In the Dec. 14 issue of St. Anthony Messenger, a rabbi and the magazine’s editor recount the story of a Christmas miracle that happened to a young Jewish woman.
The woman was the mother of the article’s co-writer, Rabbi Abie Ingber, executive director of the Center for Interfaith Community Engagement at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He tells the story of Fania Paszt’s harrowing escape from Nazis which began in August 1942, when she was almost 20 years old and was one of the last survivors of the Lutsk ghetto in Poland.
“No one could ever know why she was spared and her parents, her brothers, and other family members were so brutally murdered. Catholics and evangelical Christians, farmers and peasants, each arriving at a precise lifesaving moment, hid her in attics, cellars, chicken coops, and the flue of a country oven,” the rabbi wrote.
He added that on Christmas Eve 1942 his mother’s luck “seemed to run out” when she was thrown out of the house of the Ukrainian peasant who had been hiding her.
This time there was no savior. She wandered the dirt roads of the Polish countryside, freezing cold in her tattered dress. As night descended, she knew her life was at its end. She recognized the home of the county warden and began to walk up its path. The warden’s dogs jumped on her, ripped her dress, and bit her. The warden, alerted by the barking, came out with a gun in hand.
“Please shoot me,” my mother begged. “Let me share the fate of my family.”
“I cannot kill you tonight,” responded the official. He took her inside, fed her, and gave her a new dress and a place to sleep. The next morning, fearful that he could be killed for saving a Jew, he took her into town and gave her over to a Christian family. Three more righteous Christians were to appear magically in her life until she descended from an attic during the Russian liberation of Lutsk in 1944.
Only decades later did I learn of the Polish expression, “On Christmas Eve, even a stray cat is allowed to live.” Though a series of six righteous Christians had appeared miraculously to try to save my mother’s life, on the evening of December 24, my mother was abandoned like a stray cat in the Polish countryside. At that precise moment, God had to invoke Christmas Eve to save her life.
John Feister, editor in chief of St. Anthony Messenger, who co-wrote the article, said that when he and Rabbi Ingber first met they shared a “desire for unity between our traditions” and were also well aware of the obstacles. He said the rabbi had a story to tell, and a desire to share it and he described himself as someone with goodwill who “barely knows where to start.”
In the article, Feister wrote about his visit earlier this year to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s memorial museum to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, the day after Pope Francis’ visit when he urged Christians and Jews “to reflect deeply on the spiritual significance of the bond existing between us.”
Hope, faith and redemption are themes for Jews and Christians the rabbi wrote. He also said he and Feister “met on the same road, in the pursuit of brotherhood and in the search for miracles in our lives.”
“‘Merry Christmas!’ from a rabbi and his Christian friend,” he wrote.