Abraham H. Foxman's Story: A Life Saved, A Life of Service
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, I was called Henryk Stanislas Kurpi. To all the world, Bronislawa Kurpi was my mother. I was baptized and raised Catholic. If my parents had perished, I would have been raised to be a priest. Miraculously, my parents survived the Holocaust and returned to claim me after the war. There were several custody battles with my nanny, as she had decided that she wanted to keep me, but my parents won. That's when they decided they had no future in Soviet Lithuania. My parents did the right thing by sending me with my nanny, but realizing at the age of five or six, they couldn't explain this to me in words.
We smuggled across borders until we got to the American Zone in Austria, where we lived in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp. In camp, for the first time in my life, there were other children around. Until the war was over, I couldn't play with other children because I was circumcised, and we couldn't take the risk that my being a Jewish boy would be discovered. Eventually, my family and I moved to the United States in January, 1950. My father said that at the age of 10, I had lived a lifetime.
Becoming Jewish was a growing process. I was, a Jewish child, making the sign of the cross in the home of my parents, observant Jews. I was a good practicing Catholic as a child. I went to church; I said my prayers; I wore a crucifix. I cried when other children called me a Jew. My Christianity was a means of survival. I have always had great respect for Christianity.
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 a 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 doctor 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.
After I graduated from New York University Law School, I joined the staff at the Anti-Defamation League ADL). Ever since, my life's work has been in Jewish advocacy and the defense of human rights for all people. Perhaps this is the legacy of my years as a Hidden Child.
It is a great source of pride for me that ADL helped arrange the First International Gathering of Children Hidden During World War II. In May, 1991 some 1,600 of us were reunited in New York City. Together, we broke the silence about how we survived Hitler's killing machine. We spent three extraordinary days talking with each other and about each other. We spent time exchanging stories about our hiding places: how we lived for months in sewers, closets, barns and fields; how we joined the partisans and fought the enemy; how we stayed alive living openly as Christians. We examined the guilt that continues to haunt us; the pain we felt at losing our loved ones; our anger; our inability to speak of these experiences with our family; our identity crises; and our confused, frightening, lost childhoods. Since then we have joined with the conference organizers to establish the Hidden Child Foundation/ADL, under the auspices of the ADL Braun Center for Holocaust Studies.
I'm convinced there are thousands of Jews who don't know they are Jewish, especially in Poland. There were more Jewish children at risk there and therefore more opportunities to save them. Every day we lose potential Jewish souls because their foster parents died without telling them that they were children of Jewish parents -- either because they didn't want to discombobulate their lives, or because of the stigma of having saved Jews, or because of feeling guilty for not having told them before. All these things conspire against truth telling.
Now, when I visit Poland for a public event to recognize Christian rescuers, more and more Jewish "children" emerge. We can only wonder about the fate of the children who did not. How many Nobel Prize winners did we lose? How man doctors, scientists? These thoughts will always be with me and motivate me to try harder and to reach a little higher to succeed in life.
We need to lift our thoughts beyond the bestiality of that era. Our mission now as Hidden Children is to focus on the goodness of humankind. We need to bring the message to friends and foes alike that there is hope, that there are men and women of good will with the courage to care about others. My family and I will be eternally grateful to all the people who contributed to our survival.
"Tolerance" is not a wonderful word, but I will settle for it because we've learned that the human being is capable of evil. Hate and prejudice, of which anti-Semitism is one form, are irrational and if someone tells you you're a dirty Jew, the fact that you're going to show him how clean you are won't mean a thing. And if they say you control the media and you show them they're wrong, the facts still don't matter. So if we can bring people with prejudices to the point of exercising tolerance, I will be satisfied and I think we will have a better world.
There are all kinds of theories as to why people go into certain professions. Some people seem to have a need for certain occupations. Regardless of how accurate those theories are, I feel privileged to be able to spend my adult life dealing with both the good and bad aspects of my childhood experiences. If I had to choose whether I would take this path again, I think that I would.
I did not start at ADL 37 years ago knowing or believing I would be the National Director, which is awesome, because I believe it is a sacred trust. Even though I cannot scientifically measure what the League has done in the past 90 years, or what I personally have done in the past 37 years, I am convinced that without ADL, the situation in our world would be far worse. The Talmud (the written interpretation of Jewish law) says that if you save one life, you save the world. I think we've saved lives.
If I knew how to put the ADL out of business, I would. That would be the greatest achievement of all. If I could only find a vaccine for prejudice! I do believe we can change people's hearts and minds, whether by exposure, education or a million other ways. I also believe that we are each the masters of our own fate. We have the ability to change our own destiny.
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