Martin Lakin

Martin Lakin 6/5/1925 – 4/27/2006

Family: Wife, Musia, two children, N’eema and Michael

An ardent Zionist with a knack for languages and befriending strangers, Martin Lakin was a stalwart of the Beth El community and among the first generation of Jewish academics who made Durham their home.

Martin was born in Chicago to Russian immigrant parents. His father, Shimon, an avid Zionist, bought land in Palestine hoping to move there one day.

Martin picked up Yiddish and a smattering of Russian from his parents. It would prove valuable later on. At age 14, he joined the Habonim (or “The Builders”), a Labor Zionist youth group that would have a defining influence on him.

The treasurer of the youth group, a girl named Musia, approached him repeatedly about paying his dues. Ever the mischievous teen, he kept her waiting. They spent hours singing. Later, he taught her how to count in Hebrew. Soon they began dating.

After graduating from Hyde Park High School, Martin enrolled in a farming school in Pennsylvania so he could learn the agricultural skills he would need for his life on the kibbutz. Musia, meanwhile, enrolled at Chicago’s YMCA College, and later Columbia University in New York City.

World War II had broken out, and though Martin was not drafted, he enlisted in the Air Force. He had heard about the murder of Jews in Europe, and felt a moral obligation to fight the Nazis. He did basic training in North Carolina and later Texas.

It was Musia who suggested they get married, if for no other reason than that they could see each other more frequently. During a brief stay in Walla Walla, Wash., Musia and Martin said their vows before a justice of the peace. Shortly afterward, Martin began flying bombing missions against the Japanese. He never did get his wish to fight Hitler.

Trained as an aerial tail gunner, Martin’s first two missions were a success. Then, on Nov. 17, 1944, while flying over the Kuril Islands, his plane was bombed. The team managed to land the B-24 in a bed of snow in Siberia. After 10 days of near starvation, they were found by the Soviets along the snowy beach. Thus began seven months of internment in the Soviet Union, a subject he wrote about in a memoir published when he was 80: Missing in Action in U.S.S.R.: A Soldier's Story.

With his childhood Yiddish and Russian, and a heaping dose of curiosity, Martin picked up the language of his captors and befriended them. The experience soured him on Communism, but it provided him his first laboratory of group interaction, a subject to which he would devote his academic career.

“He could take adversity and overcome it and make something good of it,” said his daughter, N'eema Lakin-Dainow.

After the war, Martin planned to use the G.I. Bill benefits to attend Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Martin and Musia arrived in Jerusalem in 1946, in time for the U.N. Resolution declaring an Arab and Jewish state as part of the partition plan. The couple was initiated into the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization, and worked in various capacities defending the nascent state. As was his penchant, within a few short months, Martin was fluent in Hebrew.

But shortly before Israel’s War of Independence, Musia received a letter from her father begging her to come home. Her sister was sick and the family needed her. The couple was among the last to leave before the siege of Jerusalem.

Back in Chicago, Martin found work fundraising for Israel. But his conscience was troubled by not being there during Israel’s time of need. In 1950, the couple, along with 5-month-old daughter, N’eema, returned to Israel, this time to the Herut cooperative settlement near the Mediterranean coast.

The early 50s were a difficult time to be in Israel, and the Lakins, true believers, still imbued with a fervor for socialist Zionism, found life more difficult than they expected.

Disenchanted with the monotony and lack of intellectual stimulation working in Herut’s orange groves, Martin moved the family to Jerusalem to complete his undergraduate degree at Hebrew University. Within a year, he had exhausted all the courses available to him and applied to the University of Chicago.

Three years after the birth of his son, Michael, in 1952, Martin was awarded a doctorate in psychology.

The family moved to Durham in 1958 after Martin was hired by Duke University. Durham was a world away from cosmopolitan Chicago, made worse by the persistence of segregation and Jim Crow laws. But Mutt Evans, the mayor of Durham in those years, was Jewish. And Beth El had just consecrated its new sanctuary on Watts Street. There was a community of fellow Jews here, and they welcomed the family.

Martin settled into his role as university professor specializing in interpersonal behavior and group dynamics. He wrote six academic books, including a case study of Arab-Jewish conflict resolution. During his many years at Duke, Martin still managed to spend two years at the University of Haifa, once on a sabbatical and another year doing research. Eventually, he and Musia reconciled to life in the United States.

Ever athletic, Martin ran, swam, biked and hiked. Once, he saw a gray-haired man on rollerblades and wondered if he should take it up too, his daughter said.

His son, Michael, remembered Sunday morning doubles tennis matches with his dad, and good friends and neighbors. Martin called the group "the heroes of McDowell Street."

At 70, Martin retired from Duke. But he continued teaching on a part-time basis for many more years. In retirement, he and Musia joined the Triangle Jewish Chorale. They attended adult education classes at the synagogue. They learned to play a recorder. And they doted on their five grandchildren: among them Suzannah, Amanda, Daniel and Amy.

In 2000, Martin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Three years later, he suffered a stroke. Still he managed to write his memoir from his time in captivity in the USSR. He died at 81.