One family’s story of anguish and decision

One family’s story of anguish and decision

Of the many fateful decisions my parents made as they tried to keep one step ahead of the Nazis, none was more fraught with anxiety and fear than their decision to give away their 1-year-old son.

It was perhaps the most unnatural decision a parent could make. They entrusted my life to my Polish Catholic nursemaid, a woman they had known for only a short time. They did so on a leap of faith, a belief that I would have a better chance of surviving outside of the burgeoning Jewish ghetto of Vilna under the protection and care of the devout Catholic woman who loved me as her own.

On the cover of the recently released memoirs of Joseph Foxman are his wife, Helen, the author, and their son, Abraham, who grew up to become the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. The photograph was taken at a DP camp in Badgastein, Austria, in 1947.

It was an incredible risk, and a dangerous calculation. Yet it worked. Turning the narrative of most hidden children and survivors of the Holocaust on its head, I was reunited with both my parents after the war. Unlike the fate of so many families and parents of so many other children, my family unit – because we separated – survived and was reunited intact….

My father, Joseph, and my mother, Helen, protected me in my youth from hearing about the tough decisions and hard sacrifices they had made during the war years. And after we had left Europe for good and settled into our new life in the United States, they spoke a great deal of their experiences, but not to me….

Many survivors were reluctant witnesses and did not speak about their experiences for a long time after the war. I think that this was partially because they wanted to protect their children from the pain and suffering and anguish they had gone through and had personally witnessed. And it was partially to protect themselves from having to relive what had happened. But their reluctance did not stop their children from asking questions, picking up clues, and making observations from the facts around them.

As I grew older, I began to try to understand why it was that I had survived, why I had been spared the fate of 1.5 million other Jewish children who perished in the Nazi inferno. During the war I had been kept safe, protected, fed, clothed, and happy by my nanny. She took me to church every Sunday and kept my Jewish identity hidden.

I had many questions for my father. And there were many answers, both spoken and unspoken. The realization, for example, of how alone we were when I celebrated my bar mitzvah. My friends and classmates were surrounded by many dozens, if not hundreds, of family members – the aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and siblings who crowded the shuls of Brooklyn to celebrate the most important rite of passage into Jewish adulthood. For my bar mitzvah we could barely fill the living room of our one-and-a-half-bedroom apartment – and the guests were friends, not family.

My parents answered some of my questions about Europe and the war with simple yeses and nos. But they were never able to explain what I saw as the biggest question of my life: How could they have given me away? I asked this sometimes in disbelief, and sometimes in anger. My parents were never able to explain this most unnatural decision, which not only saved my life, but theirs as well.

Another question that I struggled with while growing up – and that I ultimately was mature enough to ask my father – was the question of his unflagging and seemingly unquestioning faith in God. How, after everything that had happened to him in Europe, after the killings and the scenes of death he had witnessed, after the near-total annihilation of his family and of European Jewry, how could my father believe in and revere God? And how could he make the decision so easily to bring me back to my Jewish roots, my Yiddishkeit, after I had been returned to my parents for good?

I was born in 1940, in Baranowicz, Poland. Under the protection of my nanny, I had been baptized in Lithuania as a Catholic boy named Henryk Stanislaw Kurpi, the names of my nanny and my patron saint. I had gone to church every Sunday, and, when passing through the city of Vilna, I would cross myself when I passed a church. When I met a priest, I kissed his hand; when we saw a Jew, I had been taught to spit at him.

After the war my father slowly reintroduced me to my Jewish roots without apparent compunction, remorse, or anger at God. His decision was a great mystery to me until, years later, I asked him about his faith. The answer surprised me. He told me that the evil that had created the Shoah was not God’s – it was man’s….

The first time my father took me to shul was in Vilnius on Simchat Torah. I guess it was because he figured I’d like it, since it is a joyous festival full of singing and dancing. A Soviet officer in uniform, who was Jewish, came up to my father and asked if he could include me in the dancing. He put me on his shoulders and began to dance, saying, “This is the Jewish flag.” The Jewish children picked me up and danced with me, and I came home and told my mother, “Hey, I like the Jewish church!” It was the beginning of my return to Judaism.

Incidentally, 65 years later, I would meet this officer again. Unbeknownst to my family and me, the soldier had moved to the United States, where he became an Orthodox rabbi and an educator. We were reunited in his home in Detroit, Mich., in April 2010. His name is Rabbi Leo Goldman, and he was 91 at the time of our meeting.

Something else I didn’t understand for a long time was my parents’ insistence that I retain my fond memories and love for Bronislawa Kurpi, my nanny, the woman who saved my life. This was even after everything that had transpired to taint the relationship, and though we were unable to stay in touch with her after the war. Why, I wondered, would they permit me to keep her memory alive, and even to hold on to photos of the woman who once claimed me as her son, and who after the war had done everything to keep me from being rightfully returned to my parents? She had had me kidnapped twice, and had told terrible lies to the Soviet authorities about my father in an effort to have him imprisoned. There had been a painful custody battle, of which to this day I have no memory, so searing, so emotionally traumatic was this ordeal on the psyche of a 5-year-old boy. We had left Eastern Europe to get away from all of this and more, yet my parents obstinately insisted on keeping her memory alive.

When I finally gathered up the courage to ask my father about my nanny, the answer again surprised me, and served as a powerful and early life lesson. “Son,” he told me in Yiddish, “Everything in excess is no good – too smart, too stupid, too nice, too poor…”

Here was a good woman who had suffered from too much love. And too much love sometimes transforms itself into hate. Yet my parents wanted me to remember for the rest of my life the woman who had risked her life so that I could live.

Years later I recalled this important lesson when I represented the Anti-Defamation League at an audience with Pope John Paul II. I told him the story of my survival and asked him to bless my nanny and her loving acts of generosity. I consider myself fortunate every day thanks to my nanny’s human decency -fortunate that a woman who could barely read and write could say “no” at a time when so many others gave up and gave in when Nazi henchmen came for the children.

Another question I had occasion to ask my father resonates deeply…. It came up as I was working on an undergraduate paper on the history of and the living conditions in the Vilna ghetto.

Why, I asked my father, did people in the ghettos go to such lengths to keep diaries of what was happening to them? I didn’t understand how people bartered bread for paper, when a piece of bread meant the difference between life and death; how people could barter soup, when soup was the only meal they had that day.

My father’s answer was that they feared that no one would know that they had lived. He explained that, in the Jewish tradition, we had an obligation of Zachor and Yizkor, to remember and to eulogize and preserve the memory of the dead.

This is the most important message and lesson of the Holocaust….

There are many universal questions that arise out of the evil of the Holocaust; there are no easy answers and, perhaps, there will never be. But our children and our children’s children need to understand how it happened, why it happened, so that they can carry on the imperative of Never Again.

If the legacy to our children means anything, it means that never again should anyone, anywhere be put in jeopardy. It means that we have an obligation to stand up and say “no” when confronted with anti-Semitism, bigotry, or prejudice.

This is an abridged version of the foreword by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, to “In the Shadow of Death,” the memoirs of his father, Joseph Foxman (Yad Vashem and The Holocaust Survivors’ Memoirs Project, 2011).