As I read the news in the Toronto Star a few days ago, I came upon an article about “elderly Auschwitz survivors (who) walked among the barracks and watchtowers of Auschwitz” as they and so many around the world commemorated the liberation of this death camp 65 years ago. Actually the camp was not liberated so much but rather the Nazi murderers after a final frenzy killing as many as possible just abandoned the camp and fled.
For a Christian growing up in Alberta the “Jew” was more like a fable than a reality. Surely there were Jews in Alberta but I grew up in the Catholic ghetto of the separate school system where the closest one got to the Jews were the prayers on Good Friday calling for the conversion of these perfidious holdouts.
Adulthood in Ontario kept me still somewhat isolated in my Catholic ghetto, and seven years of studying theology and scriptures gave me no further contact with the people of the “Old Testament”.
Sometime in the mid 1990’s, I watched a “Man Alive” episode which featured a shortened account of the story of a young Jewish couple from the town of Pinczow in Poland. They were Israel and Frania Rubinek and their story was told by their son Saul in a documentary titled “So Many Miracles” and a book with the same title. I found it to be a heart moving story, not only about this couple, but also the story of a Polish peasant woman named Zofia Banya who remembered a simple act of kindness shown to her, a Christian woman, by a young Jewish shopkeeper (Israel). As the Nazis were rounding up the Jews, with at times the eager participation of their Christian neighbours, Zofia sent word to the Rubineks that she wanted to help them. At great risk to herself and her son, Zofia hid the Rubineks in her little one room cottage for 2 1/2 years despite the objections of her abusive husband. There was a reward of a few kilos of sugar for anyone who would turn in a Jew, and like the majority of Poles at that time Zofia’s husband had no human feelings for the Jews or the Rubineks. Having lived alongside one another for 600 years, the Poles did not even acknowledge the Jews as being “Poles”.
After the war the Rubineks realized that few of their families survived the war. They ended up in a camp for war refugees and eventually were able to come to Canada with their son Saul who was born in 1948 and start a new life . They lived in Montreal and became successful jewelers.
I was teaching “religion” in the Toronto separate (Catholic) school system and found that the curriculum was open to inclusions – what I would refer to as “good news stories”. I figured I could teach the required materials in about half the time and the rest I could dedicate to some gospel inspired materials or thought provoking materials that I figured the students wouldn’t get elsewhere. (The religion courses in the separate system were not serious academic courses, even though academic credits were given towards the high school diploma. The text books sometimes were a little above colouring books in terms of serious content and purpose, so there was not only opportunity but the need to enrich the program.) Somehow I was able to fit the shortened version of “So Many Miracles” into all of my courses from Gr 9 to Gr 13 to share this “good news” story but also to introduce students to the sensitive topic of the Holocaust. Universally, the students who viewed the video were moved, some to tears, after watching this story of compassion.
One day in 1996 I was glancing at the obituaries in the Toronto Star and I saw a notice for the death of Israel Rubinek and the shiva which would follow according to Jewish tradition. Having viewed the documentary so many times I felt a strong connection to the Rubineks, and a debt of gratitude for having used their story. I consulted with a learned and sensitive Jewish teacher who was a colleague and friend through my activities as a union grievance officer of the Catholic teacher’s association (OECTA). I wanted to express my condolences, and was advised not to send a “mass card” but rather a traditional card of sympathy on the occasion of death. This I did and I included a short letter to Frania explaining the connection I felt to the Rubinek family through the documentary “So Many Miracles”.
A few days later I received a telephone call from Frania and she summoned my wife Anne Marie and me to come to her apartment in Richmond Hill (North Toronto). This was not an invitation but rather “you and your wife will come”, not sometime later but that very week. So we agreed and a few nights later we were knocking on Frania’s door. Frania was accompanied by a young man who was the son of a friend in Montreal. We sat down to tea and began to converse, with a number of questions from the young man as to who we were. It turned out that his mother was worried about Frania inviting these unknown goy to her home and was worried for her. That was probably a wise intervention on her friend’s part but after a short while he felt comfortable with us and he excused himself and left us with Frania.
Frania, in spite of her recent loss, was an elderly woman full of spirit and quite delighted to have us visit. She gave us a copy of the book “So many Miracles” of which there were few copies left in print and she signed it for us. That night began a short but fully rewarding friendship between Frania and our family.
We went to her house for dinner a few times and took some of our friends to meet this extraordinary woman. Sometimes we met some of her Jewish friends and neighbours who were always most gracious and welcoming. They obviously felt comfortable with us and shared with us their stories of the bitter times of the war and the Holocaust, but also the times before the war. One elderly couple were Hyman and Esther, also from Poland who lived in the same condo building as Frania. Hy had horrific stories of what it was like for a Jew to grow up in Poland before the war, how Jews dreaded Good Friday when Jews would hide in their homes for fear of their lives because Catholics riled up by hate filled religious services in the afternoon would go out in search of Jews to beat and sometimes kill. These are stories that obviously we did not hear in our Catholic ghetto in Canada. We met another couple Sidney and Daisy Jacobs who attended Holy Blossom Temple on Bathurst Street in Toronto. As I attended a number of events, including Holocaust Education Week, I often would meet Sidney and Daisy.
One year there was a Holocaust Remembrance Service, which that year was held at Holy Rosary Church on St. Clair Ave. West. The guest speaker that year was Mary Jo Leddy, who had a special interest in Jewish – Christian relations and is a well known Catholic intellectual and spiritual master. We asked Frania if she was interested in attending the service with us and she was keen to be involved. When we got to the church and seated in our pews we had a short time to review the program and read about the selected participants. Frania knew the Jewish representatives – she told us that the Cantor was not the best but still pretty good and she knew the Rabbi who was also speaking. Mary Jo was as usual a powerful speaker. At one moment Frania, who was sitting by the aisle, stood up and stepped into the aisle and looked straight ahead for a long moment. Then she sat down next to me and said “I saw them all”. I thought she was speaking about the participants but she said no – she saw her family who had been rounded up in Pinczow and taken to be killed by the Nazis.
Sometime later Frania suffered a stroke and was hospitalized in a small hospital in North Toronto. One of her friends phoned me to tell me where she was, so I went to the hospital to be informed that she was in an intensive care unit. I went to see her and I was allowed to go in to visit. It was a room full of all kinds of pumps and gurgling machines and monitors, but Frania was recovering well and was comfortable. She was surprised but delighted to see me. While I was there another woman her age came into the room sobbing loudly and she almost threw herself on top of Frania and together they spoke rapidly in Yiddish and with great emotion. I was surprised at the outburst of emotion, as Frania was not in critical condition and fairly comfortable. The elderly friend said her goodbyes with profuse tears and weeping and as she leaned over the bed to kiss Frania goodbye her sleeve was pulled up and I noticed the tattooed numbers on her arm. After her friend left I asked Frania if this friend had been in Auschwitz. Frania explained that her friend had been in Auschwitz and there had fallen in love with a fellow prisoner. After the war they reunited and married and emigrated to Canada. In the hell of that camp they still fell in love and later lived a long life together – but that night the husband was in the same hospital in the adjoining critical care unit and only a few hours later he died.
One Sunday afternoon when Frania was well recovered and in a small convalescence facility, I went up to visit with her at her invitation and there I met for the first time her son Saul and his family. They brought a picnic and together we went out to the gardens and enjoyed a lovely picnic together with Frania. Saul’s two children, Hannah and Sam, were quite small, but obviously the delight of a very proud Grandmother.
Saul is a well known Canadian actor and film director, for whom the documentary “So Many Miracles” was a personal and important project. His father Israel had been upset that Saul married a non-Jewish woman and Saul used the project to coax Israel to tell his side of the story, knowing that Frania was more than willing to do all the talking.
Saul was well connected in the film industry and on two opportunities there was a need for a Jewish grandmother figure. In 1990 both Israel and Frania had small parts in a movie titled “Avalon”, and in 1999 a friend of Saul’s Barry Levinson was looking for a Jewish grandmother for the film
“Liberty Heights”. Frania was the perfect choice although it was a very small role, but it sent Frania soaring with the royal attention she received by the entire film crew.
Shortly after the filming finished but before its release, Frania came out to Vancouver Island to visit us as I was that year on a self-paid leave of absence (called the 4 over 5 program) and we were living on my parent’s farm near the small town of Cedar (south of Nanaimo). Frania met with the mid-Island CORPUS group which viewed the full documentary “So Many Miracles” which Frania brought with her and then shared in a marvelous dialogue. Later Frania went with us to the west coast of the Island to Tofino where we stayed at the Oblate order trailor. Frania was amazed that she was staying in the home of Catholic priests, although at that time the trailor was vacant. We took Frania to a Tofino restaurant called The Schooner which provided a marvelous selection. I was able to slip away and convinced one of the cooks to come out and ask Frania if she was the grandmother in “Liberty Heights”, which had not yet been released. The cook made up a story of how he had been traveling in the USA and was a film enthusiast and at first Frania was delighted but surprised that she was
recognized. After a few moments she looked at me and caught on to my trick but she was totally delighted at the attention.
It was a special week for us to have Frania all to ourselves, and for our kids to get to know this special “grandmother”. At the time they just knew her as an elder friend of their parents, but later in life have come to show an interest in her story.
The first time she came to our house in Toronto for dinner with some invited friends I was concerned about serving kosher so I asked Frania what preparations she might need. She said “With what we have had to endure during the war, if the plate is washed it is kosher” but she was quite emphatic that she did not eat pork. When Frania was present she was the center of attention as she had that magnetism that drew people to her.
Frania died on April 28, 2000 in Toronto shortly after returning from Los Angeles where she had gone to prepare the Passover celebrations in the home of Saul and his family.
Our family was blessed by the appearance of Frania in our lives. The story of her survival during those horrible times of WW2 is truly amazing, but there was a humility and a lack of anger that one might expect from someone who had endured such suffering. Frania would say of Zofia (her rescuer) that she doesn’t understand why she did it or even if Frania herself would have had the courage or strength to do the same if the tables were turned. All those incidents – unexplainable – Frania would say with her thick accent “It’s a miracle, what more can I say!”
Frania took my interest in the Holocaust and the problem this causes for Christian theology (and history) out of my head and gave me an experience with people for whom this was not an “idea”. I regret not having met Israel but through Frania I came to know something more of him and the deep devotion and love he
had for Frania and his son Saul. Frania gave me a small chair that Israel had made of broken clothes pegs, just a small thing but a revered treasure in our home because it speaks of the story of this special couple that came into our lives.
Zofia the brave Polish peasant woman is perhaps the hero in this narrative, but even her role is complicated with moral tragedy. Without a doubt, her choice to save Frania and Israel was so different than that of the majority of Polish Catholics. What made her different? Perhaps Frania is right to say that it can only be explained as a “miracle”. We can be grateful for the rest of our lives that Frania wandered into our path and enriched our lives in ways that slowly we can begin to comprehend. Frania became one of those divergences in the road “that made all the difference”.