“Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name (yad vashem) better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5).
My brother Aaron, a teenager at the time of this story, hiked up to the entrance of Yad Vashem, the Mount of Remembrance on the eastern side of Jerusalem’s Mount Herzi. It was early November. The skies were the color and texture of old, wadded aluminum foil, and there had been rain throughout the night.
Under his sweatshirt Aaron held a small camera, and in the front pocket he fingered again for the scrap of paper entrusted him by his parents. On it was the name of Antonini’s wife written in ballpoint pen, and a number indicating in approximately which quadrant of this sprawling garden her tree should stand.
Here, both victims and heroes of the Holocaust are commemorated through statuary, architecture, various forms of artwork and this grove referred to as Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. Hundreds of trees are planted here for non-Jews who risked everything to save the lives of Jews. Antonini’s “kranke katholische Frau” numbered among them. Past the tree honoring Corrie Ten Boom,
Beyond the plaque to Oscar Schindler,
Aaron found her tree and her plaque.
Weeks later, about when November turned to December, in some small apartment in Warsaw, Antonini received a letter and a small collection of photos of a tree and a plaque standing in distant Jerusalem. He showed them to his wife. The two were grateful beyond their ability to express, but Antonini tried to write their thanks anyway in a letter he sent to my parents.
Over the next four years, Antonini’s letters from Warsaw, Poland arrived in my parents’ white wooden mailbox in Provo, Utah. Each letter, a modest single page and some times two, was written on fine onionskin paper, the likes of which folks in America rarely used anymore, let alone wrote on. Antonini wrote with a fountain pen. The penmanship had the sort of meticulous formality you might find in a calligraphy primer from the 1920’s; beautiful as you hold it up to the light, the letters a physical curiosity, even an objet d’art. We’d gather to look at them, I remember, like scientists gather to scrutinize delicate new specimens of nature, microbes, fragments of a mystery.
But scrutinizing is all we could do to those letters.
Antonini wrote only in Polish.
This he’d warned about upon our first meeting when, over Polish-Chinese cuisine, my parents had promised to correspond. And this would just have to do. However much he’d mastered a Yiddish-tinged spoken German, he’d never learned to write it. And so, apologizing, here came the letters in his native tongue. My parents took them to a professor friend at the local university whose specialty was Polish translation.
“Dr. Dalton, remind me. Who’s this man again?” The professor leaned back in her chair after making her way through a paragraph from Antonini’s first letter. She’d been tracing with her finger the florid loops and perfectly spaced slants, crosses and dots. “You said you met him where?“
“At the monument to the Jewish ghetto uprising, central Warsaw,” my dad said. “So, what does he write? What can you tell about him? He’s been through a great deal, of course, and his wife has been ailing for some time, I think, so maybe. . . is it all disjointed?”
The translator smiled. “This is. . .Disjointed? Ha, no, not at all. This is. . .how should I put this? This is elevated Polish, Dr. Dalton. A magistrate’s vocabulary. And look at this, you see here?” She pointed to the lean of the ink letters. “This is noble handwriting. Sign of a high education.”
“Cultivated, you’re saying?”
“Very. An elegant man. Erudite. Even the sentence structure. You know, that sort of old world, fine upbringing. Now, what’s this guy’s story again?”
What was this guy’s story?
More than most of us could ever begin to comprehend.
My parents and Antonini continued corresponding, they writing to Poland in German, which Antonini and his wife somehow translated well enough, and Antonini responding to Utah in Polish, which the local professor read, always with some comment about the level of linguistic refinement.
Then, a few years after our first meeting over steamy bowls of Polish chow mien noodles, my mother, then a soprano with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, was on her way with them on a European tour that was stopping in Poland. She wrote to Antonini, of course, to arrange a meeting and, above all, to invite this cultivated man, the one whose beloved older brother had been among the 39 members of the Warsaw Philharmonic to lose their lives in the Holocaust, to a performance from this, arguably the world’s most famous choir.
At the time on that tour, the first Mormon meetinghouse in Poland since WWII was going to be dedicated in Warsaw. This was, for those few isolated but faithful members of the church, (like the ones we’d met with in 1987 in the photo below) a landmark day. And it so happened that the choir would be in the country. The choir.
The day of the choir concert, there were many church authorities and representatives of the press filling the entry halls of the Warsaw Marriott Hotel. The crush of bodies made it hard for my mother to make herself stand out in case Antonini should arrive, and just as hard for her to watch for a small man she only remembered as a living Rembrandt with a black beret and a gray trench coat. What if she couldn’t find him? She began to wonder as she craned her neck above the crowd if Antonini had even received her last letter confirming where and when they would meet. And if he’d received it in the first place, what if his plans had changed? He’d given no telephone number – maybe he didn’t even have a phone – and my mother could only be reached at this hotel. She’d be one of many women wearing identical gowns. Would he recognize her? For a moment when time was running out before departure to the gatherings where the choir would sing and local political and church authorities would speak, and still no Antonini appeared, she thought of writing his name in big black letters on paper she’d scrounged from the reception desk. She’d hold it above her head, and even (this would be my mom) sing out his name operatically above the noise of the crowd. “An-to-ni-ni!” Just to get his attention were he hidden in there somewhere.
The buses were being loaded. Group after group of choir members pushed toward and out the doors. Altos lined up, still no sign of Antonini. Then the sopranos. No sign. And there, when enough bodies had finally cleared out of the lobby, in a corner stood a smallish balding man with white sideburns. He wore no beret, but he was in the same grey trench coat of years ago.
“Shalom,” my mother said to a man who appeared much older and far more frail than she’d remembered him. Immediately, she thought she saw the face of someone recently widowed. But she didn’t ask. Not in that crowded, hurried moment.
“Shalom,” he said, reaching to shake her hand, and then the two exchanged the three, light traditional Polish kisses on the cheek and my mother, always warm, drew this gentle friend into her arms.
Quickly, and with little talk, she ushered Antonini towards a man she’d had waiting, a Juliusz Fussek who, after years living in the U.S., had returned to Warsaw with his English wife Dorothy as a volunteer representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They served for over five years in his mother tongue and fatherland.
The two Poles – one Mormon, one Jewish – spent the afternoon deep in conversation, comparing notes, finding common bonds, and sitting in a place of honor watching the choir perform.
There had been little time, given the choir’s tight schedule, for my mother to talk with Antonini as much as she’d hoped. But from her place in the middle of the soprano section, she searched for and kept an eye focused on this soft face that responded with awe and radiance to the music that poured over him. After the concert ended and the choir members were required to return to their buses and hotel to proceed to the next venue, my mom and Antonini had to share only a brief goodbye.
Again in the German/Yiddish of years earlier, they clasped each other’s hands and vowed to continue this correspondence. Maybe there would be another chance to meet like this again? The choir tours every few years, my mom said. And she and my dad always seem to find themselves returning to Europe, she said with a smile.
“Aber bitte,” she added, “richten Sie die schönsten Grüße an Ihre liebe Frau aus.”
But please give the kindest greetings to your dear wife.
Those eyes of his changed shape, their surface shone, and something subtle shifted in his white brows. Did his lips part to say something? Was that single, short breath the prelude to a sharp-cornered secret? But then he let the breath out again as his lips drew upward in an unsteady curve.
He saw the bus was leaving. She had to turn to go.
And so Shalom.
And in return Shalom.
To Be Continued
Actually, there’s no “to be continued” here.
I’m sorry I’ve brought you all the way to this spot without providing a good old-fashioned Hollywood ending, some remarkable revelatory connection, an incredible coming-together, a place in the narrative where the music swells and the cameras zoom and all the broken pieces slip magically together and it all makes poetic sense. Denouement and the slow fade.
But we never heard again from Antonini. To my parents’ next letter, no response.
And to another letter, still no response.
All the blank spaces in this story – who was and what happened to his wife, what about his regal handwriting and sophisticated Polish, his beloved David, all his history – to this day they remain blank spaces. I’ve never been able to track down the archives of the Warsaw Philharmonic orchestra to verify that the last concertmaster before the orchestra dissolved during the Nazi’s occupation of Poland was, indeed, a man named David, Antonini’s beloved older brother. And we never knew Antonini’s Jewish family name, since he’d adopted a new identity just as he’d adopted a new life, so it’s been virtually impossible to trace the family.
The blanks stay agape. And as a story teller, I’m sorry for that.
So why, then, tell this story at all? What’s the point?
The point is that a man suffered stupefying loss, grieved for forty years, met some strangers on a public square, they connected in their fumbling white-tennis-shoed touristy way, and that simple link lifted a heavy stone from the man’s heart.
And (here is the point of the point of the point), the strangers were lifted by him.
How? In the very way reading his story here has both sobered and lifted you. Real people who survive real horrors touch us, inspire us, show us what it means to continue, that it is humanly possible. Continue grieving great loss. Continue loving throughout the life that remains.
Would it surprise you to know that, when tragedy touched my life, my thoughts sailed straight for Antonini? My mind scavenged instinctively for stories of loss and living onward and I found I had such a story right at hand. It had a face and a voice, eyes like an artist and a worn-out black beret.
The man who by that time was probably gone from earth, (my calculations put him at 91 years old today), came back with quiet spiritual force in my imagination to show me how continuing is done. It began with a simple Shalom. It goes on simply with Shalom.
This week my husband received a Linked In message. A senior level colleague with whom Randall has nearly no regular contact, but who knew about the loss of our son Parker, took the time out to follow a nudge, (I’ll call it a spiritual prompting), to send a word. It said:
“Randall, I am sure you must still be hurting about Parker. I know this because of the happiness I derive from watching my sons grow up. This causes me to think of you. And while I acknowledge you’re still hurting, it was really good to see your smile on your Linked In profile.”
Did this man have any way of knowing that he, in that 2-minute investment of time and sincerity, did something holy? Did he realize that that brief reaching out showed that he is continuing with us? Did he have any idea that a four sentence email message lifted a heavy stone from our hearts? That he realized Yad Vashem by giving “a place and a name” to our deceased son?
Parker on Linked In. As public a square as the one where we met Antonini in Warsaw. But there you have it: comfort.
And do you think he’d calculated that he was sending that comfort on the very day of the 5-½ year anniversary of our son’s death?
I think probably not.