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THE POWER OF ONE ACT

Thursday, 22 October, 2015 - 1:35 pm

Judge: Is there any reason you cannot serve as a juror in this case?

Juror: I don't want to be away from my job for so long.

Judge: Can't they do without you at work?

Juror: Yes, but I don't want them to know it.

1914 is when World War I began in our times, but the first World War really happened 3,500 years earlier. It is related in this week’s portion of Lech Lecha. Nine kings and their empires were involved in a ferocious and bloody battle. Yet, somehow the Jew became a central player. Throughout history this has been repeated: The world is thrown into turmoil, but the Jew is at the center of the drama.

The first Jew was caught in the middle of this first world war, and in every world war since, Jews have played a role. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome were world empires, but all of them became entangled, obsessed and infatuated with the tiny nation of Israel. Stalin and Hitler put their eyes on conquering the world, but the Jews became their greatest obsession. The free world today is fighting a battle against terrorism, extremist Islam, Iran and its proxies, but somehow the tiny country of Israel is at the center of a world confrontation.

In the midst of this first world war, Lot, Abraham’s nephew, was taken as a prisoner of war. The Torah describes it thus: "They captured Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, and his wealth, and they left. He was living in Sodom.  The survivor came and related this to Abram the Hebrew. Abram heard that his nephew was captured, he mobilized his men…”

The Torah is not a historical diary; it only records details necessary to understanding the story and its lesson. Who cares how Abraham found out the news? It could have said, “And Abraham heard that Lot was captured!” How he heard the news does not seem relevant to the story. However, the details mentioned here would have ramifications hundreds of years later, in the times of Moses.

The Sages record a tradition that this survivor who escaped the battle fields was a giant and mighty warrior named Og who lived an extraordinary long life. Many years later he would declare war on the Jewish people and attempt to exterminate them all. So why did he want to save Lot?

The Sages attribute sinister intentions to Og's good deed. Rather than merely wishing to participate in the meritorious act of redeeming captives, Og really wished to marry the beautiful Sarah, Abraham’s wife. His plan was to draw Abraham into a hopeless battle trying to rescue Lot, have Abraham die in battle, and then take his widow—Sarah—for himself.

Centuries later, Og reappears as the king of Bashan in the Trans Jordan. The Torah relates that as the Jews were traveling in the desert, Og initiated an extermination war against them. Strangely enough, Moses was frightened by Og! Though G-d had enabled him to defeat many enemies, including Og’s brother, he feared fighting Og. G-d had to reassure Moses to allay his fears. What was different enough about Og to cause Moses to be afraid?

The Talmud presents an extraordinary insight:

Moses feared that in the merit of Og delivering the message of Lot's capture to Abraham, centuries earlier, Og would be protected now in his battle against the Jewish people. The merit of helping out Abraham during that first world war may have given him favor, immunizing him from the Jewish counterattack.

However, Og had performed that good deed with satanic motives: He wanted to see Abraham dead and take his wife! Why did the single favor he did for Abraham with sinister motives compel Moses to feel that with this mitzvah standing in his merit he would not be able to defeat him?

What we have here is a demonstration of the Jewish approach to the value of a kind deed, a mitzvah, a noble act. The Torah gives significance to even a small, imperfect, mitzvah, done with the worst of motives. Our intentions matter, but action matters even more. I may have the best of intentions, I may have a refined heart, but in actuality nobody benefits from me… Or, my intentions may be complicated and selfish, yet when I do a favor for somebody else, when I do something that benefits another, it gives me an extraordinary powerful positive force. Since Og did help Abraham, despite his dishonorable intentions, and he was in fact responsible for the rescue of Lot, Moses was afraid to fight against him centuries later.

It was June 1942. The murder of Jews in the Cracow ghetto was at its height. About 5,000 victims were deported to the Belzec death camp. Hundreds were being murdered in the ghetto itself, shot on the way to deportation. The Hiller family realized that their days in the Cracow ghetto were numbered; they too would soon be swept away in one of the frequent Actions. Yet there was still a glimmer of hope. They were young and skilled laborers; if they were deported to a labor camp, perhaps they would still have a chance of survival. But the fate of their little son Shachne, born only two years before, in 1940, was a different matter. Small children had become a rare sight in the ghetto; starvation, disease, and the ever-increasing selections took their toll. Helen and Mordechai Hiller began feverishly planning the rescue of their little Shachne. After considering various possibilities they decided to contact gentile family friends on the Aryan side, a childless Christian couple named Yachowitch, in the small town of Dombrowa.

Helen Hiller, with the help of the Jewish underground, sneaked out of the ghetto and made her way to Dombrowa. She went to Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Yachowitch and begged them to take care of her little son. Although they could do so only at great risk to their own lives, the Christian friends agreed to take the Jewish child.

Despite the ever-increasing dangers of the ghetto, the parents could not bring themselves to part from their only child. Only after the large Action of October 28, 1942, when 6,000 additional Jews were shipped to Belzec and the patients at the Jewish hospital, the residents of the old-age home, and 300 children at the orphanage were murdered on the spot, did the Hiller family decide to act at once.

On November 15, 1942, Helen Hiller smuggled her little boy out of the ghetto. Along with her son, she gave her Christian friends two large envelopes. One envelope contained all the Hillers' precious valuables; the other contained two letters and a will. One of the letters was addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Yachowitch, entrusting them with little Shachne, and asking them to bring up the child as a Jew and to return him to his people in the case of his parents' deaths. The Hillers thanked the Yachowitch family for their humanitarian act and promised to reward them for their goodness. The letter also included the names and addresses of relatives in Montreal and Washington, D.C.

The second letter was addressed to Shachne himself, telling him how much his parents loved him, that it was this love that had prompted them to leave him alone with strangers. They told him of his Jewishness and how they hoped that he would grow up to be a man proud of his Jewish heritage.

The envelope also contained a will, written by Helen's mother, Mrs. Reizel Wurtzel. It was addressed to her sister-in-law Jenny Berger in Washington, D.C. She wrote of the horrible conditions in the ghetto, the deportations, the deaths of family members, and of the impending doom. She wrote: "Our grandson, by the name of Shachne Hiller, born on the 18th day of Av, August 22, 1940, was given to good people. I beg you, if none of us will return, take the child to you; bring him up righteously. Reward the good people for their efforts and may God grant life to the parents of the child. Regards and kisses, your sister, Reizel Wurtzel."

As Helen was handing the letters to Mrs. Yachowitch, she once more stated her instructions: "If my husband or I do not return when this madness is over, please mail this letter to America to our relatives. They will surely respond and take the child. Regardless of the fates of my husband or myself, I want my son to grow up as a Jew." The two women embraced and Mrs. Yachowitch promised that she would do her best. The young mother hurriedly kissed her your child and left, fearing that her emotions would betray her and she would not be able to leave her little son behind. On this beautiful autumn day, this young Jewish mother was trying to hold back her tears. She slowed her steps so as not to betray herself and acted as if she was enjoying the sights of ancient Cracow. To thwart all suspicion, Helen displayed a huge cross hanging around her neck and stepped into the “Holy Virgin” Church in the Old Square of Cracow for a few moments.

Their smuggling of little Shachne out of the ghetto was very timely. In March of 1943, the Cracow ghetto was liquidated. People in the work camp adjacent to the ghetto were transferred to nearby Plaszow and to the more distant Auschwitz. Anyone found hiding was shot on the spot. Cracow, the first Jewish settlement on Polish soil, dating back to the thirteenth century, was Judenrein!

Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Yachowitch constantly inquired about the boy's young parents. Eventually they learned that the Hillers had shared the fate of most of Cracow's Jews. Both of them were consumed by the flames of the Holocaust.

The Yachowitches, too, faced many perilous days. They moved to a new home in a different town; when Shachne suffered from one of his crying spells, calling for his mother and father, they feared that unfriendly, suspicious neighbors would betray them to the Gestapo. But time is the greatest healer. Little Shachne stopped crying. Mrs. Yachowitch became very attached to the child and loved him like her own. She took great pride in her "son" and loved him dearly. His big, bright, wise eyes were always alert and inquiring. She and little Shachne never missed a Sunday service and he soon knew all the church hymns by heart. A devout Catholic herself, after the war Mrs. Yachowitch decided to baptize the child.

She went to see a young, newly ordained parish priest who had a reputation for being wise and trustworthy. Mrs. Yachowitch told him her secret about the boy’s true identity, and of her wish that he would become a true Christian and a devout Catholic like herself. The young priest listened intently to the woman's story. When she finished her tale, he asked, "And what was the parents' wish when they entrusted their only child to you and your husband?" Mrs. Yachowitch told the priest about the letters and the mother's last request that the child be told of his Jewish origin and returned to his people in the event of the parents' deaths.

The young priest explained to Mrs. Yachowitch that it would be unfair to baptize the child while there was still hope that the relatives of the child might take him. He ought to be returned to his people. The priest did not perform the ceremony. This was in 1946.

Some time later, Mr. Yachowitch mailed the letters to the United States and Canada. Both Jenny Berger from Washington, D.C., and Mr. and Mrs. H. Aron from Montreal, responded, stating their readiness to bring the child to the U.S.A. and Canada immediately. So began a legal battle over both sides of the Atlantic that was to last for four years! Polish law forbade Polish orphaned children to leave the country. The immigration laws of the United States and Canada were strict, and no visa was issued to little Shachne. Finally, in 1949, the Canadian Jewish Congress obtained permission from the Canadian Government to bring 1,210 orphans into the country. It was arranged for Shachne to be included in this group, the only one in the group to come directly from Poland. Meantime a court action was instituted in Cracow, and Shachne was awarded, by a judge in Poland, to the representatives of the Canadian American relatives.

In June of 1949, Shachne Hiller boarded the Polish liner MS Batory. He was only eight! The parting from Mrs. Yachowitch was a painful one. Both cried, but Mrs. Yachowitch comforted little Shachne that it was the will of his real mother that one day he should be returned to his own people.

On July 3, 1949, the Batory arrived at Pier 88 at the foot of West 48th Street in New York City. Aboard was little Shachne, first-class passenger of cabin no. 228. He was met by his relatives, Mrs. Berger and Mrs. Aron. For the next year, Shachne lived in Montreal. On December 19, 1950, after two years of lobbying by Jenny Berger, President Harry Truman signed a bill into law, making Shachne Hiller a member of the Berger family. When Shachne arrived at the Berger’s' home on Friday, February 9, 1951, there was a front-page story in the Washington Post. It was more than eight years since Shachne's maternal grandmother Reizel Wurtzel, in the ghetto of Cracow, had written the letter to her sister-in-law (his great-aunt) Jenny Berger, asking her to take her little grandson to her home and heart. Her will and testament were finally carried out.

Years passed. Young Shachne was educated in American universities and grew up to be a successful man, vice-president of a company, as well as an observant Jew. The bond between him and Mrs. Yachowitch was a lasting one. They corresponded, and both Shachne and his great-aunt Jenny Berger continually sent her parcels and money, and tried as much as possible to comfort her in her old age. Shachne preferred not to discuss the Holocaust with his wife, twin sons, family, or friends, but all of them knew about the wonderful Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Yachowitch who had saved the life of a Jewish child and then returned him to his people.

In October of 1978, Shachne, now known as Stanley Berger, received a letter from Mrs. Yachowitch. In it she revealed to him, for the first time, her inclination to baptize him and raise him as a Catholic. She described at length her meeting with the young parish priest on that fateful day in 1946. Indeed, that young parish priest was none other than the man who became Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Cracow, and, on October 16, 1978, was elected by the College of Cardinals as Pope—Pope John Paul III (1920—2005).

Mrs. Yachowitch now revealed to Shachne that the young priest who instructed her not to baptize the Jewish boy and return him to his people was the same man who had just become the Pope! Indeed, John Paul's attitude towards Jews was quite different than most of his predecessors. As a priest in Krakow, he would not countenance the betrayal of murdered Jewish parents by baptizing their children. In 1979, on his first papal visit back to Poland, John Paul journeyed to Auschwitz, taking pains to emphasize what the communist government of the day took pains to obscure: the Jewish identity of the Holocaust. ''The very people that received from G-d the commandment “Thou shall not kill,” experienced in a special measure what is meant by killing."

''It is not permissible for anyone to pass by this," he continued, ''with indifference." In 1986 he paid the first visit by a pope to the Great Synagogue in Rome, where he stressed the debt that Christians owe to the Jews, ''our elder brothers." In 1993, he formally recognized the state of Israel, repudiating forever the old theology that Jews were doomed to everlasting exile, never again to be sovereign in their homeland. He became the first pope to publicly beg forgiveness for Christian wrongs done to Jews. In 2000, on an emotional pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he became the first pope to pray at the Western Wall. The Pope was not a saint, but relatively speaking, he was a friend to the Jews.

When the Grand Chassidic Rabbi Israel Spira, a Holocaust survivor, heard Shachne’s story, he said, "God has mysterious, wonderful ways unknown to men. Perhaps it was the merit of saving a single Jewish soul—Shachne Hiller—that brought about his election as Pope and enabled him to become one of the most influential people in the world.”  Karol Wojtyla’s action in 1946 to save a Jewish child from being lost to our people, that single act of human decency in an endless of ocean of brutality, genocide and bloodshed, elevated him to a position of extraordinary power and influence.

This is the power of one act, of one mitzvah. Moses knew it, which made him afraid of Og, and we must know it too. Never underestimate what a single mitzvah can achieve, what a single act of Tzedaka can effect, what a kind word or gesture can accomplish, what a simple favor or piece of advice to a fellow human being can bring about. Your motives are not so holy? Okay, go to therapy. You are probably not worse than Og. But whatever the case, don’t stop doing favors to people! Action, friends, is what counts above all else.

 

 

Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

 

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