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A Christmas Miracle for a Jewish Woman

A Jewish Miracle | Photo courtesy of Rabbi Abie Ingber

Of course, we all know that this brotherhood and sisterhood has not been observed for most of Christian history. Ours has been a long and horrible story of distrust and finger-pointing, of jealousy, discrimination, and violence against Judaism. The low point of this sad history, we all know, is the Nazi attempt to eliminate Jews completely.

When we two writers first met, we were well aware both of our desire for unity between our traditions, and of all of the obstacles. The rabbi has a story to tell, and a desire to share; the journalist, like many St. Anthony Messenger readers, has goodwill, but barely knows where to start.

So we’ll start with sharing. We’ll hear the story of Rabbi Ingber’s mother’s harrowing Christmas escape from the Nazis. Then we’ll hear about St. Anthony Messenger’s visit earlier this year, the day after Pope Francis’, to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s memorial museum to the Jewish victims of the Nazi slaughter. Here our stories, in a sense, intersect.

Running from Nazis

Rabbi Ingber: In August of 1942, my mother was one of the last survivors of the Lutsk ghetto in Poland. A young girl, not yet 20 years old, her life was saved by the miraculous appearance of one righteous Christian after another.

No one could ever know why she was spared and her parents, her brothers, and other family members were so brutally murdered. Catholics and evangelical Christians, farmers and peasants, each arriving at a precise lifesaving moment, hid her in attics, cellars, chicken coops, and the flue of a country oven.

But on December 24, 1942, Fania Paszt’s luck seemed to run out. The Ukrainian peasant who had saved her life understood the risk to his own by continuing to harbor her, and threw her out of his house. This time there was no savior. She wandered the dirt roads of the Polish countryside, freezing cold in her tattered dress. As night descended, she knew her life was at its end. She recognized the home of the county warden and began to walk up its path. The warden’s dogs jumped on her, ripped her dress, and bit her. The warden, alerted by the barking, came out with a gun in hand.

“Please shoot me,” my mother begged. “Let me share the fate of my family.”

Yad Vashem, 2014

John: Before hearing what happened next, let us pause for a moment and consider, from a Christian point of view, “What are we to think of her shared fate?” The fate of her people had been rejection for centuries. Indeed, the fate of her family was death. Yet we both, Christians and Jews, are people of life. That life is what we Christians celebrate at Christmas.

I had the privilege of being in Jerusalem when Pope Francis visited there in May. He had several missions, one of which was outreach to the Jewish community, as he had done so effectively as archbishop of Buenos Aires. He prayed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, where thousands and thousands have left their prayers over the centuries.

Later that day, he met with the two chief rabbis of Israel and issued a plea that all of us take the next step toward friendship. Get beyond just being nice and respectful to each other, he implored. We are also called, as Christians and Jews, he said, “to reflect deeply on the spiritual significance of the bond existing between us.” Those bonds are made in heaven, he added, and ought not to be treated lightly.

Then he went on to Yad Vashem, laid a wreath of remembrance, and concluded a very brief reflection on the Fall with God’s question, “Adam, where are you?” and our response: “Here we are, Lord, shamed by what man, created in your own image and likeness, was capable of doing.”

I visited Yad Vashem the next day and was set reeling by the breadth of what I saw. There, in the Hall of Names, were thousands of books holding millions of hand-gathered personal memories from those who knew the Holocaust victims. I held my camera out over a vast, dark pool and photographed a honeycomb of family photos that towered above for several stories.

I was struck most, though, by the detailed museum exhibit of how the Nazis had tricked Jewish people into boarding trains, with roundtrip tickets, luggage, and the rest, to go to places where there would be work. How many waves of immigration have we seen in our own land, past and present, of people looking for work? These people were taken instead to isolated regions and slaughtered in a deathcamp system that we all know about.

What was really news to me, though, was the wall that contained biographical descriptions of the leaders of the Nazi extermination program, the Holocaust. Many of these men had PhDs and law and medical degrees. All were highly educated. They weren’t a bunch of dumb guys who found a crazy leader to help them execute a plan. No, these were people a lot like me. College educated. Smart. Maybe even thoughtful. I still get a chill thinking of that.

These well-educated men determined the woeful fate of my friend Rabbi Abie’s family.

A Fearful Escape

Rabbi Ingber: You will recall that we left my mother fleeing the Nazis but run out of chances for safety, now on Christmas Eve 1942, near Lutsk, Poland. She stood in despair, freezing, in tattered clothes, before the gun-wielding county warden. “Please shoot me,” my mother begged. “Let me share the fate of my family.”

“I cannot kill you tonight,” responded the official. He took her inside, fed her, and gave her a new dress and a place to sleep. The next morning, fearful that he could be killed for saving a Jew, he took her into town and gave her over to a Christian family. Three more righteous Christians were to appear magically in her life until she descended from an attic during the Russian liberation of Lutsk in 1944.

Only decades later did I learn of the Polish expression, “On Christmas Eve, even a stray cat is allowed to live.” Though a series of six righteous Christians had appeared miraculously to try to save my mother’s life, on the evening of December 24, my mother was abandoned like a stray cat in the Polish countryside. At that precise moment, God had to invoke Christmas Eve to save her life.

‘Remember Me’

John: The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, with the dark pool, the honeycomb of photos, the books of memories, is there so that we all will remember. But what good is memory, beyond grieving? An answer lies in both Abie’s and my traditions. Memory of things past can be a foundation for good in the present.

We Catholics reenact the ritual of the Lord’s Supper, following his command, “Do this in memory of me.” We are brought present to the reality of love—to real presence of Jesus—in our remembrance at Eucharist.

At Christmas, for another example, we remember the stories of Jesus’ birth, again and again, as a way to be present to the story of Christ present in our lives. That remembrance empowers us to bring God’s love into the world.

Our Jewish sisters and brothers have built a place like Yad Vashem, and other Holocaust memorials, for remembrance, first as a way to honor their dead—6 million slaughtered over the course of a few years. These were parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends of people like Rabbi Abie, or my former neighbors, or some of my son’s soccer teammates.

The Jewish community wants everyone to remember what our world allowed to happen so that it can never happen again. Hard to forget, we might say, but with today’s Holocaust deniers one might see where a lie actually could spread again.

The written testimony of eyewitnesses in the Hall of Names puts an end to that. But the active remembrance of these people, too, is a way to affirm everything they stood for, to move beyond injustice, death, and grief into a blessed future.

To Life!

Rabbi Ingber: One of my formative teachers taught me that if you don’t believe in miracles, they will never happen to you. If a miracle saved my mother’s life from certain death, and a miracle saved my father in his journey through the night of the Holocaust, how much the more so was it a miracle when they came together in a displaced persons camp after the war to meet and marry. If ever there was a confirmation of humanity’s belief in God, of humanity’s belief in redemption, of humanity’s hope, it was my parents’ desire to bring Jewish children into the world.

The smell of destruction was around them and they gambled on life—my birth and that of my sister. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, a Jewish wedding in a refugee camp must have made even the heavens rejoice. That note of rejoicing continues to resound in my life today.

Belief in hope, faith, redemption: these are themes for both Jews and Christians. When the Children of Abraham live together in common purpose, even the heavens rejoice! That joy brings us to a fitting end for this act of remembrance, inspired by the tragic truth of history and our common call, nonetheless, to look toward the future in hope. The two of us have met on the same road, in the pursuit of brotherhood and in the search for miracles in our lives. As Christmas nears this year, we pray for peace on earth, for goodwill to all.

“Merry Christmas!” from a rabbi and his Christian friend.

John Feister co-wrote this article with Rabbi Abie Ingber, executive director of the Center for Interfaith Community Engagement at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Advent and Christmas