It is Memorial Day weekend and Honolulu, where I lived for over ten years, flashes into my mind.
I see myself on a boat riding out in calm seas to the Arizona Memorial with family or friends. I envision the surprise attack on our ships in Pearl Harbor. Nineteen ships were destroyed, and 2,000 of our American sailors lost their lives.
I see myself riding in the same boat with the author, speaker, and Holocaust survivor, Gerta Klein. Her words will be embedded forever in my mind.
I am proud to say that since the Civil War, America has honored all of its servicemen and women who died in the line of duty. In 1971, Memorial Day became an official federal holiday, and like you, I am so proud to be an American.
Honoring our men and woman in the military who sacrificed their lives to preserve and protect the United States of America is our privilege. Amen.
Finding My Way Far Away From Home
One of my mottos is to never turn down an opportunity. If you don’t try, you will never know what might have been. If you try and fail, at least you know you tried.
I think about my life as a book filled with many chapters. One way I could organize my chapters is based on the places I have lived. From growing up in “Kankakee by the Sea,” to 11 years of summer camp in Maine, to my college days in the dorm and sorority house in Madison, to life in Honolulu, Chicago, and Palm Springs. I have endearing feelings for all the places I have lived, but one stands out more than the rest.
Honolulu, Hawaii, was the unexpected. I still ask myself, “How did I have the courage and foresight to change the course of my children’s and my life so dramatically?” I can only say, it is in my DNA! I don’t have one regret and my children feel the same.
Home is a Feeling
“Home” is still in Hawaii for so many reasons. I suppose if my late husband were alive and we were sitting as a family around the dining room table if one of us asked the other to use one word to describe why Hawaii is home I think we would all say in unison: contentment.
Everything happens for a reason, and when things all seem to fall into place, you know you’re where you’re supposed to be. That was what happened when we moved to the islands. Honolulu, to my family, is home to this day. The grands are attached to the islands; they all visit yearly it seems, and even the pets in our families have names attached to the islands.
When we moved, I was in my late thirties with the wind behind my sails. This move was five years in the making. When we finally moved in August, the girls enrolled in school and, we had signed a lease on a charming townhouse for the year.
Our new home was a block away from Diamond Head Mountain, in a neighborhood called Kahala. It was situated behind a beautiful little school called La Pietra: The Hawaii School for Girls. Bougainvillea, an ornamental climbing plant with lavender flowers, cascaded and climbed the outside walls of our new home and with my feminine touch, in no time, my little family felt at home behind our closed doors.
After the girls were settled in school, I remember sitting down and methodically thinking out a plan. How would our family integrate into the social world of Honolulu? I knew no one would be knocking on my door. So, I decided early on, I would just have to knock on theirs.
My father had always been a strong role model and encouraged me to involve myself in charity work, so I decided I would become involved with a charity, and with that settled I set out on a mission.
We knew we wanted our children to attend Sunday school. That would be my first stop. I would make an appointment to meet the Rabbi at the synagogue, sign the girls up for class and begin charity work.
An Unexpected Opportunity
Little did I know the Rabbi purposely chose our meeting on the very day a group of women met each month. After we spoke, he took me to their meeting and introduced me to Trudy Wong and the other women. Trudy was the Chairman of the largest charity group.
She walked up to me.
“Hi! My name is Trudy Wong and I am the Chairman of the Women’s Division of the United Jewish Appeal for the state of Hawaii (a national woman’s charitable group). I would love you to join our meeting and meet the girls.”
“Thank you! Thank you very much,” I answered.
I sat down and listened.
After the meeting, she walked over and said, “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
“I’d love to,” I said.
She began to ask me about myself, my family, why we moved to Hawaii and last but not least, my charitable contribution to society. We chatted for a long time and then out of the clear blue she asked,
“Would you be my Co-Chairman for the upcoming year?”
In shock, I said, “I can’t be your Co-Chairman! I don’t know anyone in Honolulu! Thank you for offering me the position though.”
“Well, this is your opportunity to meet hundreds of people and it will be an opportunity for the community to meet you! You have been involved as a volunteer in several organizations and I really want you to say yes!”
And Just Like That…
Without too much fanfare I blurted out, “I would love to be your Co-Chairman!”
I left the synagogue excited and exhilarated. I was excited that I was going to meet new people and exhilarated to have a purpose in my new community. Trudy opened those doors for me.
To this day, I really do not know why she chose me over all the women on the board. Over the years I asked her and her reason has always been, “I just wanted to!”
An Unexpected Turn of Events
Trudy was exceptionally close to her family and they were gathering to take a cruise over Christmas. By this time, I knew the ropes and Trudy knew I could handle the Hanukkah festivities and take care of the world-renowned speaker, Gerda Weissmann Klein, who would arrive in Hawaii a few days before Trudy’s return.
Gerda was a novelist and Holocaust survivor who wrote All But My Life. She was flying into Honolulu to speak at our big fundraiser. Trudy would arrive home just in time for the luncheon.
Things never turn out the way we plan. As the saying goes, “Man plans. God laughs.” Trudy did not return the day before Gerda spoke. Trudy’s father died on board the ship in the middle of the cruise. She traveled back to her roots in the South to be with her family. Upon her return, she was too despondent over the loss of her father to continue on as Chairman and resigned from the Federation.
An Even Bigger Opportunity
Four months after I arrived in Honolulu, I was asked to take on the responsibility of Women’s Division Chairman for the State of Hawaii! I said “yes” with no hesitation.
After four years in the post, I had met people from all over the world. I had the privilege of meeting Teddy Kollek, the Mayor of Jerusalem, and I also placed a Maile lei around the neck of the Hawaii state senator in his office in Washington!
Eventually, I represented the State of Hawaii on the Western Region Board and made new friends on the “Mainland.” I owe all of this to Trudy for having faith in me and also to my father who has always been such a strong role model.
I learned so much throughout my four years as Woman’s Division Chairman and I continue my volunteer commitments to this day. I will never stop.
Most importantly, my father left his legacy to his daughter and I have left mine for my daughters. By observing their mother as a committed volunteer, they continue to carry the torch.
Pearl Harbor, The Arizona Memorial & A Holocaust Survivor
I picked up Gerda Klein, a national speaker, author and Holocaust survivor, at the airport. She was old enough to be my mother. After we spoke for a few minutes she turned to me and, almost in a pleading voice, said,
“Please take me to the Arizona Memorial.”
“Of course,” I responded.
We arrived and caught the military skiff out to the Memorial. Upon arrival, we disembarked. There were few people at the site.
Gerda said, “Susan, please take me to the oil slick. There is something I want to do.”
We walked to the place where you could lean over the side and watch the oil still seeping out of the ship, The Arizona, more than forty years after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
She opened her large handbag and took out a large piece of evergreen. In case you don’t know, evergreen is a symbol of life. It never loses its needles and it always stays green. This is what she said:
“If the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor, America would never have entered the war against the Nazis. I would not have been liberated by the American military forces and would have been murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp. My grandchildren would not be here today.”
Gerda dropped the evergreen into the oil slick. We were both overcome with emotion and crying as we walked, arm in arm, back to the skiff.
A Lifelong Friend & Legacy
I never lost touch with Gerda. I hope those of you who have not visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, will take the time to do so. Take your children and your grands.
You will be able to watch and hear Gerda, on-screen, tell the story of her years in the camps, how she was liberated by the soldier who became her husband and her years of giving back by lecturing and writing. She is one of the survivors who was invited to leave her legacy.
Our Experiences Become Who We Are
I am now older in years, but I am that same young girl in spirit, never missing an opportunity to seek ’newness.’ It is all about one’s attitude! I believe that magical things come your way when you realize the value in something and reach for it. Age is just a number, so continue to fill your cup with curiosity and positivity and ’newness.’
God Bless America and our servicemen and women.
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