Foxman recounts childhood hidden from Nazis

The 67-year-old American Jewish leader has headed the New York-based Anti-Defamation League for the last two decades.

Abe Foxman 224.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Abe Foxman 224.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
He calls them "the last generation of witnesses" - the hidden Jewish children of the Holocaust. The silent psychological suffering, the never-ending unanswered questions - "Why I and not Chaim?" "Why I and not Sarah?" - have haunted him his whole life. Monday's unusual address by Abraham H. Foxman, the 67-year-old American Jewish leader who has headed the New York-based Anti-Defamation League for the last two decades (click here to read his JPost blog), was marked by a still silence in the Yad Vashem auditorium, where a mix of American educators and Jewish students on a birthright Israel program sat riveted by the story of his life. Born in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940, Foxman was only one year old when his parents decided to move east with their baby and Catholic nanny, having already fled Warsaw for the village of Baranovichi ahead of the conquering Germans. But the Germans would soon catch up with the Foxmans in the Lithuanian capital of Vilna, where they established a ghetto for the Jews. It was then that his parents made what Foxman calls "the most painful decision, which they could not rationally explain until their dying day": to separate from their only child and leave him in the care of his nanny. "I was blonde and had blue eyes. I was cute. I have pictures to prove it," he said, eliciting a moment of fleeting laughter in the hall. "But I was also circumcised." Despite the great risk, the nanny agreed to hide the Jewish child. Foxman said that the simple woman - "she would not be considered very sophisticated or educated in today's world" - likely did not even realize the great risk she was taking. Foxman's nanny found a priest in Nazi-occupied Lithuania who baptized him. Until the war ended, he was brought up a good Catholic. He still recalls kneeling and saying his prayers in Latin every night. He was taught to spit when he saw Jews being marched to the Ghetto, but he was forbidden to play with any non-Jewish children lest they find out that he was Jewish himself. He even remembers - or thinks he remembers - the horror of finding out that he was Jewish. "Say it isn't true," he begged his nanny. After the war, Foxman was reunited with his parents, who had survived the Holocaust but who were known to him as an aunt and uncle. Sometimes the two faiths intermingled in the young child's mind. He recalls his first visit to a Lithuanian synagogue on the festival of Simhat Torah, but also remembers how he crossed himself as they passed a church on the way, and knelt to kiss a Priest's hand on the way back. Although the war had ended, the next years were filled with tension in the family as the Catholic nanny, who had risked her life to save him, claimed that the child was hers and belonged to the church. A trial and two appeals later - events he has blocked out - the Soviets awarded custody to Foxman's parents. But the saga was still not over. On their return to Poland, Foxman was kidnapped by the nanny's family, only to be kidnapped back by his own family. Six decades later, Foxman says that he still cannot understand why, if the nanny loved him so much, it had turned out so badly in the end. Yet he says he was always sorry he had never had the chance to say thank you. "If she measured all the risks, I never would be standing here today," he told the audience. With his Catholic upbringing, Foxman said that had his parents not survived the war, he may very well have become a priest, or even a cardinal. For years, Foxman would not talk about his childhood, and when he finally did, he only spoke in the third person. Throughout his life, his memories of that time remained unclear: "To this day, I am not sure what it is I know - what is cognitive memory, what I remember as a child of two, three, four, five - or what it is that my parents, who were fortunate enough to survive, told me. I can visualize things, but I don't know how real they are." The message he took from his childhood, he said, was the power of human beings to stand up to evil. "In all this horror is the power of human beings to do good in the worst of circumstances and to stand up and say no," he said. "'Never again' is not a Jewish expression. It is the 11th commandment. It is a universal commandment."