Leon Mak, 93 longtime barbershop owner began trade at age 12 in native Poland

September 11, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Leon Mak, who practiced the barbering trade in Baltimore for more than 60 years -- and late in life, despite blindness, was cutting the hair of young yeshiva men and rabbis -- died of cancer Saturday at the Milford Mill Nursing Home. He was 93.

Known as "Mak the Barber," the former Fallstaff neighborhood resident owned the Colonial Village and Pikesville barbershops before selling them two decades ago.

"He was an artist," said Sam Bendler, a longtime friend who bought the Pikesville business and renamed it Sam's Barbershop. "He was the best, and very popular."

It was in Mr. Bendler's shop that Mr. Mak took care of his Orthodox Jewish customers until 1994 -- despite being blind for the last 15 years of his life.

"It seems almost unbelievable, but he could do it by touch," said a granddaughter, Sheila Fox of Baltimore.

Mr. Mak began cutting hair as a boy of 12 in his native Novy-Dvor, Poland. He told his father, a stable owner, that he preferred the smell of the barbershop to that of the stable.

"He often said, 'I'm not a millionaire, but as a barber, I could always earn an honest living,' " Mrs. Fox said yesterday.

He fought with pro-independence Polish forces in World War I. In 1923, he married Rose Walenkowsky, who died last year.

After observing cruel treatment of Jews in Poland, the couple decided to immigrate to the United States, where they could practice Judaism in freedom. But it took years for them to arrive.

They settled first in Havana, Cuba, and then lived for 10 years in Panama, where Mr. Mak was a barber at a U.S. military installation. An officer whose hair he cut helped the family secure a visa that brought them to Baltimore in the late 1930s.

He sent money to Poland for the care of family members until 1941, when he learned that both his and his wife's immediate families had been killed by the Nazis.

"The letters stopped coming, and finally the awful news arrived. He wanted people to know his family did not go like sheep to the gas chambers. He was proud of his cousins who fought for the underground against the Nazis," Mrs. Fox said.

"His cousins were captured and hung by a lamppost or shot on the spot for their underground activities. Some of his family hid in the woods for the duration of the war and now reside in Israel," she said.

Mr. Mak, a diminutive man who even indoors was seldom without one of his favorite straw or felt hats, was largely self-educated. He spoke five languages, and could read and write Yiddish, English and Spanish.

Deeply religious and concerned for the welfare of others, he spent many hours studying Judaism at Ner Israel Rabbinical College and was a member of the Beth Isaac Adath Israel and Seven Mile Lane synagogues. For more than 20 years, he helped organize and participated in services at the Milford Mill Nursing Home Synagogue.

Mr. Mak was determined that his children and grandchildren not forget the family's struggle to survive.

Mrs. Fox said that her grandfather's life was typified in a passage from Deuteronomy that is inscribed on the walls of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington.

"Only take heed to thy self, and keep thy soul diligently lest thou forget the things thine eyes saw, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life; but make them known unto thy children and thy children's children."

Private graveside services were held Monday.

He is survived by his daughter, Mosita Feldman of Baltimore; six grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.

Pub Date: 9/11/96

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