Why was man created alone? Is it not true that the creator could have created the whole of humanity? But man was created alone to teach you that whoever kills one life kills the world entire, and whoever saves one life saves the world entire. —paraphrased from the Talmud
Imagine you are a devout Catholic and live in a small, mountain village. It is snowing, it is cold. Your home—just a bedroom, a main room, and a kitchen—is heated by a wood stove. You share your home with two other adults, both family. War is raging around you. Day and night you are likely to hear shelling. Food is scarce. More than one home in your town has been torched, the inhabitants inside burned alive, for hiding Jews or partisans.
Imagine there is a knock at your door at nightfall. It is dark when you open the door. Ushered into your home is a scared, young child. There is blood on his clothing. You know he is Jewish. What would you do? And after you decide to keep him, what then? Here I concentrate only on one aspect of my somewhat paradoxical and miraculous survival, and this has to do with the people and with the location.
The day after I arrived, Jozef and Paulina sat me down to teach me my new identity. I had a new name, I had a new family, and they also taught me to memorize a set of sentences. They started with “Ochenasknonabi....” We practiced the sentences until I could recite them by heart as though I had known them throughout all my young life. They instructed me to recite them if asked to do so by the Ukrainians (who fought on the side of the Germans), the Germans, the Guardists (members of the Slovak Fascist Hlinka Guards), or anybody else for that matter. They gave the blurb a name—a name that made no sense to me—but I did memorize the sentences, which were just an unintelligible garble to me.
I do not remember if I had to recite them ever alone or only as a part of a group of children, but I knew them well. What were these sentences? And why were they so important of all things, that teaching them to me was the first course of action upon welcoming me into my new home and my new reality?
The Holocaust ended. Years passed. I went to school. I studied: math, languages, science, world religion. I was in the army. I married and created a new family. From time to time I would come face to face with an echo from my past. I repressed them. Conversely, from time to time I would come across a passage or person that I knew that I had seen before. I knew that it was familiar. I searched my memory, my knowledge, and my past—all in vain. I did not find it. The failure to identify what I sought to remember tormented me for a while. Slowly, it faded—other interests, other worries filled my mind. I can’t honestly say that I dwelled upon the lines taught to me so long ago in the small, snowy village by people who loved and cared for me.
More years passed and I moved my family to the United States. Slovakia became independent and appointed an ambassador to the United States. He tried to rally support for Slovakia and got a list of all the residents of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area and its environs who he considered to be Slovak. Suddenly, for the ambassador at least, Dean Prof. Dr. Frieder was transformed: He was no longer the stinking Jew he had been considered while actually living in Slovakia; he was now a respected Slovak. I was invited to a reception in the embassy. I hesitated, as I had never identified as a Slovak, and the new Slovak flag is almost identical to the old Fascist flag. Eventually I went there—my curiosity got the better of me and compensated for my aversion to anything Slovak.
Slovakia is 85 percent Catholic, so it was not surprising that the reception opened with a short prayer of thanks recited by a Slovak Catholic priest, in Slovak:
Otce náš, ktorý si na nebesiach, posvät’ sa meno tvoje. Príd’ král’ovstvo tvoje. Bud’ vôl’a tvoja ako v nebi tak i na zemi. Chlieb náš každodenný daj nám dnes. A odpust’ nám naše viny, ako aj my odpúšt’ame svojim vinníkom. A neuved’ nás do pokušenia, ale zbav nás zlého. Lebo tvoje je král’ovstvo, moc i sláva teraz i vždycky i na veky vekov. Amen.
The first words caught my attention. The closing words seemed familiar and disturbing. I mulled. I contemplated until suddenly, like a blinding lightning strike, the words hit me. This was the blurb that Jozef and Paulina had taught me, the meaningless set of slurred words. Except now, they were clearly enunciated. I approached the priest and casually inquired after the prayer he had recited. It was the Lord’s Prayer, he told me.
I went home and opened the New Testament—in my case, in Hebrew. Here it was. What I was reading was the Lord’s Prayer, its words clear, its sentences well phrased: “Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name1” (Yitkadal V Yitkadash Shmei Raba 2).
Our Father, clearly stated, not slurred as in, possibly, “ourather.” Our Father, in the language of the country, even back then when the Mass was recited in Latin. Our Father, probably one of the only two prayers known by Jozef and Paulina, these wonderful, ignorant, intelligent, primitive, yet full with the knowledge of life angels. Our Father...Thy kingdom come (_Avinu Malkenu_3)—arguably the most Jewish part of the Christian liturgy. They taught me the prayer the way they knew it, instinctively, slurred, without parsing it. It was a mantra that identified children who should live, and the lack of it would kill. It was a mantra demanded by the murderers from the children they met—and those who did not know it did not survive. It was the shield by which Jozef and Paulina protected me from the evil— not only because they knew that I needed it, but also because they were professing what they believed in. That faith, personified for them by the Lord’s Prayer and by the Hail Mary, was a necessary shield in those dark times. It sustained them as they prayed every night before the picture of the heart of Jesus that they’d hung on every wall in their hut, and it was the reason that they and their fellow inhabitants of that hamlet saved numerous lives. In a country where the president, who was a Catholic priest, paid the Germans to kill the Jews, these true humanitarians taught the Lord’s Prayer to save a Jewish child.
“Whoever saves one life”—in this case, by faith and prayer.
“Our Father who art in Heaven” (_El Maleh Rachamim, Shochen ba Mromim_4), gather under your wings these righteous souls.
1. I use here the English version of the Lord’s Prayer used in the Catholic tradition. The King James version starts with “Our Father which art in Heaven.”
2. “Glorify and sanctify the name of the Lord” is, in Aramaic, the opening phrase of the Sanctification (Kaddish) in Jewish liturgy (translation for meaning rather then verbatim).
3. “Our Father, our King” in Hebrew is the most frequently used phrase in the liturgy of Yom Kippur—the most holy holiday in the Jewish calendar (verbatim translation).
4. “God Full of Mercy who dwelleth in Heaven” is, in Hebrew, the opening phrase of the prayer for the dead in the Jewish liturgy (verbatim translation).
©2013, Gideon Frieder. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.