A Passover Miracle

    April 2000 Passover Edition            
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A Passover Miracle


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Opinion & Society


Passover Miracle in the Holocaust

By Hank Stanton

This April 20, 2000, begins Passover - Pesach in classic Hebrew - when Jews all over the world begin this annual week long commemoration of the deliverance from Egyptian slavery with the Seder meal, the same meal that a young man named Jesus of Nazareth blessed on the eve of his crucifixion, almost 2000 years ago.

At some time during this festive and joyous repast, we remember the tale of the exodus from Egypt, and the ten plagues that would visit the land, especially the last one, the one that killed every firstborn in the land, in every home, except for the ones that were marked with sacrificial blood. This disaster finally convinced the Pharaoh to heed God's command which had thundered out of Moses' mouth: "Let my people go!."

In a way, this celebration marks the day of my own deliverance from potential slavery as well.

So let us go back to March 10, 1938, my 15th birthday. In two days from that date, my life as I had known it would come to an abrupt, terrifying halt. But I did not know this, for on that brilliant, sunny day in March, I was King of the Mountain.

That very morning, after a glorious week of roaming the white wilderness of the Austrian Alps, I had won a slalom skiing championship!. I had beaten all of "them!." Not even the remark by one of the highschool teachers: "I wish the Jewboy hadn't done it!" could dampen the euphoria I still felt a little later as we, some 30 boys and a couple of adults, carved serpentine grooves into the glittering, powdery slopes of the Semmering Mountain in central Austria.

We swayed and crouched to tease the last ounce of speed out of our heavy, wooden skis for we had to be in the village at the foot of the mountain in time to catch the train which would deposit us that same afternoon at one of the palatial railroad terminals in the city of Vienna.

We skied all the way into the railroad station just as the train chugged to a stop, threw our skis, poles and rucksacks into the baggage compartment, and piled into a passenger car. Even though steam rose from our clothes, tears stung our eyes, and our cold noses ran, we were deliriously happy. All differences, racial, ethnic, social level, they were all forgotten. Until we pulled into the terminal where my parents, bless them, were waiting to welcome their baby boy back home.

My father, every inch the tall, extremely elegant, impeccably dressed textile mill owner, the aristocratic ex-army-captain of the former Austrian-Hungarian Empire he still longed for; and my mother, the ultimate professional, eminent physician, beautiful to a fault, wrapped in a luxurious fur coat, stood out, and apart, from the crowd of the waiting relatives like a pair of regal pines at the edge of an oak forest.

Mother hugged me, then held me at arms length. "My God, you smell horrible!" Those were her first words of welcome, and that, in a nutshell, was my mother, rest her soul!

I cringed as I felt the other kids drifting away from me. Once again, I was the "different one," the Jew who is told "to go back where you came from!" the one with the rich, obviously crooked parents who no doubt must be members of the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy. But then that was part of the Jewish experience, not only in Austria, but in most of pre World War II, anti-Semitic Europe. One accepted it, lived with it, and, unlike my parents, most everyone kept as low a profile as possible. "Assimilation" was the buzzword of the time.

As I stored my equipment in the trunk of our car, a luxury seldom afforded in the Austria of 1938, I was aware of the envious stares, and the angry whispers. Oh, well, that's life.

To celebrate my birthday, we were to go to a nightclub, in a cellar near the St.Stephen's Cathedral, the geographic and social center of Vienna. And did we ever celebrate! Everyone in the place joined in, and a high old time was had by all.

So it was about 2:00 AM when we stumbled, exhausted, a little bit tipsy, and very happy, up the cellar stairs........and into an icy cold stillness. The vast area around the massive St. Stevens Cathedral was sunk into an inky darkness, only occasionally relieved by small pools of light painted on the late spring snow by the ornate cast iron streetlights. It was eerily quiet, and although the air was brittle and brisk, it seemed strangely oppressive. In a daze, we stood rooted to the sidewalk..

A bizarre, unexplainable sense of doom came over me.

Suddenly, like a steam-belching locomotive out of the mouth of a tunnel, a large truck blasted out of a side street nearby, an open-bed vehicle loaded with men clad in brown shirts, jodhpurs, boots, screaming unintelligible slogans, and waving large red flags with black swastikas on a white circle. It roared by us, so close that I could see the contorted faces belching guttural screams, and hear the crack of the flags as they whipped in the slip stream. And then they turned another corner, and were gone, and it was still again.

My parents came out of their trance, practically threw me into the car, and sped home. Not a word was said, my father's face had turned to stone, my mother stared straight ahead. I was petrified.

Two days later, the Germans "invaded" - translate to "were welcomed by the delirious masses" - Austria, and the very next day after that, my father's automobile was confiscated, a short few days later, the textile mills were "bought" by the Nazis, and my mother's medical/dental practice was taken over by her "loyal" assistant. I, along with Jewish kids from all over the city, were transferred into a separate, segregated "Jew School." It happened fast, almost as if it had been pre-choreographed. Which in fact it had.

And then, some time later, rumors of "the raids" surfaced. It seemed that, in addition to humiliating Jews by destroying their livelihoods, making them clean city streets on hands and knees, beating them up in broad daylight, or arresting them willy nilly, armed Germans were combing apartment houses in an organized manner. Many Jews, sometimes entire families, were said to be arrested, and carted off to who knew where. It seemed as if the raiders knew exactly where to look, down to the house or apartment number. But these sweeps were only rumors to us, of which there were hundreds, and besides, we had more immediate problems to solve.

So it is that we sit this late evening, a few months into the "Anschluss," grouped around the massive dining table in our apartment. The radio spews martial music, attractive tunes with uplifting lyrics like: " Wenn das Judenblut vom Messer spritzt" (When the Blood of Jews drips from Knives), other inspiring Nazi propaganda, and occasionally, highly censored and distorted news programs. It seemed as if we are, masochistically, setting the mood for our desperation of being practically destitute, and having just learned that the immigration quota into "Amerika" is filled for the next three years. Which is problematic at best, since as of now, we have no American sponsor to vouch for us in the first place.

And then we hear the squeal of tires and the screech of brakes!

My father explodes from his chair, hits all the light switches, the apartment is pitch dark, and we rush to the windows that look down on the wide, cobble stoned street three stories below us.

The unthinkable has happened! It is a raid!

Every street opening within sight is blocked by huge trucks out of which tumble the roughest, meanest looking, black clad, well armed soldiers I have yet to see. With well rehearsed precision, they fan out over the area, then form into small groups, and storm into every apartment building in my field of vision. My father rips the blackout drapes shut, grabs me, and drags me, along with mother, into the farthest corner in the farthest room away from the entrance to our apartment. There we cower, defeated, resigned to the inevitable, and I descend into a sort of confused stupor. Yet, curiously, I am keenly aware of the sights and sounds around me.

I hear the thwack! of gun butts hitting flesh, and the sharp cracks of splintering wood as the raiders beat down those doors that don't open on command. Not every door is shattered, and it seems as if a preconceived plan is followed, as if the storm troopers have precise information as to where their victims reside. Rifle shots echo through the halls - at least I think that's what they are - and then begins something I have never heard during my sheltered young life, the sounds of human beings in great distress. I hear sobbing, terrified, deep sobbing, and instinctively, I can tell whether it is a man or a woman doing it. And screams fill the air, high, keening screams, screams that have no gender at all. I learn that the scream of a human being in horrible pain or abject terror is sexless.

I literally choke with fear. I am trapped, there is no escape, and even if I wanted to flee, I can't move, it is as if I am paralyzed. The yelling, screaming, and gun butts hitting bodies have petrified me. The noises of the hunt, of splintering wood, of panic, of bellowing thugs come ever closer, and I expect our front door to cave in with a crash at any moment. The pounding of hobnailed boots hitting the tiled floor of the corridor approach........they are at our door!........and they pass us by! The impossible has happened, we have been spared, we have, literally, dodged a bullet! I shake like a leaf as I sneak to a window, and lift the black-out drape a bit.

Below me, out of every entrance, men, women, even some children spill into the dark street, driven by men in the hated black uniform. They are herding their prey into a holding area, like driving wild animals towards the inevitable net. A few of the stunned victims are wearing street attire and are carrying small suitcases, but many are still in flimsy night shirts or even underwear. The captors divide these unfortunates into smaller groups, ignoring the mother's scream for their children, or husbands reaching for wives, working the "herd" like cowboys on a cutting horse, and crowd them into the waiting transportation. These thugs work very fast, practically throw their captives into the back of the trucks, clubbing those that don't move fast enough to suit. Then the troops pull down the canvas sides of the vehicles, and, with their human loads, roar off into the night. Stillness descends once more on our neighborhood. It is over.

And I realize: We have been passed over! As if we had the blood of the lamb painted on the lintel and doorposts of our house as told in the Old Testament. To this day I can not say why we were saved. A Passover Miracle? If indeed that is what it was, it was the first in a long line of "miracles" that made it possible for me to write this story.


from the April 2000 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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