Rabbi Avi Shafran: My father, a Holocaust refugee, taught me lessons about hatred still sadly true today

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On this Father’s Day, I remember when I first met my father – when I was in my 30s.

That’s a bit misleading, considering that he and my mother raised me from birth in Baltimore and gave me the happiest childhood one could imagine.

But while I had always known that my Polish-born father had spent the years of World War II in Siberia, I never knew the details of what he had endured until I was married and a father myself.

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It was the mid-1980s, and my family was living in Providence, R.I. Someone sent me a cassette tape (remember those?) of a speech my father had been cajoled to deliver before a Baltimore crowd on Holocaust Memorial Day. He shared his personal story – an incredible one I had never heard.

I hadn’t known how after the Nazi invasion of Poland he had been locked in a crowded synagogue the Nazis set ablaze – only to be saved at the last moment by a Nazi officer. My father suspected the officer had been Elijah the prophet in disguise.

And I hadn’t known that shortly thereafter, as a 14-year-old “stubborn boy,” my father had left his parents – whom he would never see again – to board a train to fulfill his wish to study in a yeshiva.

Nor did I know about his weeks-long packed cattle-car train journey to Russia to escape the Nazis, where he and his fellow yeshiva boys and their teacher were put to work chopping down trees in temperatures that reached 40 degrees below zero. Or how he took ill and almost died there.

Rabbi Simcha Shafran, father of Rabbi Avi Shafran, carrying a Torah donated to a Baltimore synagogue.

Rabbi Simcha Shafran, father of Rabbi Avi Shafran, carrying a Torah donated to a Baltimore synagogue.

And I hadn’t know how at war’s end my father was shot in the arm while being smuggled out of the Soviet sector of Berlin to the American one.

And so it happened that I finally fully met the man who was my father.

I later worked with him on his autobiography, “Fire, Ice, Air: A Polish Jew’s Memoir of Yeshiva, Siberia, America.”

My father passed away three years ago, after a more than 60-year career as a rabbi who changed countless lives for the better.

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Though he shielded his children from the traumas of his own youth, there were times when my father’s memories of experiences at the hands of Jew-haters on the extremes of the political spectrum leaked through.

I recall one incident vividly.

I was 15, and we lived in a quiet suburban neighborhood. One Sabbath morning, he and I were walking to the synagogue when a boy, a few yards ahead of us, looked back in our direction and shouted “Heil Hitler!”

Most members of my father’s family had been murdered by the Nazis, and my father, small in stature but surprisingly fast, ran and caught the boy by his jacket.

“Do you know what you said?” my father asked him.

The boy repeated it.

I half expected my father to deliver a backhand slap to the sneering face. But all he did was quietly ask the boy where he lived. The boy pointed to a house across the street.

My father walked the boy to the house and knocked on the door, which was opened by a man half my father’s age and twice his size. A typical suburbanite, I thought, anticipating a happy resolution to the contretemps.

“What do you want?” the man asked.

“I would like you to please speak to your son about shouting rude things at people,” my father answered.

“What did he say?”

My father told him.

“So what? It’s a free country, man.”

Then, noticing my father’s grip on his son, he shouted, “And get your filthy hands off my boy!” and pushed my father away.

I saw uncharacteristic anger in my father’s eyes. He asked the man how he would feel if my father shouted an equivalent hate-filled comment at him.

“You can say any (expletive) thing you like, Jew,” the man said, raising his fist, “but I just might tear you to shreds.”

My father knew he could never match the man in a fight – not that he would fight even if he could – so he just turned around and we continued on our way.

In the meantime, a few other boys had gathered, and had overheard the exchange. As we walked, we heard them mumble things about Jews, and more shouts of “Heil Hitler!”

Without even turning to me, my father said, “No matter where you go, you can’t escape.”

I couldn’t absorb that contention at that moment. It was not long after the Six-Day War of 1967 and Jews were regarded by most Americans with a certain admiration.

Anti-Semitism certainly existed but, I told myself, it was the province of old-timers with old-time prejudices, and the way was being cleared for my young, more idealistic new generation.

And so, while I understood my father’s feelings, I doubted his judgment. Jew-hatred was persistent, yes, but you can escape. You just have to be patient.

I figured that the older generation would eventually pass on and my generation would create a better world were anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of religious and ethnic prejudice would be largely things of the past. We would judge people as individuals.

As Dr. Martin Luther King said so eloquently in what’s become known as his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, I looked forward to a world “when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestant and Catholics, will be able to join hands.”

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Had I known then the details of my father’s early experiences, I would have surely attributed his pessimism to the scars they had etched into his soul.

But over the years, as a visibly Orthodox Jew, I have had expletives and occasional objects thrown at me from passing cars. Last year, a full half-century after that suburban showdown, I was the one greeted with a shout of “Heil Hitler!” on a New York City bus.

And I have learned the names of places where Jews were killed in the last few years just because they were Jews – including synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., and a kosher market in Jersey City.

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I’ve also learned of things like the inclusion of references to “Adolf Hitler” and “Nazi Culture” in the journal of a man arrested in the stabbings of five people at the home of a rabbi in Monsey, N.Y., last December during a Hanukkah party.

My father was right. No matter where you go, you can’t escape. Yet all of us must continue to work for the goal my father came to America to achieve and that Dr. King dreamt of – a time when hatreds that divide us will at long last became part of our past and not our present or future.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE BY RABBI AVI SHAFRAN

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