Abraham H. Foxman's Story: A Life Saved, A Life of Service
Part I: A Life Saved
I was born in 1940, in Baranowicz, Poland. My parents tried to stay ahead of the Germans and so we headed east. The Germans caught up with us in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius in 1941. For my parents, there was nowhere to run.
My nanny, Bronislawa Kurpi was Polish-Catholic and when the order came for Jews to be assembled into the Ghetto, she asked my parents what was to become of me. My mother answered that what was going to happen to them would happen to me. My nanny hastily offered to take me from them, to keep me safe until their return. As my mother recalled, it was a cold autumn day when Ms. Kurpi walked away with me. My mother recalled looking on sorrowfully with my father through the edges of the curtains, not knowing what was to become of me. It was a decision which was incredibly difficult. I guess they never really believed that it was going to be four years before they would see me again. Imagine the confusion and pain this experience inflicted on all involved.
Growing-up for the next four years in German-occupied Vilnius, Lithuania, I was called Henryk Stanislas Kurpi. To the world, Bronislawa Kurpi was my mother. She had me baptized by a priest and raised me as a Catholic. I learned how to pray with a rosary and kneel at the altar of the church. I could not play with other children, as it was too risky. There was always the possibility that someone would see that I was circumcised and discover my Jewish identity. Had my parents died during the Holocaust, it is a possibility that I may have even become a priest when I grew up.
Miraculously, my parents survived the Holocaust. Their first thought was to come and get me, their only child, back. My nanny did not see eye to eye with my parents. She did not want to give me back. There were several custody battles between my parents and my nanny, with my parents winning out in the end. That's when they decided they had no future in Lithuania, which also happened to be under the control of the Soviet Union.
To leave the Soviet Union and the surrounding satellite countries where its influence was felt, was not an easy task, however. We were smuggled across the borders until we got to the American Zone in Austria. At this time, we lived in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp, where I was able to play with children my own age for the first time in my life. Eventually, my family and I were granted visas to the United States, where we moved in 1950. I was 10 years old, and my father always said that in that time, I had lived a lifetime.
After being reunited with my parents, I had to learn how to be Jewish, which was a growing process. One thing I remember is making the sign of the cross in the home of my parents, who were observant Jews. Even once I was reunited with my parents, I was a good practicing Catholic. As a child, I went to church, I said my prayers and I wore a crucifix. I cried when other children called me a Jew. Christianity was my means of survival and it is because of this that I have always had great respect for it.
Jewish community life was a large factor at home. The first time I went to shul (synagogue) was in Vilnius on Simchat Torah (Jewish holiday celebration), because my father figured I'd like it since it's a joyous festival full of singing and dancing. A Soviet Jewish officer 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!"
However, on the way there, I passed an actual Catholic Church. I crossed myself, greeted the priest and kissed his hand. My father understood. At a certain time, however, my father gently removed my crucifix and replaced it with a Magen David (Jewish Star of David). Then he taught me the Shema (Hebrew prayer symbolizing unity to God) in Hebrew. I also said my Latin prayers. I didn't understand Latin, and I didn't understand Hebrew; but I understood praying to God before I went to sleep.
As I grew up I began to understand the Holocaust. Although it happened to me, I wasn't able to really comprehend it until I grew older. For instance, there was my embarrassment because I didn't have brothers or sisters, aunts and uncles. My Bar Mitzvah (celebration recognizing a boy entering adulthood) was a big deal. As my parents had done, I grew-up in a traditional home observing all of the traditional holidays and customs, including keeping kosher and the Sabbath.
When I was old enough, when I began to understand what happened to us, I asked my parents, "How can you believe?" I wanted to know how they could have gone through the Holocaust and come out still believing enough to send me to Yeshiva (religious day school). Their answer was that there were Jews who came in believing and walked out believing; there were Jews who came in as Atheists and walked out believing and there were Jews who went in as Atheists and walked out as Atheists - so it all depended on emunah (faith).
My father taught me that it wasn't God, but rather, man who was responsible. Both my parents told me stories about their lives in the camps and the ghetto and that they saw miracles in hell. It was very hard to understand how they could see the miracle of survival, especially in their own personal experiences.
I visited Poland three times; the original intent was to say Kaddish (Jewish prayer said in memory of the dead) in the places that live in my family's memory. I wasn't sure what to expect. At first, those places were just names on a map. You say Kaddish at a lot of places, but when you say it at a place where you know for certain your flesh and blood are, it touches you differently. In Baranowicz I visited the house in which I was born. The family that currently lives there said it had belonged to them since before the war. But I felt it was the house. Not because it belongs to me, but because I can visualize, because I remember conversations that I've heard from my parents about how they lived.
On a trip to the Vatican, honoring Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish doctor/educator who died at the hands of the Nazis with the Jewish children he tried to save, I asked the Pope to pray for the soul of my nanny. I think just as it is important to remember the brutality and bestiality, it is important to be able to bear witness to human compassion and the goodness of life. I want my children to be able to understand, that yes, there is evil and yes, there are Jews and other groups of people being persecuted even today, but that there also are decent human beings who will stand for others.