An Opportunity That Changed My Life

gerda_weissmann_klein

By: Honey Good

One of my mottos is to never turn down an opportunity. If you don’t try you will never know what could have happened. 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 would be 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 Honolulu, Chicago and Palm Springs. I have endearing feelings for all the places I have spent such large portions of my life, but one stands out more than the rest.

Honolulu, Hawaii was so unexpected. I still ask myself, “How did I have the courage and foresight to change the course of my life and my children’s lives so dramatically?” I can only say, it is in my DNA! When all is said and done, I don’t have any regrets and my children feel the same. “Home” is Hawaii for so many reasons. I suppose if my late husband were alive and we were sitting together around the dining room table and one of us asked the other to use one word to describe why Hawaii is home I think we would all say the same word: 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 Honolulu.

When we moved, I was in my late thirties with the wind behind my sails. This move took five years in the making. When we finally moved in the month of August, “the girls” were 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 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 very 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 enter into and integrate with the social world of Honolulu? I knew no one would be knocking on my door. So, I would just have to knock on theirs. My father had always been a strong role model for me and encouraged me to meet new people and involve myself in charity work, as he did, so 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 ask the Rabbi for the names of a few women he might recommend I meet. I would invite them to lunch!

Little did I know the Rabbi purposely choose our meeting on the very day a group of women met each month. After we spoke, he took me into their meeting and introduced me to Trudy Wong and the other women. Trudy was the Chairman of the 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?”

I was in shock.

“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!’”

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 choose me over all the women on the board. Over the years I asked her and her reason has always been, “I just wanted to!” My father was so proud.

Trudy was exceptionally close to her family. Her family was taking 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.

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. I remained in the post for four years, meeting 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! I eventually 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 in my life.

I learned so much over 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 for his daughter and I have left mine for my daughters. By observing me as a committed volunteer, they continue to carry the torch.

I leave you with one story.

I picked up Gerda 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 Arizona, more than forty years after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

She opened her bag and took out a large piece of evergreen. In case you don’t know, evergreen is a symbol of life. It never looses 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.

I never lost touch with Gerda. I hope those of you who have not visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC take the time to do so. Take your children and your grandchildren. You will be able to watch and hear Gerda tell her story. She is one of the survivors who was invited to leave her legacy.

I am much older in years. But I am that same young girl in spirit, never missing an opportunity that peaks my fancy. It is all about attitude! I believe that magical things can come your way when you realize the value in something and reach for it.

I hope you have a wonderful day!