Love of Country, Education, Inspires Gift to Support Students
Holocaust Survivor and Wife Give Back to Others in Appreciation of "Good Life" They Have Built
Bellevue University undergraduates have a new source of scholarships and other need-based financial assistance, thanks to the generosity of Milton and Marsha Kleinberg of Omaha. Their love of America, “the greatest country on the face of the globe,” and their belief in education’s power to transform lives and society, inspired the Kleinbergs to establish The Marsha and Milton Mendel Kleinberg Endowed Student Support Fund.
Milton was CEO of Senior Market Sales, Inc. (SMS), and Marsha was office manager when they moved to Omaha from Milwaukee in 1990 to grow the company into a premier insurance marketing organization in the senior market. The company, which they sold last year, has more than 320 Omaha employees, and offers life and health coverage for senior citizens through a nationwide network of 65,000 independent agents.
The Kleinbergs initially learned about Bellevue University at one of the University’s annual Signature Event programs several years ago. Attracted by the event’s positive portrayal of America’s tenets and history, they became regular attenders at the fall speaker programs, which feature nationally known thought leaders from the realm of politics, civic affairs, and the media. “In America, anyone who dares to dream big can achieve it with perseverance and education,” says Kleinberg, “Winston Churchill’s comment on democracy is also apt for America. We may not be the perfect nation, except when you compare us to all the other nations.”
Milton’s patriotism is born, in part, from his own firsthand perspective as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor who emigrated to the U.S. with his family after World War II ended. For decades, he did not talk much about his wartime experiences. But questions from his grandchildren and great grandchildren in Israel, where school field trips include visits to former concentration camps in Poland, changed that, he said. “They wanted to know more about how their grandfather survived the war.”
So, in 2010, Milton self-published a hard-cover biographical book “Memories of My Childhood During and After the Holocaust 1937-1951,” printing only 500 copies in English and 200 in Hebrew for friends and family. However, the story resonated with many others, and in 2015, the Director of Holocaust Education in Omaha asked him to reprint the book for use as a 9th grade manual for Holocaust Education. The revised book, titled, “Bread or Death,” is a detailed memoir chronicling events with names, dates, numbers, places, photos, and his own still-vivid memories.
“If there is anything that I have learned about life, it is that family is everything. Relationships are everything.”
"If there is anything that I have learned about life, it is that family is everything. Relationships are everything.”
His story is highlighted below:
Born Mendel Dawidowicz in Pabianice, Poland, Milton and his family were caught up in the torrent of World War II, narrowly escaping the Nazi genocide after Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. They spent the war years in Arkhangelsk, a Soviet forced-labor camp in Russia, and Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in Central Asia.
During the war, Milton’s biological father abandoned the family, and his two younger brothers, Hershel and Velvel, died from the harsh conditions, disease and malnutrition. By the time 9-year-old Mendel and his mother, Fajga Dawidowicz, returned home to Pabianice in 1945, six million Pols (one-fifth of Poland’s pre-war population) were dead. Most were civilians, including three million of the country’s 3.3 million Jews, many dying in Nazi extermination and work camps. “All our relatives who had remained in Pabianice perished…It was as though the slate had been wiped clean of Jews. There was not a recognizable Jewish face,” Milton recalled, “and we were not completely welcome.”
Mendel and Fajga spent several years in post-war displaced-person camps, during which she divorced her first husband, eventually meeting Aron Kleinberg, a Polish Jew who also had spent the war in Soviet work camps, losing his wife and two daughters in the Holocaust. Aron and Faiga married, adding two daughters, Basha and Golda, to the family by the time they emigrated to the U.S. in spring 1951 when Mendel was 14, settling in Milwaukee, where their son Eugene was born. “We’re all that’s left,” Aron prayed during his new family’s first Passover meal in the U.S., determined they would put the past behind them and go forward.
“Arriving in Milwaukee was the first good day of the rest of our lives. And a good life has followed ever since.” – Milton M. Kleinberg (MMK)
With help from a dedicated Polish-American tutor and other teachers, Mendel learned English and got up to speed in high school, excelling in athletics and earning a B+ average, with high marks in math. He decided to change his name to Milton Mendel Kleinberg and focus on the future. “I wanted to be good at something. I wanted to be successful,” he recalled. A school convocation presentation by Olympic Decathlon gold medalist Bob Mathias helped inspire Milton’s career and life motto: “Successful people do those things that failures refuse to do.”
After high school, Milton joined in the U.S. Army in 1955, serving in Korea. He and Marsha met when he was home on a furlough. A year after being honorably discharged from the military in 1958, He became a naturalized American citizen. After factory work, house painting, running a small business, working in a lumberyard, and direct sales jobs, Milton tried the insurance business at a small Milwaukee agency in 1964, later landing a sales position with Prudential.
“One of my most important accomplishments was becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States of America.” - MMK
With vestiges of fascism emerging on American soil, Milton helped to organize Concerned Jewish Citizens of Wisconsin, proactively countering anti-Semitic demonstrations there and in Illinois. Along the way, the Kleinbergs, who married in 1960, became “educators,” in their own right, at one point sponsoring and cohosting a weekly Milwaukee radio broadcast about their Jewish heritage and community news and events.
Marsha earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech pathology and was a speech pathologist in the Milwaukee Public Schools for many years. She eventually left speech pathology to assist her husband, working as office manager of their growing insurance agency.
Milton, who did not earn a college degree, has consulted Congress and industry leaders on insurance and healthcare issues. He also has spearheaded humanitarian efforts to combat anti-semitism and promote tolerance and education programs to shed light on the Holocaust.
“If there is anything that I have learned about life, it is that family is everything. Relationships are everything.” - MMK
In 2008, interested in learning more about his family, Milton reached out to half-siblings born to his biological father, Chaskiel Dawidowicz, and Dawidowicz’s second wife, Zlata, both now deceased, who emigrated to Israel after the war and eventually had four daughters and two sons, the youngest of whom disappeared in an Israeli hospital at one year of age.
Bellevue University and its students are not the only beneficiaries of the Kleinbergs’ generosity. Throughout their marriage of 60 years and counting, they have leveraged their business success to benefit people, causes and organizations like the Jewish Federation of Omaha, Chabad House of Nebraska, The Salvation Army, Beth Israel Synagogue, the Omaha Public Library, and the Omaha Food Bank.
Milton and Marsha Kleinberg ‘s daughter Cindy lives in Israel with her husband, six children, and 16 grandchildren. Their son, Hershel, lives with his wife in Virginia, where he has a satellite office for Senior Market Sales. At 84, Milton continues to tell his family’s story in schools, colleges, and other venues, including the SMS corporate website, often in collaboration with the non-profit Institute for Holocaust Education.