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Honor Heroes, Past and Present

April 13, 2002|MICHAEL WEISER | Michael Weiser lives in Tarzana.

Every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day we mourn the loss of millions of innocent Jews, Catholics, Gypsies, homosexuals, Communists and political opponents who were murdered by the Nazis. The themes of loss, remembrance and sacrifice resonate with greater power than usual this year in light of Sept. 11. While we mourn the loss of loved ones, we should also recall and celebrate the heroism of those who risked everything in the name of confronting and defeating unspeakable evil.

Although many such stories exist, few are ever told publicly. Here is my father's. In the spring of 1942, the Nazis were occupying Teshin, Czechoslovakia.

My grandfather managed to escape and join the partisans in Romania. My grandmother was much less fortunate; she was captured by the Nazis and sent to the Auschwitz death camp. For three years she endured horrors I cannot even begin to imagine, until the camp's liberation in 1945.

Before she was deported to the camps, she made arrangements with her Catholic neighbors to take care of her only son--my father--then only 9 months old.

Harboring Jews carried with it unparalleled dangers. The family that sheltered my father risked their property, their peace of mind, their very lives. Despite these tremendous perils, my father was welcomed as an integral part of the family and was given a relatively normal life amid the chaos engulfing Europe. While other Jewish children were being slaughtered by the thousands, my father enjoyed a happy and safe early childhood, thanks to his adoptive family.

Shortly after the end of the war, the Jewish Agency came to take my father to a relocation camp for the reunification of families. The family that had raised and protected him for more than four years, who treated him as if he was their own son, lost him in a matter of days. My father lost the only family he ever knew.

As a Jew, I will never forget a picture of my father standing together with his new family next to a Christmas tree. As a human being, I will never forget the extraordinary valor of these heroes.

Some 23 years later, at my father's wedding, a rather unusual gift arrived. The gift was a pair of gold rings sent by the couple that saved my father's life. The rings were their wedding bands. It is important to keep in mind that the couple and their daughter were poverty-stricken, living behind the Iron Curtain. They could have kept the rings or sold them to buy a little comfort in life, but instead they passed them on to my father, the son they briefly had, the son they could not keep, the son they could never forget.

I looked at those rings for the first time this past week. They were devoid of any markings; they bore no gem and were barren of elegant engravings or designs. In fact, they were entirely unremarkable.

In that moment I seized upon the irony that although the rings were plain and ordinary, the people who had worn them had been anything but. The people who saved my father were the jewels of humanity.

As I held those rings in my hand, I said a silent prayer of thanks for those righteous people who saved my father and, in turn, saved me. In observing Holocaust Remembrance Day, we must not only recall the victims but also exalt the heroes of those dark days who bore untold burdens and sacrifices to provide a better life for others.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, I once again find my thoughts turning to heroes--the firefighters, the police officers, the emergency medical technicians and our soldiers who face untold dangers and evil. I am incredibly thankful to them, perhaps more than they will ever know.

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