There are people who live. And then there are people, like Margaret Roth Danzig, who teach others how to live. Even after her death, Margaret - who exuded compassion and integrity - inspires people to live as purely and selflessly as she did. In her son David's words, "She was the moral compass against which her friends and family measured themselves."
Margaret was born in a small town outside of Windermere, England to Jewish parents who escaped the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. The fact that she was born at all was a miracle, one that set the tone for the rest of her life. Her mother, Irma Roth remembers that when she found out she was pregnant in a refugee camp, she knew that her struggling family simply could not afford another child. She set out one morning to find a doctor to have an abortion. But as this was 1940 in Britain at the height of the Blitz, air raid sirens screamed their warning call signaling the approach of the Luftwaffe just as she headed out. Irma was forced to turn back but took it as a sign to have the child.
Margaret's parents, Irma and Milan Roth, escaped the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia separately and were reunited several years later in England. A soft spoken woman of 96, Irma recounted her harrowing journey from Czechoslovakia through Bulgaria and finally to England where she miraculously found the husband she had not seen in over a year. "I was only allowed to take five dollars when I left my home. I was carrying my one and a half year old son and wearing a gold star when I made my way to Sofia, Bulgaria." Irma sent a cable from Sofia to her husband in England to let him know that she made it out safely. She stayed in the city for three weeks while she waited for her visa to flee to the West. Irma had no money and no way to earn money but what she did have was the bravado that impelled her to flee her homeland with the Star of David attached to one arm and an 18 month old attached to the other. She went to a bank in Sofia and asked if anyone there spoke German. Mrs. Roth recalls, "one man said he did and I told him that I was willing to do anything for a little money. He would not help me but I made such a fuss right there in the bank that he gave me, some money just to go away." Irma took his money and sent every cent back to him when she got to England.
The miracle of Irma and Milan's reunion across a continent was a short-lived sentiment. In just two weeks of fleeing, 25-year-old Irma had aged at least a decade, and arrived in England 25 pounds lighter and her dark hair completely gray. The family also had to worry about the logistics of finding a home, money, and jobs. Being the enterprising people they were, Milan and Irma found work quickly as a gardener and cook at a farmhouse in the town of Kendal. They settled into life at a palace that was turned into a refugee camp for Jews escaping Nazi occupation. It was during this time that the family made their first connection with CARE-they received a CARE package filled with food. "It came in very handy," Mrs. Roth says of the provisions.
"In those days we didn't have much so having a sandwich meant a lot to us."
In 1948, when Margaret was six years old, the Roth family, like millions of other Jewish families, decided to leave Europe. Like most immigrants, they carved their future out of faith and small opportunities. The family moved to California with $50 and the hope that they could live freely in America. The Roth's started a dry cleaning business in San Francisco, and because they could not afford the luxury of failure, worked 12-14 hours a day to make it a success. This left Margaret alone for most of the day to explore her own independence. Her son David recounts that "Because her parents were often away working, she was partly raised by friends of the family who had a tremendous influence on her from a cultural aspect. They taught her a love of fine art, music and history." But Margaret was an exceptional person from the start. She excelled immediately in school and became a star student, eventually earning full scholarships through college and graduate school. She was a Phi Beta Kappa and earned a bachelor's degree in history and an MBA from Stanford before doing work at Harvard. Despite her star quality, however, she was not comfortable in the spotlight. David recalls that "perhaps the one thread of her identity that she never escaped was being an immigrant, an outsider and in a minority. With parents who spoke broken English, a Jewish heritage and an intellect which put her above many of her peers, I don't think she ever fit in at any stage as a child." But she was unmistakably exceptional and perhaps because of this, she felt a sense of responsibility to use her gifts to help other people.
Her moral fortitude was certainly the result of the struggle her family experienced both as immigrants and as small business owners. There was a constant anxiety that hung over their lives and Margaret grew up to be a chronic worrier. David says of his mother, "I used to tell her not to take it all on but she almost always did. When she saw small businesses struggle or fail, I think it was a direct link to her parents struggle and the anxiety the family experienced in their early years in the United States. When she saw a person be cast aside or have a personal hardship, I think her empathy kicked into overdrive and she would almost share in their distress." Even when she experienced personal success as a real estate agent and businesswoman, it was tinged with a sense of guilt. "She really never was comfortable letting personal success and fulfillment sink in. It was always other people's joy and achievement that gave her pleasure. I think all of this led her to volunteer for CARE. The philosophies behind the organization-helping the needy take care of themselves and earn success; operating in scarce conditions; working with people during times of crisis; standing up for the less fortunate...all of these tenets are perfect parallels for Margaret Danzig's spirit." Margaret moved to Atlanta in 1973, married Ron Danzig and raised her two sons, Joshua and David. After CARE relocated its headquarters to the city in 1993, Margaret raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the organization and served as a fundraiser and board member. She was a champion for CARE even among friends and family. Ron Danzig, who also donated generously to CARE, established his mother Adele Danzig Reese's estate so that upon her passing (and her second husband's passing), the remainder of the trust was given to CARE. Even after Margaret lost her own battle with lung cancer in 2004, her family asked that those wishing to pay their respects send donations to CARE in lieu of flowers.
What made Margaret a true inspiration to everyone who knew her was that she spent her life spreading a message of the necessity of contribution and charity. Irma says in her thick Czech accent, "Margaret would approach powerful men and ask them to give to CARE. She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars this way and never felt too proud to ask people she knew to give." David adds, "She even got a large real estate developer in Atlanta to give money to CARE. She found strength in asking for a good cause." Margaret felt empathy for people who struggle simply by virtue of being a minority. She understood the struggle to assimilate because it was something she herself was born into. Consequently, her devotion to charity came from a very deep place. David says of his mother, "For her, contributing to others was not so much a necessity as if to fill some righteous quota or accrue good-will points for some afterlife contest. For her, it was... just something that you did as part of living on this planet. It was as natural as breathing."
A devoted mother, daughter and philanthropist, Margaret was that rare human who taught others how to be human. She understood injustice as keenly as she felt empathy. She lived deeply and radiated kindness. For Margaret Danzig, "doing the right thing was a non-negotiable position." In speaking with David and Irma, I felt Margaret's presence transcend the conversation. "She was self-motivated and absolutely brilliant. She was my joy, my everything" Irma said with a voice that quivered with pride and sorrow at having loved and outlived her beloved daughter. David too shared a powerful bond with his mother, both as a son and as a friend. His admiration and love for her is infectious and it left me wishing that I had been lucky enough to have known Margaret Danzig. "She taught that discipline and an indomitable will could overcome most challenges. But she made it clear that no accomplishment or success was worth it if it was done at the expense of others or at the expense of kindness. My mom was clearly the one who installed the mechanism I have which discerns right from wrong; that little twinge that flutters when my behavior or actions might come in contrast with a life of integrity. That was all her. She constantly set about making life better for people she knew and many she didn't. The gift of the trust is a perfect tribute to her spirit and I pray that it helps many many people for years to come...people who never knew her. That would have been the way she would have liked it."