Yad Vashem Publications, 2011, 290 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - October 23, 2011
Great leaders possess courage and vision. They see human and societal needs. They accept responsibility and step forward to aid others with persistence. They have the ability to persuade and the strength to withstand difficulties when others crouch in fear. Rochel and George Berman tell the remarkable tale of such a man in their beautifully written analytical biography, which reveals, among many things, the impact of early childhood experiences. It is about an individual who never saw himself as a victim, a man who inspired countless people and produced many needed world changes.
Eli Zborowski was born in Žarki, Poland in 1925 in a small town where two-thirds of its inhabitants were Jews. The Jews produced more than two thirds of the significant contributions to the community. The Bermans' descriptions of Jewish life in Poland is fascinating, including the fact that Jews did not have to pay for Jewish schooling, for the schooling was supported by the community, a situation that should be adopted in the US. They describe the wise ways that Eli's father, a businessman, taught him how to do business and how to treat customers, so that Eli would say later, "Unquestionably, I learned about business and the moral underpinnings of business from my father." The Bermans also describe Eli's personality, how he was an intelligent and caring risk taker.
However, despite the Jewish contributions to Polish life, when Eli was fourteen, the Nazis took control of his country and killed numerous Jews, and many but not all Poles joined in the massacre. When he was seventeen, Poles murdered his father. Even after the war, Poles threw three grenades into his home, fortunately not harming his family, but making it clear that they must leave the land of their birth.
Eli left Poland and started life in the US with a pregnant wife, no money, no contacts, and little knowledge of the English language. He began by peddling camera parts door to door. Yet, within ten years, because of insight, understanding, and perseverance, which is inspiring to read, Eli became the president of the Shaeffer pen company in Latin America. He also founded a highly profitable import-export business in Argentina, Panama and Mexico.
Many of the events in Eli's life are very moving as, for example, how he knew the Nazis were defeated. He saw a Russian soldier in white winter camouflage. He looked to Eli like an angel sent by God. Eli fell to his knees and kissed the Russian's boots. Later, when he saw captured German prisoners, he writes, "I was suddenly overcome with pity for them. I knew that they had not had food or water for days. I decided to bring out some water for them. Now in retrospect this incident still leaves me with an unsettled feeling. I cannot really understand my motivations, except that in their disheveled and diminished state, I no longer saw them as menacing demons." Later, as a translator, he altered the story of a German soldier in a way that saved his life. He wrote, "to this day, I don't know why I did it, and to this day I do not regret it."
Eli's lifetime achievements take up dozens of pages in this biography and make inspirational reading. At the end of World War II, when he was just twenty, he led 116 Jewish young orphans from Poland to safety in displaced camps in Germany. He opened the door to diplomatic relations between Israel and Poland despite their complicity in the death of so many of their Jewish citizens. He helped many Jews leave Poland. In 1964, he created the first commemoration in the United States of Yom Hashoah, a day of Holocaust remembrance. He endowed the first chair for Holocaust studies in the world at Yeshiva University. He secured over $100 million for Yad Vashem in Israel. He instituted the study and understanding of the Holocaust in many schools. He was the president of his synagogue and helped make it grow and become successful. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter and President Ronald Reagan to important posts. He received numerous awards and honors, including an honorary doctorate. He helped people realize that although they suffered enormous losses, they can move forward and develop a sense of hope and optimism that can pervade their lives and influence others.
And he saved lives. During the war he worked for the underground. Once, to cite an example, after he had escaped from the Nazis through a hail of bullets, he remembered a girl he knew who had not escaped from the ghetto. He risked his life, turned back and saved her. On another occasion, to mention one of many, at age seventeen, while running with his family from the Nazis, his brother sprained his ankle and Eli carried him miles to safety.
Rabbi Israel Meyer Lau, former chief rabbi of the State of Israel held up a silver Sheaffer pen that Eli Zborowski once gave him as a gift and praised Eli saying: he "built an empire selling Sheaffer pens like this one. He could have built an empire twice the size. Instead, he devoted his time and energy to holy causes on behalf of the Jewish people."