Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fate? Chance? God? Or ... ???

Boys in Whitstable Town, England. Noboyuki Tagaguchi source


It was the thirties in Poland – the tense prewar years – and relations between Jews and gentiles had already become strained.

But my father – five years old and already an iconoclast – refused to surrender to the fear and suspicion that began to envelop his town. Even at five, he was possessed of a free spirit and a genuinely loving one as well, so he continued his friendships with non-Jewish children, despite the temper of the time.

There was one particular young boy my father was especially friendly with, and, as all young children are wont to do, they swapped things. Toys, foreign stamps, stories, jokes. One day, on an unusual display of ecumenism, they playfully decided to swap prayers.

"You teach me a Jewish prayer, and I'll teach you a Christian one," proposed the Polish lad one day. In their sweet, trusting innocence, both thought it would b e fun. They had no idea how horrified their respective parents would have been had they learned what their children planned.

Their repertoires were, understandably, limited, so they both chose important prayers, cornerstones of their respective faiths.

"Let's memorize them!" the Polish lad exclaimed.

And so they did.

Then years passed, and everything changed.

By then, most of the Jews of the shtetl had been transported to ghettoes or concentration camps or were long dead.

My rather, now fifteen and orphaned, was fleeing Europe, disguised as a Gentile, aided by his Germanic facial features and forged documents. So far, he had been successful in eluding the Nazis.

One day, he was on a train when a Nazi soldier boarded his car and demanded to see everyone's papers. He scrutinized every document intently, and seemed satisfied. Then he approached my father. My father handed him his forged documents, which had always passed muster. But for some reason, this particular Nazi was suspicious. He inspected the documents over and over again and regarded my rather with narrowed eyes that flashed skepticism. Inside, my father was trembling badly. He was sure the Nazi knew him for the imposter that he was that he would soon be killed.

Finally, the Nazi turned to him and said with a contemptuous sneer, "So, you are a Christian, my friend? Well, just to prove that you are who you say you are, why don't you recite, right now, here on the spot, such and such Christian prayer that all good Christians know!"

And the solider smiled in glee, waiting to pounce on his obvious prey.

But somewhere inside my father, a long-buried memory stirred. So he obliged the soldier, reciting the prayer perfectly. The soldier, surprised, let him go, never knowing that the Christian prayer he had asked my father to recite was the only one he knew.

For the prayer that the soldier had demanded my father recite was the same prayer that his little Christian friend had taught him ten years before and insisted the he memorize.

And my father, who had an excellent memory, hadn't forgotten a single word.

My father continued to flee across Europe, and made it onto a boast to Palestine. He survived the war and rebuilt his life. And, as one of his enduring legacies, he taught his children to respect all human beings, regardless of race, religion, or creed.

After all, it was the friendship of a young Christian boy that had ultimately saved his life.

From: Small Miracles of Love and Friendship: Remarkable Coincidences of Warmth and Devotion.

Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal. Adams Media Corporation: Holbrook, Massachusetts, 1999. 

Available through Amazon


  1. I vote for Luck, but with God's blessing.

  2. I received a reply to this blog post from a reader who declined to post her message here. I'll do so, because her post is pertinent:

    "Hi D,


    "My father, now fifteen and orphaned, was fleeing Europe, disguised as a Gentile, aided by his Germanic facial features and forged documents. So far, he had been successful in eluding the Nazis. "

    Perfect opportunity missed... HOW did he get the forged papers? Who were the people who forged the documents? Did Zegota help?

    Credit goes to: a childhood friend, his first-class memory, and "luck." No mention of any adult Poles who may have helped with forged documents, etc."

    Of course, this reader is exactly correct, and the pattern she focuses on is pervasive in Jewish writing about Poles during WW II.

    Helen Fein famously spoke of a "Universe of obligation." Poles, it is said, did not assess Jews as part of their "Universe of obligation."

    In fact, in the writing of many Jews, one senses a Jewish universe of real human beings, and a universe of, at best, "peasants," "Poles," "goyim," "Gentiles."

    People with no names, no individuality, no agency, and nothing like the humanity accorded a Jewish character in the same memoir -- spoken or written.

    In one Holocaust memoir, the peasants who save an entire Jewish family are referred to only as "our peasants." They are never given even first names. They aren't even given a number -- the reader never learns how many peasants there are. Their own sacrifice and ingenuity are never detailed.

    Leon Weliczker Wells details this attitude in his "Shattered Faith: A Holocaust Legacy." Polish Christians are not accorded the respect or attention one would accord a real, three dimensional person.

    No, not all Jews. But the pattern is impossible to miss in Jewish discourse, written and spoken, about Poles.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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