The Grateful Life

Words to live By
Oskar Schindler (seated) with Leopold Pfefferberg, who was saved by Schindler. IMAGE COURTESY UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM/LEOPOLD PAGE COLLECTION.
By Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Jews Are often Hard on Themselves and Others, quick to kvetch, slow to praise. We notice failure while success too often passes us unaware. Abba Eban, the Israeli statesman once called the Jews “the people who can’t take yes for an answer.” But this is not the Jewish way. On the contrary: a fundamental Jewish value is Ha-karat ha-tov, recognizing the good another has done for you and expressing gratitude for it. Thus, the Bible tells us that when King David lay on his deathbed, he offered his final words of wisdomand advice to his son and successor, Solomon.

What would one of Israel’s greatest kings communicate to his son in his final hour? We would expect David to advise Solomon on military strategy, economic policy, the construction of the Temple. But he doesn’t. David tells Solomon to follow G-d’s teachings, and then in a striking passage he directs Solomon to treat the sons of Barzillai kindly, and to care for them at the palace. “For,” David says, “many years ago, when Absalom launched a revolt against me, I fled for my life. I crossed the Jordan River and took refuge in Gilead, where Barzillai rescued me and my men. After I put down the rebellion, I invited Barzillai’s children into our palace. I want you to continue to show gratitude toward them.”

I find it remarkable that in the only recorded instance in the Bible of a king giving his son advice on his deathbed is David speaking to Solomon about the ongoing expression of thankfulness to Barzillai’s children.

One of the greatest expressions of gratitude in the 20th century was by Leopold Pfefferberg. Leopold was one of the 1,100 Jews saved by Oskar Schindler during theHolocaust. In 1947, just before Pfefferberg and his wife emigrated from Germany, he promised Schindler that he would never forget his kindness and that one day, the world would learn of it. A short time later, when Pfefferberg learned that Schindler was impoverished, he helped raise $15,000 for him, a substantial amount ofmoney in the late 1940s.

In 1950, Pfefferberg moved to Los Angeles and opened a successful leather goods store in Beverly Hills, patronized bymany prominentHollywood actors, writers, and producers. He tried to interest them all in Schindler’s story. On one occasion, when the wife of a prominent movie producer brought in two expensive handbags for repair, he told her, “If you let me talk to your husband about this story, you won’t have to payme a penny for repairing the bags.” Later, when her husband came in, Pfefferberg told him about Schindler. Intrigued, theman wrote a treatment for a film, but no studio was interested.

Pfefferberg called Spielberg’s office every day for 11 years. When Spielberg agreed to make the film in 1992, Pfefferberg worked as an advisor…he appears in the film’s epilogue.

Pfefferberg remained undaunted. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he continued to tell everyone he met about Oskar Schindler’s story. He even arranged several interviews for Schindler on American television. Schindler’s death in 1974 seemed to end any possibility of amotion picture.

One day in October, 1980, Australian novelist Thomas Keneally came into Pfefferberg’s store to buy a briefcase.When he learned that Keneallywas a distinguished writer, he immediately told him Schindler’s story and urged him to write a book about it. Keneally listened attentively to Pfefferberg’s account. He agreed that the story deserved to be told but added, “I am not theman who can write this book for you. I was only three years oldwhen thewar started, so I don’t knowmuch about it. Second, I amCatholic and don’t knowmuch about what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust.”
Pfefferberg could not be dissuaded. He told Keneally, “I lived through it. I will tell you everything I know. With a little research, you will be as educated as anybody about this period of history. As an Irish Catholic and notable author, you have more credibility, not less, in writing about the Holocaust.” On the spot, Keneally committed himself to write the book. Pfefferberg advised him and accompanied Keneally to Poland, where they visited Kraków and other sites associated with the Schindler story. In 1982, Schindler’s List was published to international acclaim. Keneally dedicated Schindler’s List to Pfefferberg, “who by zeal and persistence caused this book to be written.”
But even after the publication ofSchindler’s List, Pfefferberg was not finished. He endeavored to persuade Steven Spielberg to make a film of Kenneally’s book, using his acquaintance with Spielberg’smother to gain access to the director. It was not easy. Pfefferberg later said he called Spielberg’s office every week for 11 years. When Spielberg agreed to make the filmin 1992, Pfefferberg again worked as an advisor,made the trip to Poland, and showed Spielberg the sites; he appears in the film’s epilogue.

Pfefferberg and hiswifewere Spielberg’s guests on the night Schindler’s List won seven Academy Awards. In his acceptance speech, Spielberg thanked “a survivor named Poldek Pfefferberg… I owe himsuch a debt.He has carried the story ofOskar Schindler to all of us.” Pfefferberg had fulfilled the promise he made to Oskar Schindler in 1947. His gratitude drove him all those years, against all odds.

In Judaism, gratitude is not only considered an essential character trait; it’s our very name. The word “Jew” in Hebrew, Yehudi, comes from the same Hebrew root as Todah, “thanksgiving.” We acquired the name from Jacob’s son, Judah, who received his name fromhis mother, Leah. At his birth, Leah said, “This time I will thank and praise G-d.” To be a Jew is to give thanks. That is the meaning of our name and a central part of our faith.

So after you read this article, think of someone who did you a favor, gave you a gift, comforted you in themidst of a crisis, or helped your life in some way. If you haven’t yet expressed your thanks, take the time now to give the person a call, let themknow how grateful you feel. To be a Jew is to give thanks. This is the significance of our name.