A short time after publishing her memoir, In Search of Light, Holocaust survivor Martha Salcudean died on July 17, 2019 in Canada. I do not know whether Martha ever met Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook and author of the international bestseller Lean In. Although Martha could have been Sandberg’s mother, I am sure that they shared many common interests, such as women in the workforce, innovation, moving to the West Coast of North America and coping with the loss of family members who died unexpectedly at a young age.
Martha was born in Romania in 1934. Both of her parents were Jewish physicians, which was quite uncommon at the time. After Martha’s mother graduated from medical school in 1925, she encountered gender discrimination as well as antisemitism that limited her career options as a doctor. Despite this dual challenge, her mother’s will prevailed and she treated patients – including the man who would become Martha’s father, after he was attacked by a rabid dog. Her mother’s triage work eventually led to their courtship, as well as to their opening a medical practice and starting a family in her husband’s village. Ultimately, her parents’ shared profession proved to be a critical factor in their survival during the Holocaust.
Martha and her nuclear family miraculously became passengers on the “Kasztner Train” in 1944. In her memoir, she describes her recollections of this special and controversial transport, their internment in Bergen-Belsen, rebuilding their lives in Western Europe, followed by her parents’ fateful decision to return to Romania after the war. Living under Communist rule proved disastrous, yet Martha pursued her studies with a commitment to academic excellence. Like her mother, she became a trailblazer in university, choosing to study engineering. As she notes, “There were very few women in our class – I think about five or six out of 140 or 150.” Already as a student in higher education, Martha followed the tradition of her mother by sitting at tables with mostly men.
During her studies, Martha met and married George Salcudean whose family members, though not Jewish, suffered torture under Communism. Their only child, Tim, was born in 1957. Although dedicated to her career, Martha always put her son’s education and future above all else. She risked their lives to ensure that Tim would have an opportunity to live in freedom and pursue academic degrees in the West. Her family, including Martha’s mother, immigrated to Canada in 1976. In her new homeland, Martha received a number of honorary doctorates and prizes in recognition for her pathbreaking work. In 2004, she was awarded the prestigious honor of Officer, Order of Canada.
In her obituary, published in The Vancouver Sun, Martha is noted for being a “generous mentor to many.” Sandberg devotes an entire chapter of Lean In to the importance of finding mentors, emphasizing that “mentorship is often a more reciprocal relationship.” Martha would have clearly supported Sandberg’s opinion; in her memoir she refers to numerous colleagues of all ages, stating that “… so much talent continues to build our society that it is hard not to look forward with optimism.”
Throughout her life, Martha demonstrated that obstacles can be overcome by human will. She inspired members of her family, friends, colleagues and students. In her words, “Human beings have an incredible resilience and ability not just to carry on but to have meaningful lives with great contributions and satisfaction.” May Martha’s positive spirit continue to inspire readers of her memoir – especially during this challenging time - as we look to shape a better future.