Antonini, Part 2

yad vashem tree

Yad Vashem

“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).

**
avenue righteous

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.

yad vashem

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,

ocarrie ten boom

Beyond the plaque to Oscar Schindler,

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.

vad vashem children

The Letters

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.

The Choir

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.

SA20 1987 YU Ven POL176

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

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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.

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13 thoughts on “Antonini, Part 2

  1. Oh Melissa, again you have brought both tears to my eyes and hope to my heart. I too wish that we could know what happened to Antonini and his wife. I am so happy to at least know that she got to see her tree, what a kind gesture of your family to do for another. It is no wonder that your Parker’s spirit gets to communicate to you through so many. The drums at the school, the nudge from the collegue on the Linked In, and I am sure many many more. There is such a strong presence of the divine in your family, your actions, and your words. Please keep sharing, I never leave without gaining something. Though your writing makes me feel so inferior in mine, I know that it keeps me growing and learning. You are an inspiring writer and soul. Thank you again for sharing. Love and Peace- Janine

    • Janine-Thank you for your sweet and generous words. This is the place in the blog where I get to begin sharing as many stories as I possibly can squeeze into this screen of people’s kindness towards us and towards each other. I can hardly wait to write each entry. (There is, however, this pesky thing called ‘living” that keeps me from writing 24/7. But I want to live, too, not just write about living 🙂 The coming posts will introduce you to the people who are the reason there might be, as you write, maybe a “strong presence of the divine” in our family. I don’t know, we are a bunch of lurching and flawed folks just like everyone else. But the people themselves, these faithful friends and family, are living symbols of whatever you want to call divine, and we will always be indebted to them.
      Need to go live for 2.5 hours, then I’ll be back. Thanks again, Janine.–M.

  2. Melissa, once again I was truly touched by your words here. You greatly inspire by the grace of your pen. Your son Parker is surely so proud of his beloved mom. Your husband, as we your reading audience, derive great comfort from your words shared here…and we are inspired to live on.

    This story needs no conclusion for it lives on in your heart, your mind, your soul. What you have gifted to Antonini through your words is a renewed sense of life and human kindness he seldom knew. You have gifted him comfort…even in his passing. What a remarkable legacy to leave. Thank you once again…I am deeply inspired.

    • Now Don, don’t get me all teary here. What loving and supportive words! Have to tell you, went on a long walk early this morning and somewhere in a snowy forest (there are many where I live) a thought plunked on my head like the snow shaken down by a crow in hemlock tree. All Robert Frost-y, you know? This was the thought: that by writing of Antonini and sharing him with you readers, I do my small part in Yad Vashem. I give his name a place in all our imaginations. My token return of kindness for all that his life’s losses have gifted me.

      I’m just so pleased you’re here, Don! Wonderful to connect like this. Warmth and reaching out–M.

      • What this all brings to light is the fact that our existence matters. Parker mattered, he had impact. Impact that far out reached his little nuclear family sphere ,as did Antonini and you Melissa and Don and I. It behoves us to make the most of our existence here on this orb and reach out and try to touch the the lives of others. We have to cast off our fears of rejection and sense of propriety and wondering if we might be intruding and make the effort to interact and express. Thank you for telling Your story, for sharing your your very private grief, for introducing us to Parker, for giving us a window on another time and another place with Antonini’s story. It takes us away from our self preoccupation yet brings us back to a realization that we are not alone in what we might be going through.

      • Lee – A friend once argued that, given the number of people being born and dying each second on this planet, by all rational and statistical measures human life, among all existing earthly assets, has next to no value.

        I smiled, nodded, and let out a slow puff of air. I know when I’m being baited:-)

        Then I countered, saying that, given the number of people being born and dying each second on this planet, by all rational and statistical measures human caring has matchless value. We have so little time together, our passage is tenuous, laced with risk, rather painful, so brief, it’s wisdom to connect in whatever way we can (it really takes so little). Yes, I agree, Lee, our existence matters. Our thin singular slips of mortality matter, and matter more than most of us probably ever grasp. And as part of those lives,our decisions – to fear, to hold back, or to make an effort to interact, to express, as you’ve written so thoughtfully – have broad, not merely private, impact. They matter.

        I so like what you’ve added here, Lee. Come back soon.–M.

  3. What I love most about this tale of two worlds entwined ,even if so briefly, is that 4 people in a foreign country took advantage of an opportunity to connect with what was real and human. They shared a moment in time together and by doing so made an impact on each others lives. No doubt there were countless others there that day hurrying to meet a deadline, encumbered by a lengthy list of to do’s or just superficially absorbing their surroundings who walked by leaving no imprint on their passing. It makes me wonder how many Antonini’s I walk by everyday. . . . .
    Lovely story!

    • Danielle, Oh, thanks for coming here. Yes, this is the crux: how many Antonini’s do we walk right past every day. . .? Missed chances to have our lives connected and changed.

      Thank you for your thoughtfulness and your good, caring life—Melissa (with a hug.)

  4. i don’t know why, but
    this reminded me, a flash from out of my present somewhat indolence
    of the Tom Wilkinson character in “the most excellent marigold hotel” (if not exactly correct, you know the movie) — when he seeks out and re-unites with someone out of his past.

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