In 1943, when I was barely 5 years old, I was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto. I had
already survived many hours in the bunker my parents and their neighbors had fashioned,
and I had just been rescued from Umschlagplatz, the infamous railhead the Germans
had set up to transport Warsaw's Jews to Maidanek and Treblinka. My father had managed to
persuade a Ghetto policeman to snatch me out of that place of terror.
The author, aged 7
|What I will not do is to give
the Hitlerite a final victory by forsaking my Jewish identity. Too many died because they
were Jews for me to abandon them.
That close call had been so chilling that my parents began a massive effort to place me
on the Aryan side. It was difficult enough to place a girl, but to find someone willing to
take a boy was unheard of. I had blond hair and blue eyes, and we spoke only Polish at
home, but still, I was a Jewish boy bearing the sign of the covenant.
My parents reviewed their entire list of Christian friends and business acquaintances
and, after exhaustive communications, they found an older couple, active in the
underground, who might be willing to take me. Before the war, the man had worked for my
father's newspaper as an editor. His wife, who was to become my "Auntie Maria"
came to see me at the printing shop, SS Druckerai, where my father worked. The shop
was outside the Ghetto walls, making this meeting possible. She felt that I could
"pass" and arrangements were quickly made: my mother taught me the "Hail
Mary" and "Our Father" prayers; I learned my new last name and got my first
haircut; I was to forget the Ghetto and to remember that my mother was in the country and
my father in the army.
I was living with Auntie Maria and Uncle Stefan for about a month when one of the
neighbors betrayed me to the local Polish police. Auntie Maria stood up to the pistol
waving policemen, deftly bargaining for my life with the American $20 gold pieces that my
father had given her, while reminding them that one day the war would end. A deal was
struck they would not take me to the Gestapo, but she could no longer keep me with her.
Several days later, I was sent to an orphanage in Otwock which was run by nuns.
Shortly after my arrival in this strange and inhospitable place, I was approached by a
young nun who said to me, "admit you're a Jew and I'll help you." I persisted in
denying what must have been obvious to all the nuns, until one day, feeling particularly
lonely and melancholy I even remember thinking that it must be my birthday I
confessed my terrible secret, but only after the nun promised to keep the confidence. She
told me not to worry, she could fix everything.
She arranged to have me baptized and I threw myself into daily prayers, going to mass,
asking God for more food. This went on for two years: prayer, hunger, learning to read and
write, and despite our common unhappy lot, I was hazed by the other boys for being a
"Yidle." In sharing every aspect of my life, my secret had become obvious to
them. But my prayers to Jesus and Mary continued, always fervent and honest.
One day Russian soldiers arrived, telling us that the war had ended.
Then Auntie Maria came with a woman I vaguely recognized. I had not seen my Auntie for
two years, but I knew who she was. As for the other woman, when asked if I knew her, I
divined, "you must be my mother." "Yes," she answered, "would you
like to come with me? I promise you will never be hungry again." This was a huge
undertaking for someone who had just survived two years in Maidanek, Auschwitz and
Ravensbruck, who had walked back from Germany to Warsaw in ski boots and who didn't know
where she would spend that night.
The plan my young nun and I had devised was already falling apart: if ever the Jewess
my mother were to come for me, I would run into the woods and not go with her
because she wouldn't let me pray to Jesus.
Whether it was curiosity, or my need to confront this woman who had abandoned me, or a
genuine recognition and recall of the love I had received before our separation I do not
know after all, she had promised to come back for me after the war, and here she was!
And here was I, challenging her: "can I still pray to Jesus?" I asked.
Perceiving what was at play, my mother immediately assured me that I could pray to anyone
I wished, she was just happy to see me. And with the pledge that I would never be hungry
again, I saw no more obstacles to my going with her.
Miraculously, my father had also survived the two years of horror in the camps; in fact
after the war, people in Warsaw actually would point us out as an unusual sight, a Jewish
family where all the members survived.
My fervor for prayer slowly receded, as did the anti-Semitic comments I often spewed.
My parents, although willing for the time being to put up with my Catholicism, would not
accept my disparaging remarks. One day my mother told me that they don't make fun of my
religion, therefore I was not to continue such insults, even though I was just repeating
what I had heard from the other boys in the orphanage, and what seemed to me to be a
natural part of the coarse Polish language I had picked up there. Besides, I was told, we
were going to America where I would learn a new language. Still, for a long time, I would
tell my left hand from my right by secretly making a truncated gesture, imperceptible to
others, to check which hand I would have used to cross myself.
I grew up in New York City, where I lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood,
attended schools with large Jewish populations and had mostly Jewish friends. By the time
I went to college, there was no question of my Jewishness.
What impact, then, did my experience with Catholicism have on me as I became an adult?
I found myself developing the same outlook toward religion, all religions, that my parents
held. I consider myself a Jew. I married a Jewish girl. We raised our three children to be
Jewish. My granddaughter is continuing the tradition. But, like my parents, I cannot
accept a deity that is defined by our people as "one who acts in human history"
yet permitted the horrors I have read about, heard of, and lived through.
Perhaps my exposure to Catholicism made me aware of the relativity of all these faiths.
All, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, deal in their own ways with the eternal
questions of man. They all help us to cope with metaphysical problems we cannot
understand. Most religions are ritualistic and assuring. "God is watching out for
us" is the theme, and usually all that is required is obedience. But after Auschwitz,
it's difficult for me to accept it.
Yes, I survived, my parents survived. But one-and-a-half million Jewish children did
not survive. It would be the height of egotism for me to thank a God who saved me but
walked away from the rest of those Jewish victims. And what about the additional five
million non-Jewish victims of the German Reich?
So, who am I and how do I identify myself? I think of myself as ethnically Jewish. My
dog tags in the army certainly said "Jewish." I relate to my people, to their
joys, to their history and to their tragedies. I am torn whenever there's a brutal act
against my people, or for that matter, whenever a group of my people is irrationally
stubborn. But I am also saddened, for instance, by the recent destruction by an earthquake
of the frescoes in the basilica of St. Francis at Assisi.
Is this my good American liberal arts education, or the emotional harkening to a
religion that was for a short time mine? Could I still be a little Catholic deep inside?
If religion is defined as the fashion in which one prays, or the tenets one accepts, then
surely I am not. I have too long been exposed to another mode of celebrating the yearly
cycle of days that are special to my people those people who would no longer be here if
the Germans had prevailed.
So, if pressed, do I believe in a loving, comforting God? I do not. I have read too
much history, studied too many wars where both sides believed that Truth and God were on
their side, and both were fighting for His sake. But that's personal between me and
this God. What I will not do is to give the Hitlerite a final victory by forsaking my
Jewish identity. Too many died because they were Jews for me to abandon them.
H. Donat is president of a printing company.