November 01, 2016
BY GIDEON FRIEDER
In October 1944, my mother and sister were killed in the Massacre of Stare Hory, in the mountains of Slovakia. I was wounded and left staring at my dead mother, who lay on her back with her eyes open. I could not understand why she was not getting up. A Jewish partisan, Henry (Adam) Herzog, took me away, promising that my mother would join me later. He took me to his unit, but quickly realized that a wounded child is a liability to a fighting unit. So, after seven days, he brought me to the village of Bully and left me in the house of Paulina and Jozef Striharzsik, promising them a reward if they kept me or death if they did not. Given that choice, they kept me.
I was not aware of the circumstances under which Paulina and Jozef took me in—nor, by the way, do I have any recollection of being with Henry’s partisans. I only remembered that I was taken from Stare Hory to Bully. Nature has a wonderful way of treating trauma.
From the first instance of me being ushered from the cold night into the warm house, I felt nothing but care and love. They treated my wound; they washed me and fed me. Many things happened from the time that I was brought to Bully and the time that my father, who survived the war, sent emissaries to take me away—but for me, the war ended at the beginning of May 1945 when I went back to my father.
In December 1945, I wrote a message on a torn piece of paper to Jozef and Paulina, wishing them Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
In June 1946, my father died.
I was brought to Israel in June 1947, under circumstances and by a process that may deserve a tale of its own. I grew up, got an education, served Israel, and eventually came to the United States.
While in Israel and later in the United States, it was made clear to me that there could be no contact with anybody in Czechoslovakia, as it was now part of the Communist sphere, and thus aligned with the enemies of Israel. Being part of the Israeli defense establishment, that sphere was out of bounds for me, and I could not contact Jozef and Paulina.
Eventually, the Soviet Union collapsed, and after a while, there emerged a Slovak Republic, free of the Soviet yoke. I set up to go and find the people who saved me. It took time and effort, but eventually I was able to locate Anna, the daughter of Paulina and Josef—a daughter I did not even know existed, as she was born a couple of weeks after I left. Her parents had died in 1975, a long time before the collapse of the Communist regime.
My wife, children, and I decided to go to Slovakia to meet Anna and her two children. She lived in a large village not far from a major town where we stayed in a hotel. There is a long story of how we found her and what happened in our first meeting—a story to be told and described at some future time. It was emotional, it was beautiful, and it established a contact. One small part of the story, however, I want to tell you now.
Anna told us a lot about herself and her parents after the war. Among other things, she told us that her parents talked about me a lot and told her that if she ever met me, she should treat me like her brother, because they intended to keep me and raise me as their own child, as they loved me so very much. The skeptic in me wondered about it. Antisemitism in Slovakia, then and now, was so thick you could cut it with a knife. However, Anna told me that before her mother died, she gave her one of her most precious possessions and made her swear to keep it forever—it was the torn piece of paper that she got from me 30 years before she died and that she had kept all these years. Anna wanted to give it to me, but I refused, as it was clear that it had such great meaning for her and her family. I did make a copy for myself.
Several years later, Anna suffered a debilitating stroke, and I traveled to Slovakia to see her and her children. I found that they were in a stable but difficult position financially, so I offered to help, and Anna said, resolutely and clearly, “No way!!!”
I was flabbergasted. I told her that it was her parents, in particular her mother, who told her to treat me like a brother, and siblings have to help each other—that is the meaning of family! She looked at me and said, in a quiet and trembling voice, “If I take money from you, it may mean that my parents saved you for a reward, but they did not! They saved you because that is what Christian love means, they saved you because they followed God’s wishes, and I shall not violate it.”
I was almost in a state of shock. The deep faith and the impeccable logic of her reasoning kept me speechless.
I worked many years in the area of logic. I even have some publications that are still cited today, almost 40 years since they were first published. I told myself, “Gideon, if with all your knowledge of logic, you cannot convince Anna to accept your help, then all you know and all you achieved means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! It is just a bunch of crap written on paper!”
I agonized, I reflected, I thought, and then said, “Anna, do you believe in God?” The question was tantamount to asking “Do you breathe?” so I immediately said, “Clearly you do!” I continued, “How do you know if it was not God’s doing to bring me to your parents, so that in the future, as a surrogate brother, I would be able to help you?”
Now was her turn to reflect—and she did the only thing that a woman of deep faith can do—she sent her daughter to the village priest to ask his opinion.
It did not take long for the daughter to return, although for me it seemed like a tormented eternity. The daughter said, “The priest told me that nobody knows how God operates, but what the man told you would be a typical divine foresight and intervention—take the help.” She did.
If you ever want to know what faith means, ask Anna. Except you first have to go to heaven, where you shall find her at the most coveted place under the everlasting wings of Eternal Grace.
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