John Sauber was always known to us grandchildren as Zaidy John. Zaidy John was a bit of a superhero to my brothers and me growing up. I remember being in awe of his physical fitness, nutritional expertise (thanks in large part to my Bubbie Blemah), and his strength – I have distinct memories of him lifting up my brother Jesse and I, one on each arm, and each of us clinging on to his rock-hard biceps. I remember many birthday cards and letters to overnight summer-camp written in his perfect, almost computer-like penmanship – evidence of the fact that he would have made a fine surgeon. Going over to Bubbie and Zaidy’s was always an exciting time – sharing in his love of cooking and baking, eating special but healthy foods, playing games, going swimming, sweating in the dry sauna, and playing with the weightlifting equipment in the gym in their building. Zaidy had a way of cupping the water in his hands in the swimming pool and squirting it up like a fountain. I also remember his trick of seemingly removing his thumb and putting it back on – even when I found out how he did it, I could never do it quite as well as he did. I remember once after going swimming with Zaidy and showering to get the chlorine smell off in the change-room, I realized that I had forgotten my dry change of clothes up in his condo; he showed me how to wrap my towel around myself so that we could walk back upstairs together without me having to put my wet bathing suit back on. It was the small, caring gestures like this, the little, consistent kindnesses that embody the warmth, love, and good humour that Zaidy John provided for us as grandchildren. There was warmth in his eyes and excitement in his voice whenever he greeted us, a feeling of playfulness and safety when he was around. He was a source of nurturance, reassurance, and a role-model for us in our younger years, a symbol of both strength and compassion, of both joyful living and responsibility. Through his levity, wit, and kindness, he conveyed a feeling of unconditional positive regard, giving us an example of who we might aspire to be in the world.
My Zaidy John didn’t have an easy life. In his late teens, he and his family were among the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who fell victim to the Nazis in World War II. As my brothers and I grew older, Zaidy shared some of the horror stories of his past with us on several occasions. Over the years, I wrote poems inspired by what he told us, some of which I’ve included here:
…after the war,/after being liberated from hell on earth,/Zaidy told me how he waited,/how every day he checked the lists,/hoping, yearning, anticipating/the reunion with his family.//But that day never came.//I can only imagine the depression,/the despair and the loneliness/upon realizing that they were gone,/not knowing if, how, when, or where they died,/the uncertainty of whether or how/to move on, to start again,/to live./
But somehow Zaidy John did live on. He survived, and he did much more than that. He immigrated to Canada, started a business, a family, and created a new life for himself. Our biological grandfather on our father’s side passed away before we were born, and so we never got a chance to know him. Through John’s marriage to our Bubbie Blemah later in his life, however, we were given the gift of having a paternal grandfather. By simply being who he was, Zaidy John taught us that family need not be determined by flesh and blood alone; he taught us that family is something we can choose to create through our word and our commitment, through our love and generosity.
He recalled to us on more than one occasion the warmth, love, and innocence of his childhood with his mother, father, and sister, and the subsequent tragedy of losing many of them in the Holocaust. Through being a part of our family, however, John also provided us with a vivid example of transcendence, the ability of the human spirit to turn towards love despite great reasons to fall into sorrow.
My brother Jesse fondly recalls a road trip that he and John took to Pennsylvania one year for his grandchildren Daniel and Kyla’s bar and bat mitzvahs. As he recalls, Zaidy insisted on driving the whole way, and they even ended up in a pub late one night and eating junk food after a long day's drive. Jesse remembers this as a special trip and experience with John, and it holds a warm place in his heart.
Some of the fondest memories I have of my time with Zaidy are the fishing trips we went on together. I remember standing on a dock with Zaidy, going through various lures and baits in our tackle boxes, and casting out into the water together on a warm summer day. Neither of us caught anything off that dock, but it didn’t matter; I was utterly content to just be there, to be with him – fishing together with my Zaidy. Another time we were out on the lake together in a small boat and it started pouring rain – we got soaked on the way back in, but, again – it didn’t matter. We laughed about it and made the best of it.
“Sometimes the past still comes up,”/he told me on our last fishing trip together./“It’s a part of me that will never go away.”//I’m grateful/that my Zaidy was courageous enough/to tell me what he went through.//I’m grateful that he was a survivor,/that he not only survived/but lived on after his real-life nightmare.//I’m grateful that he didn’t use going through hell/as an excuse not to try to create his own version of heaven on earth.//And I’m grateful that despite all the love he lost,/despite the pain of losing his entire family,/the memories, the dreams,/the questions without answers,/I’m grateful that he still loved,/that he still gave of himself,/that he refused to let his past/shape who he was in this world/and who he still is to me.
John’s resilient spirit persisted even as the challenges of illness and old age fell upon him. When my Bubbie Blemah began to develop Alzheimer’s dementia, my Zaidy was faced with another immense challenge in his life – he had to watch his partner and best friend slowly slip away, helpless at the mercy of an insidious disease. But even in his last several years, as his own health declined and my Bubbie’s mind deteriorated, he still loved and cared for her. Moments of genuine tenderness and affection were evident when we visited him; his love and devotion shone through all of the difficulties he was facing. His patience and compassion were more gifts that my Zaidy gave to the world.
Over the past several years, I didn’t see Zaidy as much as I would have liked to. In my last visit with him at his home, I expressed my regret to him; I told him that I wished I had kept in better contact and been there for him more. He just looked at me and said: “the past is the past.” He told me that he understood that I was busy and living my life, which I know is what he wanted for me. Despite this, I still feel some regret. I think that I should have made more of an effort to make time for him, to call and visit more often, to repay him for the love and kindness that he showed me growing up. But I also realize now that Zaidy never placed those expectations on me. He always only wanted what was best for me and never asked me for anything in return. In some of the darkest and most difficult times in my life, he offered me support and encouragement; he let me know I was loved, that I would get through what I was going through, and he affirmed the strength that he saw in me.
Today I am saddened not only because I’ve lost my Zaidy, a tremendous man and a source of unconditional love in my life, but also because I’ve lost the last living Holocaust survivor that I knew personally. I’ve lost one of my heroes. I feel a responsibility to carry his memory with me, both the legacy of family, kindness, and generosity that he instilled in me, and the history of adversity and hardship that he was forced to live through for the simple fact that he was born a Jew. John’s life reinforced in me the belief that discrimination and prejudice against our fellow human beings is fundamentally wrong and destructive, regardless of the basis upon which we discriminate. He was a living testament to the virtues of acceptance, tolerance, kindness, and the freedom that we all have to choose how we will face the adversities that life inevitably presents us. I’m grateful to have known my Zaidy John, and I will never forget.
I want to close with a poem that I wrote for Zaidy several years ago. It’s called, “Change”:
I never understood/why your life was so hard/nor how you could go on/after all the pain you endured.//You lived through the Holocaust of World War II/and now you live through the holocaust/of your wife’s faltering mind.//You know, more than most,/how drastic change can be.//I don’t know why/someone as wonderful as you/should have so much hardship in his life,/but I’d be damned/if I didn’t know why/you are here today.//I remember/when you told my brothers and I/about living in the concentration camps./I remember a story you told us/about a father and son/who fought over the equal splitting/of a piece of bread/and I remember you telling us/that they did not survive.//I remember/and I listened/and I listen still/to every word you say.//Because, Zaidy,/you are one of the few people/in this world/that I can truly call/my hero.//I don’t know how/you found the strength/to move on after the war;/to change your mentality/from despair to determination.//I don’t know how/you find the patience and perseverance/to deal with Bubbie’s condition/day in and day out,/but I know that you do/and that is real courage.//I don’t care what blood/we do or do not share./you are my Zaidy,/I am your grandson,/and that will never change.//I thank God for knowing you/and I thank you for all you are,/all you do,/and all the love you share.//But most of all, I thank you for/finding the strength to live/and for being a beacon of light/in this seemingly darkening,/always changing world.//In the times that your light dims,/when you feel drained,/scared or uncertain,/I will be here for you.//Together/we will share our bread/and we will survive,/together.//I love you, Zaidy John,/and that will never change.