Thursday, February 12, 2009

Who We Ride For: Milton Potasznik

Milton Potasznik August 8, 1907- March 1981

We'll begin our profiles of the people we ride for with the first person Mia knew who was affected by cancer: her paternal grandfather, Milton Potasznik. Here's what she had to say:

My grandpa Milton died of Hodgkin's Disease in 1981, 4 years before I was born. My knowledge of the kind of life he lived and the kind of man he was has therefore been cobbled together from my father's memories and the memories of his family, along with old photos like the one above. My dad loved his father fiercely, and the smile he wears when he recounts memories of life with his dad has impressed on me that my grandpa was a pretty special man.

The circumstances by which he found himself in America are pretty special too. He was born in a small town in Poland. His town had just one telephone, which was located in the mayor's office. When calls came in, a runner set off to notify the recipient, who hastened to the mayor's office and took the call while much of the town stood around outside to listen in. On a more somber note, my grandfather suffered the anti-semitism that plagued Polish Jews. He came to the US alone when he was only 14, drawn by the promise of a country that rewarded hard work. After a stint in New York, he settled in New Jersey and embraced American culture, flying the American flag and learning English. It's no surprise that Joseph Conrad, a fellow Pole who mastered the English language, was his favorite writer.

He was hugely impacted by the anti-semitism he fled, and made sure his children never forgot it. As my aunt recalled, "my father coming from anti-semitic Poland and suffering the scars of anti-semitism always impressed on us (not too happily) that as Jews we had to be better. We had to know we would always be singled out because of our religion and we had to set a good example and excel at whatever we did. That was a lot for a kid, but I think it inspired a lot of my drive for better or worse. He was also fearless and always told me to not be afraid, and that I was to go up to whatever I feared and not run away. He often quoted T. Roosevelt: 'walk softly and carry a big stick.'"

My grandfather's family was hit very close to home by the Holocaust. A number of his cousins were killed, and 2 close family members of his, a husband and wife pair, barely escaped certain death. They were loaded onto a train and told that they were simply being relocated. In reality, the train was destined for a death camp. They sensed something was wrong, and escaped into a field in Czechoslovakia. After traveling hundreds of perilous miles on foot, they ultimately escaped to the US.

My grandfather's family cheated death a second time, this time with his help. His cousin lived in Germany and was in love with a German girl there, but because his cousin was a German Jew, they weren't allowed to leave the country. My grandfather was untouchable as a US citizen, so he traveled to Germany in the late 1930s to help them leave the country. While in Berlin, he saw Hitler himself give a speech on a street corner, and had his papers inspected by a member of the Gestapo. Whatever he tried, he couldn't help the ill-fated pair. Frustrated and forlorn, he stood on a bridge despairing his inability to help. Out of nowhere, a man came up to him and asked what was wrong. When my grandfather turned to the man, he realized he was a fellow member of the New Brunswick, NJ YMCA! He explained his problem, and the man told him he was some sort of high ranking official with the US Embassy. That 2 men from New Brunswick ended up on the same bridge at the same time in the same foreign country is incredible, and that one ended up being exactly what the other needed is pretty miraculous. The man from the YMCA pulled some strings and my grandfather's cousin and his cousin's soon-to-be wife were soon on their way to America.

My grandfather's patriotism inspired him to join the Army while in his late 30s. He shipped out during World War II and fought from Normandy to Munich in 1944. The picture at the top of this post is of him training in the Mojave Desert in 1942. Here is one of him in uniform in 1943:

He was shot in the back during battle, and returned home for a short stint before heading out again. He was, as my aunt recalled, "a fervent patriot, so loving the country that saved him from a death sentence if he had stayed in Poland. Our flag was always flying on July 4 and he was active in the 4th Armored Division Veterans Association."

During peacetime, he started his own clothing company. After a few years, he had to close it down, after which he was a leather cutter and later worked at a department store. He married my grandmother, Naomi Jura, when he returned from the war, and fathered three children: my dad, my aunt, and my uncle. Here's a photo from their early married days:

They each, in my aunt's words, "marched to their own drummer. Unfortunately they did not march too well together" and divorced in 1959. Still, as my aunt recalled, "they were both loving parents who encouraged their 3 children to do their best, accept who they were, find what they wanted to do and do it to the best of their ability- learning was cherished and fun!"

As for what kind of man he was, my aunt provided this rich summary: "my dad was a great storyteller, full of charm and charisma. He was handsome and social and everyone loved him! He taught all the kids in the neighborhood how to ride a bicycle. He was physically strong and walked on his hands and juggled and was very interested in the body and athletics and was a high energy mover. He spoke in a very soft voice and had a warm, gentle nature. In many ways he was more maternal than my mother- he could sew and make anything. He made leather jackets for me and my friends. He could even make shoes. He could also cook and bake and was very creative, loving to make all kinds of weird concoctions."

Though my two older sisters were very young when my grandfather died, he made an impact on them in the short time they shared together. My sister Annie, who was only 4 when my grandpa passed, recalled him this way: "I only have one memory of Grandpa Milton. When I was very young I enjoyed a tea party with him in our backyard. I made a mud pie, complete with dirt sludge icing. I remember the warmth of the sun on my face and his smiling blue eyes. He was so kind to me and my mother. He even pretended to eat a slice of my mud pie, which meant a lot to me since I was a sensitive kid. He asked for seconds because it 'tasted' so good. It made me happy."

Usually when people die before you're born, they have little if any place in your life. They are ghosts in yellowed photos, brought to life in a pained look on a father's face, or a quiet, whispered memory. But my grandfather has been a very real presence in my life. My dad taught me to pray for my grandpa starting when I could talk, and I see the day to day impact that his passing has had on my dad. My dad loved his father as I love my own, and the fact that we have that in common has always made me feel very close to my grandpa. I wish that cancer had waited a bit longer to take him away.

If you'd like to write a profile of someone who has been lost to or is fighting cancer and have us publish it in our blog, please email us at, or leave a note in the comments. Please do the same if you'd like us to ride in honor or memory of someone you know.

Be well,

Arik and Mia