On a Special Passover

Passover is coming up, and the holiday has always been one of my favorites. I spring from a background of fundamentalist Christianity. Yet, in my career as a teacher, I had the privilege of teaching in the secular section of a Yeshiva. That experience was eye-opening and incredibly instructive. Out of their generosity, one of the orthodox families at the school allowed me to attend their Passover Seder. It was an amazing thing to witness through both my lens with my background and through their lenses as well.

This story is about a special Seder celebrated near the town of Bergen and not too far from Hanover in what is now Lower Saxony in north central Germany. There had always been a Jewish population there, and one year in particular, the Seder for the community held special significance. You can guess why. In 1945, Passover fell on March 29 that year, and the Jews who had been denied observing the traditions, holidays, and sacred rituals of their faith were excited to have the ability to actually have a Seder.

The Nazi Concentration Camp of Bergen-Belsen is infamous for being a place where death was common, where the sanctity of life was ignored, and where mankind demonstrated–there and dozens of other camps across the Third Reich–how low it could slink in the treatment of other human beings. That’s why, in part, that the Passover meal remembering the liberation from slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt held such special significance in this particular year. By the way, Bergen-Belsen is notorious also for being the camp where Anne Frank was put to death for the crime of simply being alive.

One eyewitness to that year’s Passover was Rafael Grosz. He was but a young man, but he remembers. He also remembers the camp at Bergen-Belsen, because he was held there, also. Unlike Anne, Rafael managed to live through the terrible conditions, both physical and psychological; he remembers the piles of bodies and the terrible hunger and the nameless, ever-present terror of the camp.

And he remembers gathering wood to build the fire to bake the Passover bread that special year. He remembers helping the older men digging a pit and putting a grate over it, and he remembers lighting the fire beneath in order to cook the bread. For Rafael, that fire symbolized the freedom that Passover represented as its warmth rose up and cooked the Seder’s matzoh.

You see, for that special Passover, the Jewish community held their Seder together. For many, the irony was not lost on them. They had been in slavery together, they reasoned; fitting, then, that they celebrate freedom together.

Interestingly, the Bergen-Belsen camp was one of the first that the western Allies liberated given its location in the center of Germany. When the British and Canadian troops entered the camp for the first time, they were understandably shocked and stunned by the piles of over 10,000 unburied corpses and the hundreds of walking dead who were doomed because of malnutrition and typhus.

You see, the Allies entered Bergen-Belsen on April 14, 1945. And that was over two and a half weeks after 300 Jews in the camp, a young Rafael Grosz included, celebrated their Passover liberation while still under the watchful eyes of their Nazi oppressors.

On Stumpy’s Boys

Even her children called her Stumpy. The stout, short woman, of Irish descent, had married Michael Nyland in the early 1900s, and the coupled settled in Tonawanda, New York. She and Michael produced six children because, well, that’s what Irish Catholic families did. What her children and her friends remarked about Stumpy was that you couldn’t ruffle her feathers, to use the colloquial phrase of the day.

Michael had been a veteran of the Spanish-American War, interestingly. In later years, Michael would tell tall tales about his time in Cuba fighting alongside Teddy. In a conflict that saw the largely Protestant United States fighting against Catholic Spain, Michael had no qualms about taking up arms for his country. He and his family were American to their cores. World War I saw him support Wilson’s decision to enter the war on the Allied side with zero hesitation about him. And, then, when World War 2 began, it made him proud that his four boys all signed up to go to battle, to the front lines, to fight to defend American democracy. No desk jobs for the Nyland boys, nossir.

On the other hand, Stumpy bore the four boys enlisting with her usual quiet resolve. She was certainly proud, yes, and she was the one who hung the banner bearing four blue stars in the front window, the four blue stars indicating that hers was a household that had provided four soldiers for the fight. Like everyone else in Tonawanda, she endured the rationing of goods, she planted her Victory Garden, and she contributed to the scrap metal drives. Stumpy held nothing back when it came to contributing to the war effort.

But Stumpy ended up giving more than most. Word came that one of her boys, Edward, was listed as missing in action and presumed dead after his plane was shot down over Burma. Then, in fast succession, another son, Robert, who had parachuted behind enemy lines after D-Day, was also missing. Finally, confirmation came to her door in the form of a telegram telling her that a third son, Preston, had been killed on the Normandy beaches. He had died a hero, manning a machine gun that provided cover for his buddies while they made their way inland. Five days later, the notice came that Robert, too, was confirmed dead. Stumpy changed out the flag in the window. She made it show two blue stars and two gold ones. People asked why she didn’t make it three gold stars, and she answered matter-of-factly that she had no confirmation about Ed’s death, so why should she change that blue star?

Stumpy’s emotions were so, so terribly mixed according to one of her daughters. The stunning losses happening so quickly one after another intertwined with the intense pride she had in knowing that her 2 sons died for such a noble endeavor. But, as a mother, the loss stung more within her heart. Yet, through it all, Stumpy never publicly shook her fist at the government or God for taking her boys.

The last son, Fredrick (whom the family called Fritz), was alive. The Army found him and brought him back to his mother and father in New York. He served out the remainder of his time in the military as an MP locally. And, then, as the war was drawing to a close, a miracle happened. Ed was found to have survived the plane crash in Burma and had lived through capture and imprisonment by the Japanese. He would be coming home as well. Stumpy told friends privately (because she wasn’t one to brag) that, see, she was right. Two gold and two blue.

And, even though the details aren’t exactly the same, in 1998, Stephen Spielberg would make Saving Private Ryan based on the story of Stumpy’s boys.

On Two Dead Men

This tale of two different dead men is, on the surface, a sharp contrast in lives and personalities. On one hand, there was a homeless man from Wales named Glendwr Michael. Let’s look at him, first. This was during World War 2, and Michael was living in London. He had been born in south Wales in a coal mining town (no surprise there) and into poverty in 1909. By the time World War 2 started, Michael had lost both his parents and was jobless. He made his way to London and lived on the streets. What he could find to eat he got by begging. One description of him said he was friendless, homeless, and depressed. His issues kept him from being suitable for service in the war, and that pained him as well.

Someone found Michael seriously ill in a warehouse not too far from King’s Cross railway station in the city. He had eaten rat poison, and it is believed that he ingested it accidently. You see, the rat poison had been put in paste that was put on the crusts of bread. As someone who was nearly starving, Michael probably couldn’t believe his luck; he quickly ate the bread crusts and became violently ill. Two days later after being found, he died of the rat poison in St. Pancras Hospital. The poison had interacted with his gastric acids and produced a gas that effectively killed him by shutting down his liver and lungs. His date of death was January 28, 1943 at the age of 34.

Now, for the other dead man, only the story of his death is more, well, glorious, for lack of a better word. His given name was William Martin. Martin was an acting Major in the Royal Marines. Martin’s date of birth was listed at 1907, and his death date as shown on his tombstone is April 24, 1943. Like Michael, Martin was also from Wales. Unlike Michael, Martin was a hero. His body was hauled out of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Spain by a local fisherman. His cause of death was listed as drowning. On one of Martin’s wrists was a pair of handcuffs; the other end of the handcuffs was attached to a briefcase. The fisherman notified the Spanish authorities, and they, in turn, told the British authorities in Spain. Martin’s body was taken by the British, and he was buried there in Spain with full miliary honors.

Now, Spain was ostensibly a neutral country during World War 2, but the fascist Franco regime was definitely pro-German. Between the time the fisherman found Martin’s body and the time the British authorities buried the man, it was determined that the briefcase attached to Martin’s body had been opened and the contents examined.

What was in the briefcase, you ask? Why, there were top secret papers detailing the upcoming Allied attacks on Nazi-occupied Greece and the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. The British were convinced that the Germans had been shown the information by the Franco government before the British were able to handle Martin’s body.

In fact, the British were counting on that happening.

You see, the papers in the briefcase were fakes. They were designed to throw off the Germans into thinking that the Allies were planning to attack elsewhere in the Mediterranean rather than their goal–Sicily. And the ruse worked. Based almost exclusively on the “top secret” information found on Major Martin, the Germans diverted troops from Sicily, and that made the later Allied invasion of that island so much easier.

So, you can see a large difference between the deaths of Glendwr Michael and Major William Martin. One died a bum, a homeless drifter. And the other one died a hero for his nation.

Except for one thing. The British had created Major Martin from the corpse of Glendwr Michael. The British knew that the body of a homeless person with no family would not be missed. And this fabrication saved the lives of perhaps thousands of lives of British and American servicemen.

Glendwr Michael had served his nation after all.

On Some After Work Drinks

Sam and Harry had been through a rough but satisfying day at work. The organization they both worked for had been busy for the past few years in the Allied war effort. It was April, 1945, and the war had only a few short weeks left. Sam and Harry both knew this for sure, and the fact the United States was going to win the war gave them both great satisfaction. Besides both being southerners, the two men were the heads over their respective departments at work, and, as such, they had much in common both at work and in their home lives.

As the pair was getting ready to leave work that day, Sam invited Harry to his office so they could have a drink. The two were old friends, and they knew each other well after years of working together. And, as old friends do, Sam and Harry could get a lot of work done with talks over a few highballs, sometimes even more work than they could do when they were actually performing their jobs. Sam, as he usually did, loosened his tie and propped his feet on his desk. Harry never loosened his tie; it was a mark of the man that, while he was not wealthy, he dressed well and took pride in his immaculate work wear.

The two co-workers talked for awhile about Harry’s family. Sam had no children, and his homelife was lonely since he was divorced. That’s another reason he appreciated Harry’s willingness to stay and share a drink with him. There wasn’t much for Sam to go home to. Harry’s daughter had recently turned 21 and was wanting to pursue a musical career. Harry was in the middle of his second glass of Sam’s whiskey and his usual diatribe against his daughter’s career choice when Sam’s phone rang.

The two men looked at each other. Answering the work phone after hours couldn’t lead to anything good. It had to be someone who needed something, something the two men would not want to address. “Let it ring, Sam,” Harry advised. “They’ll stop in second.” Sam nodded and knocked back another swig of the bourbon. The phone stopped ringing. “See?” Harry said, and motioned towards Sam with his empty glass for Sam to fill it again.

But the phone rang again. And, again, the pair swapped looks. Sam sighed and leaned forward, taking his legs off the desk. He picked up the phone. “Yeah?” he answered. As he listened, Sam set down his glass. Harry could hear the voice on the other end of the line, but he couldn’t make out what the person was saying. “Yeah,” Sam repeated. “Right now. Got it.” He hung up the phone and turned to Harry.

“The boss wants us,” Sam said. “That was his secretary.”

“I thought he was out of town?” Harry said.

“Well, apparently he’s back, ’cause they just called from the house. We’ve got to go there right now. Side entrance,” Sam explained. Harry grimaced, and now it was his turn to set down his glass. Sam picked up the phone again and called for car. The pair made their way down to the street where a dark car waited by the curb. They entered it and rode the short distance to the boss’s house in silence. When they arrived at the large place, the security guard waved them in.

Harry got out of the car first and made his way to the side door of the large mansion. There was a woman waiting there for him. He greeted her warmly and, out of respect for the boss’s wife, removed his hat.

Eleanor Roosevelt took Harry Truman’s hand and, without emotion, said, “Harry, the President’s dead.”

On a Loyal Soldier

Major Yoshimi Taniguchi of the Japanese Imperial Army distinguished himself for bravery during World War 2. He and his command fought in the Philippines, occupying the nation for over 2 years before the Americans under General Douglas MacArthur retook much of the Philippines before the war ended in the summer of 1945. His tenacity and bravery in the face of overwhelming American firepower and personnel during the recapture endeared him to his men who said that they would follow Taniguchi to the ends of the earth if he so commanded. Stationed on an island off the northwest coast of the Philippines, Taniguchi told his men to hold out as long as they could as the Americans made their way across the island. He and his men were some of the last Japanese soldiers to surrender when the war ended.

Taniguchi returned home to a country not only devastated by the bombings (both conventional and atomic), but Japan also faced economic shortages of food and basic living necessities, and the embarrassment of having lost the war. Yet, he was praised by his men and his family for his war service to the Emperor and the nation. He took pride in this fact. Like the overwhelming majority of his fellow citizens, he set about the task of rebuilding Japanese society. By the early 1970s, the former army officer had been working as bookseller in his hometown. It was by no means glamorous, but it was good, honest work befitting a man of his character.

As the 30th anniversary of the end of the war approached, the Japanese government contacted Taniguchi and asked him if he would be willing to return to the Philippines to reunite with some of his former soldiers. The government promised to take care of all expenses. Now, Taniguchi hadn’t thought much about such reunions. He never really kept in contact with his fellow servicemen in the ensuing years. Yet, there was one soldier, a Lt. Onoda, whom he had often thought about in the previous 30 years and wondered what had happened to him. Onoda was as loyal a soldier as you could find, Taniguchi thought. The reunion promised to reunite him with this man. Taniguchi realized that it would be a good thing to see Onoda after such a long time, and so he agreed to the trip.

While so much had changed on the island since Taniguchi had left in 1945, the jungle and the heat and the mosquitoes had not changed, he noticed. And, on March 9, 1974, on a trail in the jungle, he was reunited with his former fellow soldier, Lt. Onoda. Interestingly, Onoda wore his old uniform to the meeting. As Major Taniguchi approached his old comrade, Onoda snapped to attention more out of habit than anything else. Taniguchi returned Onoda’s sharp salute, and told the man to stand at ease.

“Lieutenant,” Taniguchi began, “I honor your service to your Emperor, your nation, and your fellow soldiers.” And, surprisingly, Taniguchi bowed low before the man who had been his subordinate. Then he straightened and and continued, his eyes moist with tears.

“The war ended 30 years ago, Lieutenant. You have to face the facts about that. I order you to stand down.”

And, because his commanding officer ordered him to do so, after living in hiding in the jungles of the Philippines, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda officially and ceremonially surrendered and turned over his gun to the Philippine army–almost 30 years after the war ended.

On a Cheating Spouse

Emily’s husband was a cad.

That’s the nicest way to put it. When the man had immigrated to Argentina in the late 1940s, he had brought not only Emily, his wife of 21 years, with him, but he also brought his mistress as well as several servants and other hangers on. Now, you might be saying to yourself that any self-respecting person wouldn’t put up with this type of behavior, that any spouse would demand that the husband or wife get rid of the third person in the relationship or face divorce.

But Emily wasn’t like that. First of all, she loved her charming and dashing husband, and she knew that, like the other dalliances, this one, too, wouldn’t last. In fact, she had made a pact with herself, knowing that he was a brilliant–flawed, certainly–and generous man. She told herself that as long as he came back to her, that she would be there, waiting. And so, she was, for most of her life.

The move to Argentina proved to be yet the latest in a series of get rich schemes that Emily’s husband pursued in his professional life. He had made money–lots of it–over the years, but, sadly, he lost it all or gave it away. His theory was that there was no trick to making money, so it didn’t matter how he spent it. He had expensive tastes in clothes, food, furniture, and, as Emily could testify, women.

The Argentina experiment failed, miserably. The man was no farmer, and the people he’s hired to help him turned out to be equally inept at raising nutrias for their fur. By 1958, the small enterprise was bankrupt, and Emily’s husband left Argentina with a promise that he would go back to Europe and make money and then send for her.

So, Emily waited.

For decades.

And her husband never returned. She never received a good explanation why. Well, she knew that he had died in Germany of liver failure in 1974 at age 66. To fill her time, Emily began adopting cats in the neighborhood, becoming, by the time she passed away in her 90s, the proverbial crazy cat lady. People who asked her about her husband were told the truth by Emily; he was a drunk, a womanizer, a spendthrift, and a man she would’ve taken back in a moment if he had ever walked back through her doorway. Others spoke of Emily’s husband in kinder, almost sacred tones, and she would often wave a dismissive hand at them.

But until the day she died, Emily insisted that Oskar Schindler was the love of her life.

On a Slick Salesman

Bill Blythe got around.

That was the understatement of the century. First of all, Bill was a traveling salesman. For the majority of this sales career, Bill sold heavy machinery to contractors and builders and even state and local governments. Even during the Great Depression, Bill had a knack for sweet talking his way past the secretaries and into face to face meetings with the decision-makers on those types of purchases. Once he got past the secretaries, he said, the big bosses were easy because the equipment pretty much sold itself. The hard part was convincing the secretaries to let him in. So, Bill was an excellent salesman.

Then, when he died in 1946, he left behind him five wives and a whole slew of children from one side of the United States to another. In fact, all five of his wives were women he met as he traveled cross-country on sales trips. As I said, Bill was smooth when it came to the women his travels brought into his path. He sold himself, his personality, the way he sold his sales goods. And by smooth I mean manipulative and deceptive and, well, as we used to say back in Alabama, slick. So, a slick salesman and a slick talker. For Bill, the two were inextricably linked.

One minor nit to pick here, minor at least for Bill if not the law, was that he often didn’t get divorced from the previous wife before he would marry the next one. He married his last wife, Virginia, while still married to wife number four, a woman named Wanetta. Oh, and in an era when several states still had laws on the books that forbade adultery, Bill fathered some of his kids with a couple of his ex-wives after their divorces. That’s a smooth talker for sure.

But his marriage to Virginia seemed to mark a turning point in his life. Well, to be fair, perhaps it was his service in World War 2 in the African and Italian Theaters of War repairing heavy equipment like the type he used to sell. Travel–and war–can change a man. Bill returned from service determined to finally settle down. He bought a house in Chicago and told Virginia that he would soon come get her after he finished his very next sales trip. Virginia was also excited; she was 6 months pregnant with their only child and longed for a quiet life ahead for the little family.

Sadly for all three of them, it was not to be. You see, Bill’s car rolled over on a lonely stretch of highway and Bill was thrown into a ditch. There was less than 2 feet of water in the ditch, and the injured man was not able to extricate himself rom the water. He drowned. He never met the son that would be born three months later. While the world doesn’t really know about the personality of the smooth-selling, fast-talking, charming Bill Blythe, they would certainly come to know his son.

Well, the apple, as they say, don’t fall far from the tree. Bill’s son, William J. Blythe, III, would later adopt the name of his mother’s next husband, the boy’s step-dad.

You know that young slick talker as Bill Clinton.

On a Taciturn God

What do you do when your God is silent?

What do you do when you appeal to your God and get nothing—nothing—in return?

That’s what the generals in the war were facing. All nations feel that God is on their side in wartime. In this case, the generals of this particular nation appealed to their God and often received only stony silence as an answer. Even when they addressed the God directly, politely and respectfully requesting approval or disapproval of their war plans, the God would sometimes only offer one-word answers with no other details or comments. This frustrated the war leaders. Surely, the God would wish to comment on the plans! Sadly, for them, few words from the God were forthcoming.

The war was going badly. The generals wanted to continue the war, but the enemy was too powerful, had better weapons, and their own resources were dwindling. So, as many nations do, they went before their God and bowed, low, hoping that in their humility, their God would give them some indication as to the right course to take for the country they loved and were fighting for.

Still, nothing.

The people began to suffer. Shortages of food and housing, clean water and medical supplies, basic life necessities could not be ignored any longer. Something had to be done. The people were being lied to by the government; they were being told that the God had great plans for a victory that would save them all and restore the proud nation to glory again.

Part of the problem seemed to be those special few who were taking the generals’ petitions to the God. Tradition dictated that no one except specific individuals could speak to the God on behalf of the people or, often, even on behalf of the generals. On the other hand, one would expect a God to know what was happening without having to be told what was happening, right? Yet, some in the nation blamed the messengers for not accurately depicting the harsh realities of the situation to the nation’s God.

The war situation proved to be untenable.

The war was lost.

The generals, summoning all their courage for the survival of the nation, demanded that the God accept the humiliating defeat that was being handed to them. They asked the God to speak directly to the people. The announcement from the God was to be met with great respect by the people. The nation was ordered to stand for the announcement and to put on their best clothing out of respect for the God.

And so, on August 15, 1945, for the first time in the history of their nation, the people heard the voice of their Emperor and their God, Hirohito, as he announced on the radio the surrender of the Japanese Empire to the Allies.

On an Scrupulous Green Grocer

During World War 2, in Peoria, Illinois, John Scoutaris owned a business at 533 Main Street called the Illinois Fruit and Vegetable Company. It was one of those old-timey downtown fruit places that had the vertical displays on the sidewalks in front of the store. You know the type.

John was scrupulous in making sure that his customers received the best, the freshest produce available to them considering it was war time and many items were rationed. He sometimes made incredibly little money on his wholesale buys simply to ensure that his customers would have the best fruit and vegetables possible. John felt that to give the best was his part in the war effort, as minor as it may seem to us compared to those guys who were fighting and dying on the front lines.

One morning, as John was out front of his store, in his green apron, inspecting his wares, one of his regular customers, Mary Hunt, stopped by.

“Hi, John,” Mary said. John responded, but he was concerned that one of his cantaloupes on the second row from the top was probably too old to sell and thus not up to his usual standards. He picked it up and examined it closely. “Whatcha got there, John?” Mary asked. “Hmm,” John answered, somewhat preoccupied with the overripe fruit. “Oh, this,” he said, turning to Mary with the melon in his hand, “I think it’s about to go moldy on me, Mary.”

Suddenly, Mary took a keen interest in the fruit John was holding. “Say, John; what are you gonna do with that cantaloupe?” John told her that he always threw out the old fruit, that he would never sell anything not up to his high standards. But Mary persisted. “Would you do me a favor?” she asked. What she wanted was for John to start saving all the moldy fruit, especially the melons, for her in a box in the back. She told him she’d come by every few days and take it off his hands.

John argued weakly that he couldn’t sell her something that was old. She said she didn’t want to buy it—just to have it. John didn’t ask why; he assumed it might be something to do with pets or chickens or something. Maybe even composting. Mary seemed alright. She was a regular customer and a good one, and she was a war worker, also, John knew. So, he agreed. He began saving the moldy melons for Mary.

After a few weeks, Mary abruptly told John she didn’t need him to save the fruit anymore. John again didn’t ask why, and Mary didn’t offer a reason. In fact, John was a bit relieved. Besides, the box of old fruit attracted fruit flies, and who needs that in a fruit stand?

Several years later and after the war ended, Mary stopped by the fruit stand one day. “John,” she said, “I want to tell you why I wanted you to save that moldy cantaloupe for me.” “You don’t owe me any explanation, Mary,” John said.

Mary told John the story that she was a worker during the war and afterward in a biological lab that had government contracts. John said, yes, he knew she was involved in the war effort, and that’s one reason he never asked her questions about her work or the melons.

“Oh, I know, John. I wanted to thank you. You saved the lives of more people than most anyone ever has. You are one of the war’s heroes, and you don’t even know it.”

John was incredulous. “Whaaaat?” he asked, his mouth flying open. “What…how…why?” he exclaimed.

Mary continued. “Yes, John, I just thought you might like to know that the mold on that melon was the source for penicillin.”