This month, my father and I celebrate the publication of my late grandfather’s life story, a posthumous memoir entitled The Nazi, the Princess, and the Shoemaker. How this book came to light, and the incredible account it reveals, is worthy of a book in itself.
About a year and a half ago, I spent Purim in Kiryat Sefer in central Israel where my brother-in-law lives. During the festive Purim meal, my brother-in-law unexpectedly began to hand out booklets, explaining that they contained edited Torah thoughts that my father-in-law had occasionally e-mailed his extended family. It was a beautiful expression of the Fifth Commandment, and it made a great impact on me.
Nearly a year later, before a long-awaited visit from my own parents who live in Detroit, I thought to myself, “I wonder if I could find a similar way to honor my father during his visit to Israel.” I remembered that he had once put together a manuscript of my grandfather’s life story, but had abandoned the project long ago.
So I found an old copy of my father’s manuscript – which was based on interviews conducted with my grandfather in the early 1980s – and began the long process of rearranging, editing, and rewriting. While doing so, I slowly began to realize that my grandfather’s story did not follow the typical plot of a Holocaust survivor’s account. My grandfather was never sent to Auschwitz or any other death camp. After escaping from a Nazi forced labor camp, he spent months trying to survive the freezing Polish winter by sleeping in barns and haystacks during the day and risking his life to beg food from peasant farmers at night.
After a chance encounter with a former non-Jewish schoolmate, he was taken in and hidden by a wealthy couple, an ethnic German landowner named Osten-Sacken, who – he later discovered – was a Gestapo secret agent, and his aristocratic Polish wife.
When Germany began to lose the war, the couple’s son, an SS Army officer, pressed my grandfather to promise to do what he could to save his father from inevitable attempts at retribution after the war. With little choice, given the obvious repercussions of declining such a request, he agreed.
Incredibly, although the SS officer never came back from the Russian front, my grandfather made good on his promise, saving Osten-Sacken’s life three(!) times. Twice he intervened when Osten-Sacken was threatened to be killed by Russian soldiers, and once more by testifying on his behalf in a Polish court after he was charged with treason.
Whether the Osten-Sackens took in my grandfather as a sort of insurance policy – so that if the Germans lost the war they could claim they saved a Jew and thereby save themselves – or altruistically is a question that will probably never be settled. Perhaps they had both motives in mind.
Another open question is whether my grandfather, who had no choice but to agree to the SS officer’s demand, had any obligation to keep his promise, which was made under duress. Regardless, my grandfather’s willingness to put his life on the line for the man who saved him was an incomparable expression of the preeminent Jewish value of hakaras hatov.
When my father and mother arrived for their visit, I showed them around our new home in Ramat Beit Shemesh and eventually to a small library I had prepared near the guest room. I picked out one of the books from the shelf and asked, “Dad, this is a new one, have you seen it yet?”
After some initial confusion on his part (although his name was on the cover, I had changed the title), I announced, “It’s your book. I finished it.” A new Holocaust story was brought to light after 70 years.
“The Nazi, the Princess, and the Shoemaker” is available on Amazon.com.