Not so fast, boys … be easy here and now … Before we whistle up the dogs, throw another split or two on the fire, maybe with a couple of pine knots to give it a glow. I’ve got one last Thanksgiving story to tell and, while it’s not exactly long on banquet tables and/or church services where we can still praise our God for the bounties He hath bestowed in a terribly unkind year….or turkey legs… this tale is a bit different. I don’t think it misses the mark by much, so gather in where you’ll be warmed by the fire we’ve laid, and hopefully by the story that is fixing to be told.
In the spring of 1945, as the Allied forces began to close in on the dreaded concentration camp of Dachau, a 16-year-old convict, No.
B-1713, heard a thunderous explosion. No. B-1713 was actually in one of hundreds of forced labor camps dotted around the perimeter of the main Nazi concentration camp and a guard said the Allies were close. So, the guards herded up the laborers and, in a long line, the prisoners underwent what was a 50-mile “death march” back towards their ill-fated destiny. (Dachau is about 16 km (10 miles) northwest of Munich in the state of Bavaria, in southern Germany. Today over 800,000 visitors per year travel to the site in remembrance of those who suffered and died there. An estimated 200,000 were murdered at the camp, and over 100,000 more were killed in the labor camps or from typhus.)
On the third day of the death march, American fighter planes, believing the line of POWs to be German soldiers, strafed the column, someone yelled ‘Run!” … and the guards’ machine guns instantly joined the fighter planes in shooting any and every one in plain sight … only six of hundreds survived, including one with No. B-1713 tattooed on his forearm. The 16-year-old, with four years of concentration camp already, hid in the loft of an abandoned Bavarian barn for three days and nights without water, food nor comfort from the cold.
On the fourth day, the kid heard the unmistakable rumble of a mechanized column, a line of tanks leading a huge and bristling armored division towards Berlin. The 16-year-old, his family long since massacred, desperately searched to find a swastika on the tanks but, no, what he saw was a white star with five points. Out of the brush he came screaming, repeating the only English words he knew: “God bless America! … God bless America!” As he ran he tripped and fell, several times, but he would slowly work his emaciated body back to his feet, screaming and running toward the column with all his might. Abruptly, one of the lead tanks veered from course, its long barrel turning towards the boy. And No. B-1713 knew nothing else to do but stand there stalk still, crying with untold fear and horror, and visibly shaking.
For several moments it appeared to be a standoff. Then the forward port of the growling beast opened and the biggest black man the kid had ever seen stepped on the tank’s desk. Odds are the kid had never seen black, much less a giant. But there he stood as perhaps the biggest monster in a Polish child’s nightmares. A member of the all-black 761st, Bill Ellington – the son of a slave -- studied the gaunt POW, dressed in rags, his head shaven, his eyes shrunk back deep in his skull, and undoubtedly an up-close witness to the worst atrocities ever known to man. The tank commander removed one of his thick gloves and motioned No. B-1713 to come near. Closer … come. The black man smiled; his burly arm outstretched.
Ellington reached out, pulled the boy up on top of the tank as if the child was a straw, and then with his own cheeks now glistening with his tears in the springtime sun, gently lowered the frail kid – who weighed well under 100 pounds -- to the reaching black arms in the belly of that growling giant of salvation. No more beatings, no more whips, no more bludgeons, no more hunger, not ever again. And the boy realized it. Over and over the kid said the only words he knew: “God bless America … God bless America …”
God bless America indeed.
* * *
Prisoner B-1713 turned out to be Samuel Pisar, born in Poland in 1929. He survived Majdanek, Auschwitz and Dachau after he had twice been ordered to death. (He escaped the second time by convincing a guard he’s been sent to scrub the floor.) Hardened and tough, for a year and a half he was a German-hating hooligan and a master in the black market in the American zone of the occupation, riding his liberated BMW motorcycle with wild abandon.
His family all killed in the camps, an aunt in France tracked him down, sent him to uncles who had escaped to Australia and Samuel began to chase his sole ambition – to become an American. He poured himself into his studies, day and night. As fate’s hand turned, he attended Harvard, earned his law degree, and later polished his educational refinement with another doctorate at The Sorbonne in France. His life became a glistening diamond.
By 1950 he worked for the United Nations in New York and Paris. Ten years later he was a senior advisor on foreign economic policy to his college classmate, John F. Kennedy, was a confidant to Presidents Francois Mitterrand and Valery Giscard d’Estaing of France, had advocated détente between the Soviet Union and the West through trade and was a high profile lawyer to many of America’s top executives and Hollywood stars alike, two of the most notable were Rita Hayworth and Elizabeth Taylor.
His accomplishments and his deeds, all in the name of mankind, were monumental:
In FRANCE: Samuel Pisar was named as a Grand Officer in the Legion of Honor and an officer of Arts and Letters.
IN POLAND, Samuel Pisar was named as a Commander in the Order of Merit.
In AUSTRALIA: Samuel Pisar was named as an Honorary Officer of the Order of Australia, "for service to international relations and human rights".
He earned many, many tributes and accolated but before his death at age 86 in 2015, he said that far-and-away his greatest and most memorable tribute came …
In THE UNITED STATES, Sam Pisar, in a special act by Congress, No. B-1713 was unanimously named as a citizen of “my country.”
God bless America.
* * *
In 1971 Pisar was getting out of a sour marriage and met a fine arts entrepreneur, Judith Blinken. that union yielded Sam a stepson, Antony, who soon Pisar deeply loved as if the boy was his own. They went to Yankees games together and many, many times, talked through the night. Judith’s greatest gift, however, was that she gently and very patiently caused Sam to refocus on the first 16 years of his life and to somehow come to face with his haunting memories and lurid nightmares from the concentration camps … his sister and his parents reduced to ashes, his admitted hatred of God, and his deep scars in that loathsome tattoo on his forearm.
In 1979 Sam Pisar wrote a gut-wrenching and very graphic memoir, “Of Blood and Hope,” because, he said, “I couldn’t move around anymore like a shadow … with all of these taboos.”
Among Judith’s closest friends was the famous conductor, Leonard Bernstein. When President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, he wrote music for the Kaddish, the Jewish Prayer for the Dead, but lamented the words were too off-key. He asked Samuel Pasar on several occasions to write the words but, despite his pleas, Sam said his demons were too powerful, that he was unworthy. Bernstein died in in 1990 but when Sam saw the horror of 9/11, and it ate mightily on him, he agreed to write “A Dialogue With God” that left audiences all over the world spellbound as Bernstein’s music brought it alive.
It was first performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2003. Then in Krakow, Berlin, London, Paris, and all over the world.
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“With the same “visceral voice I once raised against you as a skeletal kid” at the edge of the gas chamber, he demands of God: “Why do You abandon us? How can You allow such carnage? Do You even care?”
Mr. Pisar describes the Jews heading for the gas “with Your name on their lips,” and says it imposes obligations on God, too. “The Auschwitz number engraved on my arm reminds me of it every day,” he said. “And today, Father, I remind You!”
He said he was no longer furious with God. But pressed, he said: “I’m angry. And he may not even be there. But I love him, too. Because we have loved him for so many thousands of years.”
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In June of 2009, Sam Pisar performed his Kaddish for the first time in Israel, to a hushed audience at the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem.
The concert was a memorial to the victims of the Warsaw ghetto, and it was also, to his daughter Leah Pisar, a sort of homecoming. “It was so much more resonant there than elsewhere,” she said. “Yad Vashem is the place where one feels closest to those who perished. It was as if he was saying Kaddish for all the six million.”
The standing ovation lasted for nearly 20 minutes. Later he told a reporter, “I never spoke about the real horrors, not even with the Germans.” he said, “I remember every detail. But I don’t suffer from it.” And then he added, “It helped me in life. And tragic as it was, it was a positive experience. I would never have been the way I am.”
The Kaddish is what liberated him; he said, he feels more at ease with the mystery of God. “It’s not just that he’s waiting for me,” Samuel Pisar said. “I’m more at peace. I’m ready.”
Sam died on July 28, 2015. He was an America citizen.
God bless America.
* * *
Whoa, boys, be still, not quite yet. Three of ya’ll need to get some buckets of water and wet sand to dash the fire, but before you do, you gotta’ hear “the rest of the story.” Stoke the fire for a few minutes more with those long pokers so it’ll lend its heat, but this is worthy of hearing …
You know I told you his second wife, Judith, shared with him a stepson he adored. Well, in recent times that boy has cut a wide swath in Washington. He is universally regarded by folks on both sides of our badly divided aisle as “the nicest human being inside the Beltway.” People of both political stripe really like him but what’s more, they respect his kindness, his ability to hear the smallest voice, and his apt determination not just to listen to what different ones say, but to really hear what they say and understand what it means to them from where they stand. Do you realize how huge that is? He honors his most vocal critics and … so help me, they then afford him the grace to hear his reasoning.
That’s a true statesman. You listen to another’s heart before you share yours with him. This guy is hands down and far away the finest true gentleman in all of Washington. You hear what I say. Just watch … you’ll see.
That boy’s name is Antony Blinken. You’ll hear more about him but when you do, remember he is Prisoner B-1713’s beloved stepson.
On Tuesday Tony Blinken made an acceptance speech as President-elect Joe Biden’s pick as the new Secretary of State. In his brief remarks, he made a pointed reference to his late step-father, Samuel Pisar. CLICK HERE.
Remember this in tomorrow’s blessing:
God bless America.