Masha Leon, who survived harrowing childhood escapes from grim pre-ghetto Warsaw and Communist Siberia during World War II to mingle years later with New York’s glitterati as the society columnist for the world’s oldest Yiddish newspaper, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. She was 86.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter Karen Leon.
Ms. Leon, who lived in Flushing, Queens, wrote her weekly “On the Go” column for the English-language version of The Forward since it was founded in 1990 until last December. The Yiddish edition of The Forward was begun by immigrant Jewish socialists in New York in 1897. It appears online and is still published monthly in print.
For all the boldface names that she encountered at charity events in the metropolitan area and the gossip that they generated for her column, few celebrities could match the literary grist of her own odyssey through war-torn Europe.
Masha Bernstein was born in Warsaw on March 21, 1931, the daughter of Mordechai and Zelda Bernstein. Her father was a journalist. Her mother was a seamstress and later taught Spanish.
Masha was only 8 when she and her mother fled Warsaw in the winter of 1939-40 before the ghetto walls went up. (Her father, along with many other men, had escaped earlier.)
Hoping to join relatives in Belarus, they were captured by the Germans. The next morning most of their cellmates were shot but, apparently randomly, Masha and her mother were released to make their way to Russian-occupied Poland.
Along the way they were hidden for three days by a Catholic woman, who told them she was reciprocating for having her life saved by a stranger in World War I. Mother and daughter were then spared execution by a Russian soldier only when he learned that young Masha and his daughter shared the same first name. (Masha Leon’s was inspired by a Chekhov character.)
In Belarus, they were reunited with Masha’s father, an anti-Communist. But he was soon betrayed by a childhood friend and jailed in Vilnius, Lithuania.
When Masha and her mother went to visit him before he was exiled to Siberia, the wife of another prisoner confided that she hoped to smuggle a message to her own husband in a bar of soap. Masha’s mother suggested instead that she embroider the message on a handkerchief.
“The letters were a bit shaky, but they were unmistakably O-L-A,” the other prisoner later recalled in a memoir. “What made my wife change the ‘A,’ the first letter of the abbreviated form of her name (Ala), into an ‘O’?”
His cellmate, Masha’s father, solved the riddle. The three letters could be transliterated in Hebrew as “aliyah” (meaning ascent, but more broadly the return of diaspora Jews to the land of Israel). The prisoner’s wife was escaping to Palestine.
“It was the best day I had had in prison — and the hardest,” the prisoner wrote. “I had learnt that my wife was leaving for Eretz Israel.”
The other prisoner was Menachem Begin, who later fought to create the Jewish state and served as its prime minister.
“My own theory,” Seth Lipsky, the former Forward editor who hired Ms. Leon, wrote in The New York Sun this week, “is that the knowledge that Aliza would be in Israel was one of the things that sustained Begin in his epic journey from the Gulag to Palestine, where he led the revolt against the British and set the stage for independence.”
“When Masha was a girl,” Mr. Lipsky wrote, “she and her mother caused to be sent one of the most consequential messages in the history of the Jews.”
She learned of her parents’ role only by reading “White Nights,” the 1977 memoir in which Mr. Begin recalled sharing a cell with a prisoner named Bernstein.
To whatever extent Masha Leon was a historical footnote, her own exodus had barely begun.
She and her mother were among the thousands of lucky Jews who received transit visas from Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese vice-consul in Lithuania, and got the last two seats on a flight to Moscow.
After living for nearly a year in Japan and attending a French convent school, in 1941 Masha and her mother caught the last American-bound ship before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
After arriving in Seattle, they spent the rest of the war in Canada and were supposed to be repatriated to Poland in 1945. But after Masha wrote a 13-page personal plea to Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, the American consul granted them visas. They moved to Chicago, then New York, where in 1957 they were finally reunited with Masha’s father, who had been freed from the gulag.
She graduated from George Washington High School in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan and graduated from Queens College with a bachelor’s degree in Jewish and Yiddish studies.
She married Joseph Leon, who died in 2008. In addition to her daughter Karen, who accompanied her as a photographer for the newspaper column, Ms. Leon is survived by two other daughters, Laura Leon and Nina Leon Olney; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Ms. Leon was running an educational publishing company with her husband when she began writing magazine articles on the side, among them reviews and interviews for the English insert in The Forward. (Among the publications Ms. Leon, who survived for days during her European escape on only potatoes, wrote for was the Idaho Potato Journal.) When Mr. Lipsky started the English edition of The Forward, he hired her full time.
“Why did The Forward have a society column?” Samuel Norich, the publication’s president, wrote in an email. “Two reasons: because we had a Masha Leon to write it, and because fund-raising events are a key source of financing for the range of cultural and social welfare causes the Jewish community sponsors here and abroad.”
Ms. Leon, who received the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland in 2011, was still writing for The Tablet, a Jewish magazine, just before she died.
Given her own remarkable life, she would sometimes evoke her past while interviewing people, Mr. Norich said, “and again and again she’d elicit each person’s Rosebud, each person’s earliest or most revealing or consequential memory.”
“For Masha,” he said, “Jewish history was also biography, and often enough autobiography.”