Immigrant’s Guiding Values Inspire Generation
By Kathryn Brennan
“We need to remind ourselves to be very careful to do the right things,” said Gary Torgow, Chairman of Talmer Bank and Trust. He learned this from his grandfather, Manuel Merzon, who emigrated from Russia in 1914 at the age of 16. Torgow described his grandfather as a man of peace who was kind, smart and gentle. “He was the greatest influence in my life,” he said. “I strive to live by his deeply held values each day.”
Born on September 14, 1898 in a small province in White Russia known as Mogilov, Manuel’s parents were farmers in a small Jewish village. After losing his mother to cancer at the age of 13, and encouraged and supported by his older brother who had already moved to the U.S., he journeyed across the ocean profoundly changing the course of his life, and inspiring the lives of others. His arrival to the port of Baltimore was on the very day World War I broke out. His cousins took him in and eventually sent him to live with his cousins in Windsor, Ontario where he was able to attend high school. His English vastly improved to the point where he graduated with high honors. He attended the University of Michigan in 1919, working his way through undergraduate school and eventually obtained a law degree from the Detroit College of Law where he graduated with distinction at the top of his class. His objective was not to be financially successful but to “work for the promulgation of every policy that tends to exterminate injustice, maintain righteousness, and bring happiness to people everywhere.”
In 1940 he could no longer stand by as Hitler’s power continued to rise. He left his law practice to concentrate on a bimonthly publication known as The Detroit Jewish Review. As editor and business manager, he wrote the articles and solicited ads to pay for the publication which had the primary intent to publicize the plight of the Jews in Poland, Germany, and Russia, and to raise the consciousness of the American public to the atrocities being wrought against them.
At the war’s end, Manuel concentrated on serving the new Jewish refugees who came to Detroit having survived Hitler’s atrocities. Maintaining his passion for helping those in need, he and his wife Bertha became the trusted advisors to those who relied upon their help and generosity. Together they were responsible for assisting hundreds of refugees in locating to Detroit and receiving pensions from the German Government for the time they spent in concentration camps.
He continued his attempt to pierce the veil of the Iron Curtain in order to learn news of his family and sent regular correspondence and packages, not knowing if they were ever received. Years later, his sister’s children, upon immigrating to Detroit, told how they survived on those packages that he had religiously sent.
Manuel never forgot his great fortune to have escaped the fate of his family and vowed to honor their memories by continuing to commit charitable acts of kindness. He was involved in many communal causes, organized synagogues, schools, cemeteries, and charitable funds regardless of political or religious affiliations. He continued his devotion to his religion. In the words of his grandson, “Manuel Merzon’s life was extraordinary not on account of his accumulation of wealth or property – but rather because of his steadfast devotion to the Torah he studied and obeyed.”
When asked, as the grandson of an immigrant, to describe his thoughts on immigration, Torgow said, “More than anything else we are a country of immigrants. We were built on the immigrant population. We are strong enough that our borders need to be open to those who have the need to find a safe haven away from tyranny or persecution. We should help those who find themselves born into unfortunate circumstances. It’s our job. We are the wealthiest country in the world, and we should share the privileges that we have. I learned that from my grandfather. He felt privileged to live here and to help others.”
Torgow and David Provost, his partner at Talmer Bank and Trust are carrying on Manuel Merzon’s tradition of helping others in order to make the world a better place. They both feel their grandfathers were two remarkable humanitarians who shared a common purpose to help others and to enrich the lives of their communities (Provost’s grandfather was a missionary in Asia).
Provost and Torgow have continued this commitment to serve and to support the local community. Talmer Bank recently committed $1 million to the Marygrove renovation project, an effort to revitalize the Northwest Detroit community surrounding Marygrove College. The targeted area covers about 16 blocks due south of the college. “It’s appropriate that we [invest] here, since this is the neighborhood where my grandfather first settled,” said Torgow. Winning bidders who complete a qualification process are eligible for the assistance to repair any home that is bought through the Detroit Land Bank website. The grants will be forgiven at 20 percent each year the buyer continues to live in the home, for up to five years. To date they have assisted about 15 families, giving away approximately $300,000. As Torgow said, “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my grandfather. His coming to America made my life possible.” Talmer Bank and Trust employs 1,300 people.
As we celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month, we need to remind ourselves of the impact immigrants have not only on their own families, but on our communities, past and future generations. We are grateful for those immigrants like Manuel Merzon who always worked hard to “do the right thing” and passed those important values and life lessons on to future generations.
Global Detroit, a regional economic development initiative to revitalize Southeast Michigan’s economy, is encouraging others to tell their story during Immigrant Heritage Month. As a core member of the Welcoming Economies Global Network (WE Global), we will celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month on Friday, June 26th with the Detroit City Council’s Immigration Task Force at a naturalization ceremony from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. Global Detroit will unveil new research documenting immigrant contributions to our economy.