In March 1965, Gay Talese wrote an article in The New York Times about a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, that focused on a man named Alfred Moldovan, who at the time was the treasurer of the Medical Committee for Human Rights. The committee was formed the year before to lend a medical presence to the civil rights movement and was made up of doctors and nurses from around the country.
The marchers were walking to Montgomery, Alabama – about 50 miles away – to protest discriminatory voting laws. Moldovan traveled from his home on the Upper West Side to be at the march and was driving one of four ambulances next to the column of people as they approached a bridge spanning the Alabama River.
“There was cheering in the church. And there was a feeling of optimism when the marchers lined up,” wrote Talese. “But when the [marchers] began to cross the bridge, the ambulances were not with them.”
The police in Selma prevented the ambulances from staying with the column, which was attacked by troopers in a melee on the other side of the bridge. Talese wrote that Moldovan’s ambulance was eventually given permission to cross the bridge, and that the other three never followed.
“My dad, who had an ambulance with two nurses, said that he was going to cross the bridge, and he approached and was blocked by the police chief,” said Moldovan’s son, Joseph, interviewed last week following the death of his dad earlier this month. “And he said, ‘I’m crossing the bridge.’ The police chief said, ‘If you don’t get out of here I will blow your head off.’ And my father said, ‘You do what you do, but I’m going.’”
Moldovan crossed the bridge and treated scores of injured marchers, including current Georgia Congressman John Lewis.
“He crossed, and his was the only ambulance to make it across that day,” said Joseph Moldovan.
Alfred Moldovan stayed in Selma for the next few days, and was an escort as well as a personal physician to Martin Luther King Jr. when King Jr. arrived in Selma soon after the march.
Alfred Moldovan was many things; WWII veteran, doctor of internal medicine, Jewish scholar and collector of Judaica, atheist, father, husband and grandfather. He died Nov. 4 at the age of 92.
Aside from time spent in Italy during WWII, Moldovan lived all his life in New York City. In the late 1960s, when his involvement with civil rights wound down as the movement became more self-determined, Moldovan turned to collecting Judaica and eventually became a well-respected scholar. Joseph Moldovan said that when his father passed away he received hundreds of emails from people around the world who had consulted his father’s expertise in Judaic books, maps and other cultural items.
Around the time that he retired from medicine in 2001 and up until his death, Alfred Moldovan worked to restore and catalogue books that had been donated and acquired by the Jewish Theological Seminary Library. A fire broke out at the library during the 1960s, and many of the books suffered water damage when the fire was put out. Moldovan and a fellow scholar worked two to three days a week restoring the collection.
“My dad could do research in nine languages,” said Joseph. “They would go through the books very methodically telling the library what was worth saving, what was worth conserving.”
His breadth of knowledge was such that Joseph Moldovan’s children, Danny and Jessica, took to calling their grandfather “Zeidipedia,” with “Zeidi” meaning “grandfather” in Yiddish.
“There wasn’t a question you could ask him that he didn’t know the answer to,” Joseph said. “There were five thousand books in my apartment as a kid, and he read them all.”
Alfred Moldovan’s biggest impact was perhaps on his grandchildren, who now both work for progressive, activist organizations. His personal motto was “justify your existence,” and he distilled that creed into his grandchildren, Danny and Jessica, from a young age. Every Friday night they would sleep over at their grandparents’ apartment, giving Joseph and his wife some time off and the kids the best education they could possibly get.
“For both of them, his influence is very self-evident. I think they’re probably his greatest legacy,” said Joseph Moldovan.
In her eulogy to her grandfather, Jessica Moldovan ended with an anecdote about her grandfather.
“On my 21st birthday, surrounded by about twenty of my friends, Zeide got up to make a speech. Wearing beads around his neck and drunk off of sangria, he laid down a challenge to all of us. ‘I spent my life trying to change the world,’ he said, ‘and I failed. You will try to change the world, and you will fail. But you must try.’”
Jessica Moldovan promised they would.