A South Texas Schindler
By Ted Roberts
I’m in a doctor's waiting room in Huntsville - as in Alabama - the very buckle of the Bible Belt. So I’m leafing through episodes in the life of Elisha, the Prophet, instead of reading about "better buttocks and abs" in Cosmopolitan. The Book of Books sits right there on the coffee table along with its trendy companions.
It’s a brief wait. I don't even get to finish the story in Kings II, about Elisha causing an ax head to float to the surface of the Jordan River. The nurse calls me into the business end of the suite and the doctor - let’s call him O'Neil - checks me out. Later as I dress, he spies my Jewish Community T-shirt - a midnight blue match to my open-at-the-collar, gray dress shirt.
He hesitates. A deliberate man. Normally, a quiet man who DOESN’T wear his heart on his sleeve. He’s deliberating - wondering if he wants to communicate the thought that’s visible on his face.
I encourage him by using the old psychotherapeutic technique - of neutral repetition - to keep the conversational ball in play.
“Oh, so you’re Irish. That’s nice.”
Here it comes, and I’m anxious to hear it.
“We lived in a dusty, little town twenty miles from Galveston. My daddy was the head accountant - you might call him the Office Manager - for Midwest Grain Corporation. A good job in the late 30’s. Plenty of groceries for the family.”
“Anyhow, in our town there was an old Jewish guy, a rabbi I guess. I’d see him often on the street. Dressed all in black, full gray beard. And instead of a Stetson, he wore a big brimmed, black hat. Can you imagine walking around in a hot, South Texas town where the river dries up in July - in a black suit? I never understood that.”
“Well, seems like most every weekend daddy would go visit the fellow with the beard. Me and my brother and sister, we’d stay in the car and listen to the insect noises that filled the night. He never said what they talked about. Daddy would stay in the house ‘bout an hour. One thing I remember is he always came back to the car with a handful of papers.”
“In those years, you know, it was hard for Jews to get into the U.S. They had to have a sponsor and a bona fide job waiting for them. My daddy, we found out later, was working with that Jewish rabbi - his name I’ve forgotten - arranging for German Jews to immigrate to America. Jobs were a prerequisite, so my daddy, in his official function of office manager, hired seventeen Jewish office boys. Seventeen!”
In a happier time it would have been a comic scene out of a Marx Brothers movie. Seventeen office boys falling all over themselves speaking Yiddish or fractured English. Midwest Grain must have given their Galveston region manager a huge corporate wink. He had more office boys than invoices. He and the old Jew in the outlandish hat worked it out, Doc O’Neil told me. And one of those office boys rose to be President of Midwest Grain. “And that’s why the President of Midwest Grain and a Rabbi who looked like an old testament prophet came to my father’s funeral.”
He paused to think again of a wake in South Texas - a room full of Irishmen, and two Jews - as though he still wondered at life’s ironies. “You know,” said the doctor, “those Nazis were mean”.
I quickly agreed. In the vocabulary of South Texas “mean” is many levels of evil above “nasty”. “Mean” doesn’t carry the connotation of mere dislike - but death-dealing. And the elder O'Neil, the mild-mannered office manager, knew this through his talks with his Jewish counterpart.
The Doc was probably repeating words he’d heard as a child as his dad sat in the big living room chair and read the headlines. Here was a Texas Schindler - perhaps without the personal risk, but after all, O'Neil was an accountant, not a flaming capitalist like his Polish counterpart. His actions were all the more praiseworthy since he was so remote from the catastrophe; totally disconnected from the victims. He never saw the broken lives. He heard no widow’s cries.
All this was rolling around in my head as I buttoned up my shirt. Just goes to show, I thought, how life can occasionally threaten a curve ball and put a big, slow, fast ball right over the plate. Thirty minutes with a medic and I get: A) a small innocent lump painlessly removed from my neck, B) a good report on the content of that lump, and C) an inspirational jolt that makes me feel a whole lot better about my planetary brothers.
In Jerusalem, in Yad Vashem, there’s a section dedicated to Righteous Gentiles. Heroes who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. I nominate this South Texas Schindler. He’d probably be the first Texas honoree.
After my session with The Doc, I went home and finished the story of Elisha’s miracle. I wonder if Elisha - prophets are timeless, you know - was hanging around South Texas performing miracles in the late 30’s?
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Website: www.wonderwordworks.com or
Buy Ted's collected works at link www.lulu.com/content/127641
from the May 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine