My husband, Rabbi Allen Maller, and I had been invited by Severyn Ashkenazy the patron of the Reform Jewish Congregation in Warsaw to come to Poland for two months, to help the Beit Warshazva Congregation. Before we left Poland to return to Los Angeles, Darius gave me a kiss and handed me a large picture of himself.
He said,”This is so you will not forget me.” I thought that was a little odd at the time, The next day when he told me his story on the bus going to downtown Warsaw, things got even stranger.
I was very curious about this interesting man who was frequently at temple. Darius was a slim, tall man in his late seventies. He had an impish grin and always had a joke to tell.
Once we got on the bus, he suddenly stated, “Well, you know I am not Jewish”
His face was grinning and I think that statement was meant to shock me.
“What?” I was stunned. “How do you know the Hebrew prayers? Why are you at the temple, not only for the services but for every Adult Education class? You know so much about Jewish history and philosophy. You knew every Torah story and the commentaries. You must be Jewish”.
Darius never missed a Friday evening or Saturday morning service. Sometimes, when I stood next to him during prayers, I marveled at how quickly he read the prayers in Hebrew and how well he knew the Siddur. I am sure that he knew the prayers by heart. He would always wear a kipah and sway back and forth as he prayed.
Darius said, “I was born in 1937. I was a small child during the war. That awful war took my childhood years from me.”
“But” I interrupted,” You knew your parents, You know if you were Jewish or not.”
“No,”Darius said, “My mother died in childbirth. Her mother, my grandmother, told me my mother had been a secretary at the local pro Nazi party headquarters. She went into an early labor and died there.
“My grandmother was the one who raised me, She had converted to Catholicism several years before my mother was born.”
“Did she raise you a Catholic? I asked. ”Did she ever tell you about her past as a Jew?”
“When my mother died my grandmother told me that she had me baptized, but eight days later she had me circumcised. She never told me about the details about her life as a Jew: that was in the past and I gather a painful memory.”
“Did you have trouble hiding the fact you were circumcised? I heard many children were murdered just for being circumcised.”
“Yes, he replied,” This proved very difficult for me as a young child, I could never show my penis. It was especially hard during the Nazi years, From the time I was four, I knew I must never undress or pee where anyone could see me.”
I could imagine how these years would traumatize a young child during war years. It must have been frightening for anyone but especially a little one without his mother.
“I knew we had Jewish relatives.” Darius went on,” My grandmother told me after the war, that she knew of at least thirty seven of our Jewish relatives who were murdered in death camps.”
“I don’t remember meeting any of my Jewish relatives or hearing stories about that side of the family.”
“Didn’t you want to learn more about them? Didn’t you ask your grandmother questions?”
“No, it was a dangerous time under the Nazi’s and then under the Communists. I didn’t ask. The only family I knew were all Catholics, and I was raised that way.”
“Later in my thirties I moved to Germany. I was a businessman there for over 20 years. I later moved to Italy and lived there for more than five years. I never married or had any contact with my family. In the late 1990’s, I moved back to Poland after it became a democratic country.”
The bus stopped and Darius got off. We left for Los Angeles two days later.
I still have so many questions in my mind about this charming man. I thought: Why does he know so much about Judaism? Where did he learn about Jews and their culture? Why does he come to our temple and participate as a learned Jew? Is Darius atoning for what happened to the Jewish part of his family?”
Is he unable to accept the fact that he does have Jewish blood? Why would Darius so strongly affirm he was not a Jew? Even though according to the orthodox Halacha , Darius is a Jew. Without papers in Poland, this is hard to prove: and the Orthodox would not accept him as a Jew, as Reform Jews would in America.
Maybe when we return to Poland I’ll be able to ask Darius more questions and find the deeper story hidden away in his own heart.