The Power of Gratitude

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This story was told to me by my friend and neighbor whose mother, Eva, was named after the Jewish heroine, Erna Gantz.

Mor on a boat to Lucern, Switzerland, August 1969.

Frankfort, 1933, 8:54 a.m. Tanchum Moshe Pinkas, known as Mor, briskly climbed the steep marble stairs of the imposing, gray office building that housed the government courts. He pulled open the heavy glass door and entered the small, elegant lobby. Once inside, he nodded politely to the German doorman, as he did every morning. “A gutte morgen,” he smiled. “It’s a cold day today, isn’t it?” Before he could continue, he felt a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back.

“Sir, uh, Mr. Pinkas,” the doorman whispered, staring studiously at the polished marble floor. “Do not go up to the courtroom.”

Mor instinctively took a half-step backwards. “What’s going on?” he asked. But he already knew the answer.

“They’re … they’re waiting for you. You are about to be arrested.”

Arrest meant certain death. Mor looked around carefully; he had known that this might happen, but he had never thought it would be so soon. Hitler had recently been named chancellor, but his dictatorship was not yet absolute. Mor was heading the civil prosecution case against a high Nazi official, and he was doing such a good job of it that there was a definite possibility he might win. If that were to happen, it would strike a heavy – if not deadly – blow to the authority and power of the Nazi party.

Mor was still suspicious. Maybe this was a trap? He glanced around the lobby. They were alone. “You are a German,” he said to the doorman, pointedly looking into his eyes. “I am a Jew. Why are you helping me?”

The doorman allowed a small smile to escape his lips. “Mr. Pinkas, of all the people who pass through this door daily – and there are many of them – you are the only one who actually says hello to me. You’re the only one to treat me as a person, instead of a piece of furniture. How could I let anyone harm you?”

Mor grabbed the doorman’s hand for a split second. “May you be blessed,” he whispered, before turning around and nonchalantly leaving the building.

Mor got on into the first tram that came his way. He rode it two stops, got off, crossed the street and got on a different tram. He rode that tram across the city to Opernplatz Square. There, he climbed the stairs of an imposing two story drab stone house, set behind large hedges.

The maid opened the door. “You’re not feeling well, Mr. Pinkas?” It was more of a statement than a question.

“Just a bit tired, Flora. I’m really all right,” he nodded, carefully placing his hat on the mahogany hat rack and handing her his fur overcoat. “But I forgot a few papers and had to come all the way back home to get them. Where’s Carla?”

“She’s eating breakfast in the sun room.”

“Thank you, Flora,” he replied, hoping she had not heard the pounding of his heart.

Carla, Chanukah 1972.

Carla was surprised. “Is everything all right?” she asked. Her heart told her that it was not.

“No. There’s a warrant out for my arrest. I must escape, quickly.”

It took Clara just a few minutes to pack a small unassuming bag with a change of clothes and a few important papers. Mor quickly kissed his infant daughter, Eva, said good-bye to his wife and left the apartment. He looked like any other businessman rushing to work in the morning.

Carla understood that the moment the Gestapo realized that her husband had escaped, her life would also be in danger. She grabbed her infant, packed a suitcase with a few essentials and fled to the home of her brother’s fiancé, Hilda. The Nazis would never think of looking for her there.

When the Nazis arrived a few hours later, Carla and her baby were gone. The maid had no idea where they had disappeared to.

Mor took the first train to Belgium. He stayed at the home of a close friend until he was able to obtain a Swedish work permit. He moved to Stockholm, changed his last name to Pineas, found a job and rented a small apartment. Once he was settled, he sent his wife a telegram asking her to join him.

Carla wasn’t interested. She assumed, as did so many others, that the Nazis were just a passing phase, and that it wouldn’t be long before everything would return to normal. How could she leave her beloved Germany to become a penniless refuge? How could she live in a country where she couldn’t even speak the language? She had no doubt that everything would soon return to normal and that she would regret having made such a rash decision.

Carla’s friend, Erna Gantz disagreed. “Your place is with your husband,” she said. “He needs you. You’re his wife. The situation here is dangerous, and it will remain that way. Germany is not a place for Jews. You must save yourself and your child. Go to your husband.”

But Carla was afraid. It was impossible for her to take anything with her, except for the small bag of essentials that she had brought with her to her sister-in-law’s home. How could she leave everything – her beautiful home, the antique furnishings, a inheritance from her grandmother, her great-grandmother’s silver candlesticks; the list was endless – to start over again with nothing? How could she abandon an entire life?

“But you’re not leaving everything,” Erna argued. “You have your husband and he has you. Your daughter needs a father. You’re young and healthy; you can still build a beautiful life together. There’s no future here in Germany, Carla. Leave while you can.”

Erna handed Carla a train ticket. “I can still get to my money. I bought this for you. The train’s leaving tomorrow morning at six.” She started walking to the bedroom. “I’ll help you pack.”

Just before Carla and her infant daughter, Eva, boarded the train, Erna removed a beautiful gold ring from her finger and handed it to Carla. “Please take this ring,” she said. “You will never see me again.”

As they train rolled through the city, Carla stared out the window at her beloved Frankfurt. Her eyes welled with tears at the thought that she might never see her home again.

Mor, Carla and little Eva spent the following decade in Stockholm. Their home became an unofficial refugee center. There, too, Mor was active in illegal hatzalah work. At home, in the middle of the night; in shul, on Shabbos afternoon – when no one would ever suspect them of such activities – the men forged Swedish passports that were used to save illegal refugees from being sent back to the crematories.

After the war, the Red Cross brought thousands of young female survivors to Sweden for medical care and rehabilitation. Mor Pineas and Rabbi Yisrael Hazdan would enter the DP camps and make a big deal of eating a sandwich. They would wash, say hamotzi and bentch in loud, booming voices. Slowly and cautiously, the young Jewish girls came forward and acknowledged their Jewish identity. For many, this was the first step towards living a full Jewish life.

While residing in Stockholm, Carla heard that, Erna, the brave woman who had urged her to leave Germany and had helped many other women escape, had been caught. She took her own life before the Nazis were able to torture her to death. The Jewish community claimed her body and she was privileged to have a proper Jewish burial. She was buried in the Frankfurt Jewish cemetery.

After the war, Carla contacted the Frankfurt Chevra Kadisha for the details of Erna Gantz’s gravesite. She was told that there was no such person with that name was buried in the Frankfurt Jewish cemetery. Afterwards, Carla contacted other Chevra Kadishas in Germany, but without success. No one had heard of Erna Gantz.

Over a decade later, in 1957, Carla traveled to Frankfurt to attend a distant relative’s funeral. During the service, she felt compelled to leave the funeral and walk among the gravestones. She was drawn to a certain grave, and a few minutes later, she found herself standing in front of a monument inscribed with the name “Erna Gantz.” She was privileged to recite a few prayers and express her gratitude to this brave woman who had saved her life.

The expression of gratitude, however, did not stop with a few prayers. When little Eva grew up, she named her daughter in memory of Erna’s self-sacrifice in saving her and her family.

The Pineas legacy of gratitude and respect continues until this very day. Almost from the moment they are born, Mor and Carla’s great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren are told the story of how their ancestor’s life was saved because of the respect he showed toward a simple doorman. As Mor’s granddaughter says, “It always pays to say thank you, even if it doesn’t save a life.”

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Debbie Shapiro is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem with her family. She is presently writing the biography of the late Rabbi Tzvi Aryeh Rosenfeld.

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