Last week was difficult. The horrific shooting on Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh shook many of us to the core. Coming at the end of a week of attempts at mass political assassinations, it called into question assumptions about our nation’s values. As a historian I know that anti-Semitism and bigotry are as old as our country, in fact as old as recorded history. Thankfully, stories of courageous response to bigotry are just as old, yet often not as well known.
The Overlooked Obituary project of the New York Times is designed to recognize extraordinary people overlooked by the editors of the paper in their day. People like Rose Zar, the remarkable mother of my National Trust colleague Howard Zar. Rose Zar’s overlooked obituary appeared in the Times on the anniversary of her death in the Jewish lunar calendar. That happened to fall during this past week, bringing a story of hope and determination amidst a flood of bad news.
When she was 19 and living in the ghetto in Piotrkow, Poland, Zar—who had been part of the Jewish resistance prior to World War II—begin to feel the Nazi pressure on home and family. Zar “grabbed her suitcase and forged passport and left her family behind,” moving around Poland for the next three years as a Roman Catholic named Wanda Gajda.
“When an SS commander summoned her to his office for questioning, she felt certain that it was the end. She answered his queries, telling about her experience as a nurse and how she had learned to speak German fluently. Several days later, she was introduced to the commander’s wife. The encounter she had feared turned out to be a job interview. She spent the final years of the war as her father had advised, hiding in plain sight in the home of a Nazi commander as ‘Fräulein Wanda.’”
After the war, she married her teenage sweetheart, a concentration camp survivor. They lived in Poland before moving to the U.S. (where they shortened their last name to Zar). Before that move, she again had to respond to bigotry.
“When violence broke out against Jewish refugees in the Polish city of Kielce, Zar and her husband decided it was time to leave. They helped smuggle 139 Jewish refugee children with them through Czechoslovakia and into southern Germany, where they helped set up a school run by the International Refugee Organization and the United States Army.”
In that school she taught the children of their Jewish heritage. Many were later resettled in Israel, aboard the famous refugee ship Exodus. After moving to South Bend, Indiana, Zar continued her life of service and wrote a memoir, “In the Mouth of the Wolf.” Published in 1983, the book won the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Book Award and is taught in schools across the United States.
Zar’s co-author recalls her saying,
“Of course we must talk, we must tell the stories. Otherwise, they will be forgotten and the enemies will have won. I must talk about it. It is my duty to talk about it. If I don’t tell my story, who will?”
The conventional wisdom is that leaders must be charismatic and eloquent. That is certainly one type of leadership. But as Rose Zar’s story shows, there are extraordinary people hiding in plain sight who lead through perseverance and inner strength. It reminds me of the words of President Obama as he was celebrating the creation of the Pullman National Monument in Chicago. He said this place should be saved so that children in the neighborhood—as well as around the world—could see and learn that “extraordinary people can come from ordinary places.”
It gives me hope that I know of exceptional stories of life and leadership from colleagues who may not have the strong personality to stand out in a crowded room. They include Peace Corps volunteers. Writers and poets. Social workers. Teachers. You probably know similar individuals who, because of their life experiences or skills developed over the years, lead in the unconventional sense.
Challenges from mundane to horrific will be with us forever. To respond, consider the ordinary. Look in plain sight. What you might find to emulate—as seen in the life and story of Rose Zar—could well be extraordinary.
More to come…