When a Grown Man Cries

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18 May 2006

Like a post I wrote last year, this is not really my story to tell… but it is a story that, today, needs to be told:

When our older son Gilad was approaching his 3rd birthday (he’s 10 now) he began a one-man harassment campaign to get us to let him have his first pair of ‘tzitzi’ot’ (a small undershirt-type garment that has ritual fringes attached to it on its four corners) a few weeks early.

Traditionally in many families where the boys wear this garment, parents wait until the 3rd birthday so that they are sure that the boy is old enough to be both ‘potty trained’ and able to understand the significance of the blessing he is making over the garment each time he dons it.

Gilad was absolutely relentless with his repeated requests to have his first pair of ‘tzitzi’ot’, but we still made him wait until he actually turned three.

On the morning of his third birthday I woke him up and pointed to the neat folded pile of his clothes next to his bed and his eyes instantly locked on the crisp white garment folded on top with the knotted strings tied to the corners. No little boy in the history of the world has ever gone from sleeping to fully dressed so quickly. As I stood proudly watching him literally leap into his clothing, I was pleased to hear him recite the blessing perfectly. Clearly he’d been practicing for some time!

As it was a school day and it was my job to bring Ariella to her school and Gilad to his nursery school, we all hurried through breakfast and piled into the car.

The first stop was at Ariella’s school which happened to be right next to our synagogue.

As we pulled into the parking lot I spotted one of the older Hungarian gentlemen in our community coming out of the morning service and waved him over to the car. This man, who we called Fred Basci (The honorific ‘basci’ is actually pronounced ‘batchi’ and is the respectful Hungarian term for old man and/or uncle) was a solid, fireplug of a man who was a retired master plumber and had the powerful corded arms and shoulders to show for his years of work. However, whether from malnutrition as a youth or simple old-world genetics, he stood only a few inches over 5 feet tall.

Adults sometimes found Fred Basci to be prickly… and often even difficult (I’m being kind… I’ve heard him called a ‘tough old —-‘ on more than one occasion), but the obvious love and admiration between Fred and our children could not have been stronger if they had been his own flesh and blood.

It was because of this strong bond between Fred Basci and our kids that I waved him over in the parking lot that morning so he could personally wish Gilad a happy birthday and congratulate him on wearing his ‘tzitzi’ot’ for the first time.

However, when Fred came up to us and I proudly explained to him that Gilad was now three and had made the blessing on his first pair of ‘tzitzi’ot’ all by himself that morning, I was completely unprepared for this wizened old man’s reaction.

Instead of smiling warmly and giving Gilad a congratulatory kiss on the cheek as I’d expected, his eyes welled up with tears and he turned on his heel and strode quickly away towards the corner of the parking lot where his car was parked. As I watched him stand there next to his own car with his back to us, it was obvious to me that he was sobbing uncontrollably.

I waited a few minutes until it appeared that Fred Basci had gotten himself somewhat under control and told Gilad to wait while I walked over to see if everything was alright. When Fred Basci finally turned around he was holding a damp handkerchief in his hand and had only succeeded in spreading the tears around his cherubic face.

I had no idea what to say. As a rule, men don’t deal well with the sight of one another crying… but Fred had earned his reputation as a ‘tough old —-‘, and I was shocked silent by the unexpected/unexplained outburst of emotion. I just stood there wondering if perhaps I was shaming him by coming over before he’d had a chance to fully regain his composure.

To my surprise, Fred smiled at me through the last of his tears and waved me closer. Without any reference to his behavior or his damp face he began by saying the following (you’ll have to imagine the thick Hungarian accent… I can’t do it justice here):

“I’m going to tell you a story about myself, but the story isn’t for you… it’s for Gili. The problem is, Gilad is too young to hear this kind of story right now, but I may not be here to tell him by the time he is old enough. So, I’m telling you the story and you have to promise that when you think Gilad is ready to hear it you will tell it to him in my name, Okay?”

What could I say? Of course I agreed.

Without making any further attempt to dab at his streaming eyes or mask the husky remains of the tears in his voice, Fred Basci began telling me that he had lost most of his family in Auschwitz and he had emerged from the camp at the end of the war more dead than alive.

Rather than submit to living in a displaced person’s camp, Fred set off on foot and began the long walk back to Hungary to see if anyone in his family or community had survived.

For weeks he walked and slept in forests and inside ruined buildings, but when he got back to Hungary he had the misfortune to be captured by Russian troops who were arresting anyone and everyone who might possibly have been a German in order to exact vengeance for the atrocities the Nazi’s had inflicted on their people.

Fred knew only one word in the language of his captors – the Russian word for ‘Jew’ – and he used it over and over while pointing to himself to try to convince the Russian troops that he was a Jewish victim and not a German collaborator or (G-d forbid) a Nazi.

No amount of using the word ‘Jew’ and pointing to himself had any effect on the Russian soldiers and it soon became clear that Fred and his fellow prisoners (most of whom were in fact collaborators and Nazis) were going to be given a field trial and summarily executed. So deep was the Russian hatred for the Germans in the wake of countless atrocities that all attempts to explain and plead for mercy fell on deaf ears.

One day when a Russian officer appeared and it seemed that the trials and executions were about to begin, Fred made one last attempt to convince his captors that he was Jewish and not a German war criminal. The officer overheard him screaming the Russian word for Jew and came over to the caged enclosure where the prisoners were being held. After determining that Fred didn’t know any other Russian, the officer asked through a soldier who spoke some Hungarian why Fred kept screaming the word Jew.

Fred answered that it was because he was a Jew who had been in a concentration camp and that he had been mistakenly arrested while trying to make his way back to his home village in Hungary.

The officer asked him via the interpreter why he should believe him. He continued by saying that this was a common trick among the Germans to try to avoid the firing squad.

Fred responded by untucking one side of his shirt and pulling out the soiled strings of the ‘tzitzi’ot’ he wore underneath.

The officer looked at the strings and said,

“So what… how do I know you haven’t taken these strings off the body of a dead Jew? Surely it would have been an easy thing to accomplish with so many of them dead all over Europe. Tell me, is there some prayer or blessing that one has to say on these strings that would prove to me that you are a Jew?”

Without hesitation Fred recited the Hebrew blessing one says each morning over the ‘tzitzi’ot’, all the time staring up into the cold eyes of the Russian officer. As he finished the blessing the officer said something in Russian to the soldier who had been acting as interpreter and the soldier went around to the gate of the enclosure clearly intent on unlocking it.

While Fred watched in disbelief as the gate was being unchained, the Russian officer took advantage of their momentary solitude to whisper to him softly in perfect Yiddish:

“I am also a Jew so I hope you understand why I had to be sure you were who you said you were. By the time you wake up tomorrow morning the rest of these prisoners will be dead and buried. It is not a common thing to find a Jew in a position of authority in the Russian army so take my advice… as you make your way to your home village, try to avoid any other Russian troops if you can.”

As Fred Basci finished relating the tale of his narrow escape, his clear blue eyes locked onto mine and he grabbed my upper arm in a vise-like grip, and said,

“When you think Gilad is old enough to hear this story I want you to tell him in my name that these strings we wear are important. They remind us who we are every single moment that we wear them… and sometimes they remind others who we are too. Because of these strings I lived instead of being shot. I was able to marry, raise a family and live to be an old man who gives candy to your beautiful children in shul. Please tell Gili in my name so that every morning while he is making this blessing, he will never forget how important these strings are to us.”

When I got back to the car Gilad asked me if Fred Basci was OK. I assured him that he was, and told him that Fred had given me a birthday gift for him… a story that in a few years I would share with him.

And a few years ago I kept my promise to Fred Basci and told Gilad his belated Birthday story.

Note: We recently commemorated Yom HaShoah (Holocaust remembrance day). At 10:00AM on April 25, a two minute siren sounded throughout the country and the entire nation stood in silence thinking about the incomprehensible idea of six million Jews who were murdered only a few years before the establishment of a Jewish state/homeland.

When the siren sounded I thought about one Jew who survived.

David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003 David has been working in Israel’s defense industry on International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog (www.treppenwitz.com) and is an amateur beekeeping.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.