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The Tables Are Turned

Decades later, Peter the Nazi reappeared in a different guise

 

“And in the end, the tables were turned: Peter the poritz was thrown into jail and Moshke the innkeeper was saved. Ah gutte nacht, kinderlach.”

The bedtime stories I told my children when they were growing up had one thing in common: They all featured a villain named Peter. Peter was the greedy landowner who demanded exorbitant rent from the hapless Jewish innkeeper. Peter was the town drunk who downed copious amounts of alcohol and refused to pay Moshke for his beverages. Peter was the cruel peasant who terrorized the local Yidden.

In the end, Peter always emerged the loser. Either he landed in prison or he lost all his money or he met an unusual death.

But the story of Peter in my own life had a very different ending.

BEFORE THE WAR, my father was the rav of a town in Hungary. He lost his first wife and their 11 children in the concentration camps.

My mother also grew up in Hungary before the war, and she dreamed of marrying a rav. Her family was very poor, however, and her dream seemed utterly unrealistic. Ironically, her dream became a reality after she and my father went through Auschwitz.

My father was 40 when the war ended, and she was 24. But after the war, age and money were hardly issues in a shidduch, and my mother, who had never been married, was delighted at the opportunity to marry a chashuveh rav like my father.

My parents were among the first couples to marry after the liberation. My father, who was a paragon of emunah and bitachon, encouraged other survivors to marry and start families as well.

Two years after the war, my parents resettled in Switzerland, where my father was asked to serve as a rav. I was their fifth and youngest child, born in Switzerland in 1956. I was named Sarah after my father’s first wife, since my noble mother wanted to preserve the memory of his martyred family.

My father would occasionally speak of his experiences in the war, but he always focused on the miracles that had kept him alive. I never wanted to hear his stories, though; the subject of the Holocaust was far too scary, even if all my father ever discussed were the uplifting moments of Hashgachah that he had experienced.

My mother did not speak of her experiences in the war at all. She was the epitome of happiness and joie de vivre, and saw the humor in every situation. In fact, some people in the community grumbled that it was not befitting for a rebbetzin to laugh so much and be so jolly.

Ours was a bright, happy home, pulsating with Jewish life. Looking back, I am astounded at how my parents managed to build a secure, loving home and create an emotionally healthy environment in which to raise their children.

My sister once posed a question to my father. “If everything is from Hashem,” she asked, “shouldn’t there be no problems in the world?”

My father’s response to his young daughter was classic. “You’re right,” he said. “There really are no problems.”

Yet although my upbringing was completely normal, and I never did hear my parents discussing the horrors they had been through, the Holocaust was an ever-present shadow in my childhood years.

My mother was always frightened of people in uniform. Once, a neighbor’s bike was stolen and he summoned the police, who mistakenly knocked on our door instead of on that of the neighbor. My mother was working in the kitchen at the time and did not immediately answer the door, so the two officers simply walked in. When my mother saw these officers in front of her, she screamed in shock and began breathing so heavily that she almost fainted.

The police officers were hardly sympathetic. “If you’re so scared, why don’t you lock your door?” they reproached her. How could they have understood that their presence had triggered nightmarish memories of the Nazis?

My parents were never comfortable sitting on a park bench, as it had been ingrained in them that Jews could not sit in public places. They also avoided doctors as much as possible, probably due to their memories of standing before the accursed Dr. Mengele.

My siblings and I knew instinctively not to burden our parents with any problems; they had suffered enough.

That’s why I never told my parents about Peter.

Our kehillah was very small and did not have its own Jewish schools, so my siblings and I attended public school. (We received Jewish instruction for an hour after school.) When I was in elementary school, there was one Jewish boy in my class, Sammy, and he and I became the target of verbal bullying by a non-Jewish boy named Peter Schmiedel.

Peter used to follow me around, taunt me, and ask me all sorts of intrusive questions. In particular, he would tease me about my father, who stood out because he had a long white beard and wore rabbinic garb.

“I saw you with your grandfather,” Peter jeered at me one day, after he had seen me with my father.

This was a particularly sensitive point for me, on two counts. For one thing, I was the only child in the class who had no grandparents — and no aunts, uncles, cousins, or other relatives, either. For another, my father not only looked strange because he was a rabbi, he was also much older than the fathers of my classmates. He was in his fifties when I was born, and could easily have been my grandfather.

Although I never told my parents about Peter’s bullying, I did mention to my father that a classmate of mine had said that he looked like my grandfather.

“He should say that I look like your great-grandfather,” my father answered jokingly.

Afterward, I was furious with myself for upsetting my father by showing him that I was embarrassed of how he looked. So sensitive was I to his feelings that even though he had responded lightheartedly and had not shown any signs of distress, I still faulted myself for sharing this information with him.

Peter was not the only one who taunted me about my father. The other children in the class called him “Samichlaus” (the Swiss equivalent of “Santa Claus”) because of his long white beard, the likes of which they had never seen on anyone but Santa. I was terribly hurt by this nickname, even though my father himself could not have cared less.

In school, I felt like a pariah in general. Not only was I one of only two Jewish kids in the class, I was also very shy by nature, and my family was markedly different from the other families in the school, even the few Jewish ones. Switzerland was not home to many Holocaust survivors, and my immigrant parents stuck out like sore thumbs. They were not fluent in the Swiss dialect of German, either, so they sounded odd as well.

One day, my classmates and I were sitting around the piano at the beginning of music class, waiting for the teacher to enter, when one girl went around whispering something in the ears of each of the students in succession. To me, she whispered that when the teacher would enter, we would surprise him by singing a certain song very loudly.

When the teacher walked in, I stood up and began belting out the song. Suddenly, I realized that there were only two children singing — Sammy and myself, the two Jewish kids. The rest of the students were laughing at us.

How I wished that I could attend a Jewish school and be surrounded with other children like me!

“What kind of work does your father do?” Peter once demanded of me.

The question paralyzed me. I couldn’t possibly tell him that my father was a rabbi. Instead, I mumbled, “Pfarrer,” which is German for “pastor.”

I spoke so quietly that all he heard was “Pf.” From then on, he would gleefully call me “Pfff-rli,” his special nickname for me.

When our class had to vote for someone to be class leader, there was no question in my mind who I would write. I quickly scrawled Peter’s name on my paper, for fear of reprisals if he were to find out that I had not voted for him. (In the end someone else was voted class leader, much to my relief.)

As a young child, I was haunted at night by dreams of Nazis. I had never seen a real Nazi, but I knew exactly what a Nazi looked like: Peter.

Thankfully, in middle school boys and girls were separated, so from the age of ten I no longer had to endure Peter’s bullying. Yet the image of Peter remained with me as the picture of the quintessential anti-Semite. When I grew older and had children of my own, “Peter” was the villain of any tale I told them.

My children were fortunate enough to attend Jewish schools, but to my surprise, they grappled with many of the same problems I had experienced as a lone Jewish child in a public school: social issues, bullying, struggling to fit in. It came as quite a shock to me that Jewish schools were not immune to these problems. I had attributed them to anti-Semitism, but apparently they were universal.

Many years went by. My parents passed on, and my children went on to build their own families. I had long since moved away from the city of my youth, but my brother Chananya was still living there and giving shiurim.

Once, in casual conversation, Chananya mentioned to me that he was learning b’chavrusa with a ger tzedek.

“He told me he was in school with a girl named Sarah who had the same last name as me,” Chananya said. “I figured that must have been you. His name is Dr. Schmiedel.”

Peter! Could it be?

“You mean Peter Schmiedel?”

“Oh, you remember him? He goes by Elazar now. He chose that name because of the pasuk ‘Ezri mei’im Hashem.’ ”

My mind struggled to assimilate what my ears had heard. Peter the bully, the anti-Semite, the Nazi, was now — a Jew? How could that be?

“He’s one of the only classmates I remember,” I managed to respond. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget him, actually. But how did he become a ger?”

“I don’t know much about his background,” Chananya told me. “I have his e-mail, though. Why don’t you drop him a line?”

My heart froze. Me, e-mail Peter? Just the thought of writing to him struck terror in me!

With trembling fingers, I typed a brief e-mail, in German, expressing my pleasant surprise to have heard from Peter/Elazar through my brother.

In his enthusiastic response, he mentioned that he remembered that he was not always a nice classmate. “Even then I was interested in the Jewish People and Jewish life,” he wrote, “but I didn’t realize it consciously.”

In a subsequent e-mail, he explained that he had grown up in a dysfunctional family situation: His mother had been mentally ill and out of the picture, and he and his sister had been raised by a housekeeper.

I was shocked. It had never before occurred to me that Peter had been struggling with his own challenges! I had seen myself as a victim and him as an ogre, when really his childhood had been troubled while mine was idyllic.

His grandmother was a religious Christian, he wrote to me, and her faith had prompted him to look for G-d, a quest that ultimately led him to Judaism. He had only really started to live, he said, since his conversion.

He still remembered my father, the venerable rabbi with the long beard and shining face, and he felt humbled to be learning Torah with the son of that rabbi. In retrospect, I realized, when he had taunted me about my father looking like my grandfather, it was because he secretly admired my father and envied me. And to think that I had been ashamed of my father’s stately appearance!

I was then mochel Peter/Elazar wholeheartedly for tormenting me. Firstly, as a ger he was now a new person, and secondly, I now understood that his bullying had been an outgrowth of his own emotional baggage.

Besides, looking back, I had to admit that his bullying had not been as bad as I had thought it was at the time. Having grown up haunted by the buried horrors of the Holocaust, I had transferred my fears of Nazis and Jew-haters onto Peter, who to me was the embodiment of all that my parents had suffered. But really, the worst thing he had ever done to me was call me “Pfff-rli.”

To my astonishment, Peter/Elazar was enthralled with my father and couldn’t hear enough about him from Chananya! After reading a booklet that our family had printed about him and his wartime experiences, Peter/Elazar wrote to me how impressed he was that my father had maintained his faith despite losing his entire family to the Nazis and had remained steadfast in his belief that everything that happens has a purpose.

Today, in my sixties, I have come to realize that it is precisely when a Jew does not seek to fit in that the people around him are impressed. For in the end, it was Peter the Jew-hating bully who came to seek shelter under the canopy of my holy father’s faith.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 774)

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