The death of a friend led Rick Gabrielly to realize that our legacies are determined by the receivers, not the givers.
My friend Jack Polak left us last week—at the young age of 102.
A Holocaust survivor and native of Amsterdam, Jack left quite an imprint on this world. He lived every bit of his century plus to the fullest.
After the war, Jack came to America, where he dedicated his life to fostering peace among all nations, became a champion of communication among all people, and vowed never to forget what he and his fellow people endured. As I spoke to his daughter Margrit and his granddaughter Sofia recently, they reminded me what they both learned from Jack and still reflect on today—the message that we must never forget.
Jack succeeded in passing his message down to his children—and their children, and in doing so, he left a legacy. I was curious to learn more about his life, and his family graciously gave me the book of letters, Steal a Pencil for Me, that Jack exchanged with Ina, his wife of 67 years. They also shared stories from the documentary that profiled Jack and Ina’s journey from Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen to Eastchester, New York, and everything in between.
This man did some big things.
As a renowned educator, Jack promoted six important life lessons:
- Don’t discriminate.
- Don’t generalize.
- Don’t be a bystander.
- Work for peace.
- Enjoy the simple things in life.
- We are living in a wonderful country and we all need to work together to make this a better world. But this can only be achieved if people learn the lessons of the Holocaust.
He maintained his connection to his homeland and honorably represented the Jewish people and their cause on a global level before the age of instant connectivity. At home, he worked tirelessly to educate his family, especially his children and grandchildren. Sofia told me that he was her best friend. That’s something you don’t always hear from a 22-year-old college graduate, ready to make her own mark on the world. Jack clearly taught his family to believe in something bigger, to stand for what’s in our hearts.
My visit with Jack’s family was enriched by the story of his life and the meaning he brought to all those around him. As I left the loving home he built, I began to feel that Jack had given me a gift. While in his house, I suddenly felt inspired to do more with my own life. I saw images of Jack at the various times in his life, and I had an overwhelming feeling that I could expand my influence, that I could be more and touch more people in a more meaningful way.
I felt Jack Polak’s legacy.
If this man could survive the unimaginable and come out with both the desire and the energy to promote peace, what excuse did I have for not giving the world my very best each day? At 52, I might have another 50 years to live up to his example. I’m an avid student of daily motivation, and as I thought about Jack’s daily actions, I felt something shift inside me. And I began to ask myself some questions.
Was it the big things he did that touched me? Yes, but history hadn’t given me the opportunity to act on that scale.
Was it the way he lived his life? The day to day. The small actions not chronicled or celebrated? And that’s where I found resonance.
I thought about the small things I was doing each day in my own life. Things without much immediately measurable impact. Things that went mostly unrecognized. I thought about how Jack had no idea of his impact on me, but how that impact was huge. Bigger than any other.
There was no way I could compete with Jack Polak or impact the world at his level. But I realized I was making a difference in my own small way. As a youth baseball coach for 14 years, I had many opportunities to influence both my players and their parents. There were hundreds of Saturday and Sunday mornings when I would think about the life lessons I was about to impart to these hungry young minds and hearts. I often dreamed about changing these young men in some profound way. I got down on my knees to be at their level and looked them in the eyes as they spoke. I slipped big life lessons into my pep talks, or shared a cathartic message as I picked them up off the damp spring grass.
Looking back at Jack’s life and forward at the remainder of my own, I realized that my legacy is in the little things. The thousands of little gifts I’m giving along the journey. Those short talks at third base, my perpetual hand clapping while each kid was at bat, the pre-game catches when I let them run me as though I was their peer, until I headed back to the bench with my pencil.
All our small acts are just as much a part of our tapestry as any big projects, big donations, or big chunks of time spent volunteering. And we never know how those small acts, the values we model, the example we provide, will touch someone else. I realized with a gasp that it’s not up to us what our legacy is. And I found that truth liberating.
What a gift to receive from dear old Jack—the knowledge that it’s not for me to decide my legacy. It’s for those I touch on this ride. I felt the pressure lift, that pressure to leave an indelible mark with my life. Suddenly I had permission to live each day intentionally—without constantly thinking about changing the world.
I am privileged to thank Jack Polak for inspiring me to do more, be more, and make no excuses. And to do that in my own small ways. Just as I got to decide Jack’s legacy on my life, the people I influence will decide mine. I get to honor Jack and his contributions as I go forth and share his example with others. These words I’ve written here are but a small token to acknowledge his light. He’s made my life forever brighter, serving as a beacon to lead me on my way.
Perhaps my words will touch you today, light your way, inspire you to action, and help you see it’s the small things you are already doing that truly define your legacy.
A passing hello, a warm, caring smile, a gentle pat on the back. You have no idea how much these acts matter, and you probably never will. So go out there and do what you do, remembering that your legacy is always with the receiver.
Top photo—Frank Lindecke/Flickr
Second photo (Jack Polak) courtesy of Margrit Polak.
Third photo—Frank Pierson/Flickr
Bottom photo—Nisha A/Flickr