" and at the hour of our death. Amen!".

Are you surprised? I don't blame you, If I were you, I would be puzzled too.
A bearded old Jew saying a Hail Mary in a monastery's cemetery is indeed a pretty rare sight.

Correct, I don't live here, and I come from the States.
Yeah ...I suppose could say that - to pay a visit. Except, that it is not to a living person.

No Sir, not a relative. My family comes from here, but there is no trace of them left.
Not even a Jewish cemetery because the Germans obliterated it with their tanks. At least, that is what I was told.

No.... it's no big secret... I come to visit the grave of Father Grom.
You probably don't know about him. That was not his real name.
We called him Grom (thunderclap) because his voice was so terribly loud, and he used it like a crash of thunder to intimidate us.

My perfect Polish pronunciation? Father Grom's birch rod is responsible for that.
He beat it into me over three long years! ...

Are you curious? Then listen to my story.

When the Germans came, I was nine years old and attended a cheder since I was six. The melamed there said that I was very gifted. I had even started asking such questions that he sometimes had to refer to the Rabbi for help. He pronounced me suitable and ready for the yeshiva. My parents were very proud.

As the occupation developed, everything changed. We got an order to move to the ghetto. It was a truly terrible time. When the deportations began, my parents decided to save my sister and me.
My sister was sent to a friend in the countryside, but she didn't survive the war. Marysia, our servant, brought me to an orphanage in a monastery, where I met Father Grom.

The first time I saw and heard him, I soiled my pants out of pure fear.
"Who brought that little Kike here?!", he bellowed. "From the ghetto?! Are they evicting them? So what? I will not cultivate that depraved seed!
Is it not enough that they murdered our Lord? Should I endanger the entire orphanage also?
And for what? For the seed of the scoundrels who drank Polish blood and ran the country into poverty?"

He screamed and screamed.
Then he paused.... looked at me, and asked, "What's your name?". "Isaac Goldstein", I replied.
"You little stinker, you will not be an Isaac from now on. And especially not a Goldstein!
From today on, you are Irek Ziemba. Repeat!"
I repeated, and then he said, "Oh Jesus! On top of it, the creature doesn't even speak Polish! Good Lord! Have mercy on us!... Cross yourself! Not with your left hand, you damn leftie!"
"Listen, you fool! You have a choice. Either you quickly learn to cross yourself and speak proper Polish, or you can return to the ghetto".

Marysia fell on her knees and pleaded with Father Grom that I was a good lad. And a very gifted one. That I would not only learn Polish but also learn the entire Bible by heart.
And I just shook from fear and kept nodding.

Yes, Sir. I will remember that day to the end of my life.
I was accepted. All my curls were cut off, and I felt very naked.
Father Grom told me that no Jew ever had an easy life with him, and this would never change.

So, it started from day one.
First name, last name, father's name, mother's name, godmother's name, name of the priest, and the parish where I lived.
He told me to write it on the blackboard repeatedly and cross myself every time I finished.
Every time Father Grom checked to see if there was any mistake in spelling or in the way I crossed myself.
If there was, he used the birch rod! And he continued this for six hours in a row!

Late in the evening, I lay down in my assigned bunk and fell fast asleep like a stone.
I thought so, at least.
But just after midnight Father Grom woke me and started again:
"What's your name?! What's that you said? Isaac?! You dummy!".
And then the birch rod!
"Cross yourself! Not with your left hand!". And another birching.
Before dawn, he came a second time and tormented me once again!
And so, it continued like that for a whole first year.

The first month was almost unbearable.
Despite my best efforts, I didn't always remember where I was and what I should say when he suddenly awakened me.
After a week, I almost stopped sleeping because of the terror of those wake-ups and the birch rod. I was just lying and awaiting Grom to come and torment me.

After a month, I figured that the monastic rule, apart from four daily prayers to which the children from the orphanage were also gathered, included prayers at midnight (Compline) and at 4 a.m. (Lauds).
So, I devised a system to wake up at these times and pretend to be sleeping when Father Grom came to torment me.
But after a while, he figured out what I was doing, so he changed his timing and didn't always come directly after midnight.
I waited but couldn't sleep.
Then he began coming once after midnight and sometimes only once in the morning, unpredictably switching the times.
Then he started taking breaks for several nights.
And, no matter how hard I tried, those rods would fly from time to time.

Eventually, I developed a programmed reflex. When woken up, I blurted out automatically: "Irek. Ziemba. Jan. Genowefa. Father Bialek".
Father Grom's night visits became less frequent and finally stopped.
But I still have this auto- wake-up routine to this day.

Meanwhile, there were religion classes and learning the whole prayer book by heart.
And the birch rods. And the birch rods, always the birch rods.
The rods for a prayer mistake. The rods for writing errors. The rods for pronunciation errors. The rods for mistakes in crossing oneself.

How I hated that man! How correctly I tried to do everything he wanted!
I used every free moment in repetition, repetition, and more repetition.
Name, surname, father, mother. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen! Our Father, Who art in Heaven. Hail Mary, full of grace.
"V shcheh-bzheh-shee-nyeh hzhonshch bzhmee v tzhtsee-nyeh".
Over and over again.

The Germans checked the orphanage twice.
The first time, a Gestapo officer demanded we should cross ourselves one by one.
The second time he had a Polish helper who could better recognize language errors.
Thanks to the birch rods, I passed the test both times.
The Germans came no more...
Perhaps because Father Grom had never made any efforts to conceal his anti-Semitic views and was well known for them even before the war.
After that, things calmed down, and it was relatively peaceful.

After a year, Father Grom stopped waking me up at night but continued persecuting me. Whenever there was some work to do, he always chose me.
In religion classes, he castigated the Jews as much as possible.
There was no evil that Jews were not capable of.
But he never pointed me out. This I admit in his favor.

When I learned a little about the Holy Bible, I was dumb enough to try to discuss it with him, using my knowledge from the cheder, and, yes, the birch rods came out again. For blasphemy and disobedience.

One of my mother's relatives found me when the war was over.
That is how I ended up in the States.

I never forgot Father Grom and went to Poland at the first opportunity.
By then, Father Grom was an old man.
But still alive and hadn't changed a bit!

I asked him why such an anti-Semite like him had saved a Jewish child.
He said, "I didn't save a Jewish child, you fool! I was saving a human life!
Because this is what our Christian faith demands! Despite the sin of lying".
And he hit me - this time just verbally - on and on about the Jewish operatives in the communist security service!

True, I owe this man my life...... but we didn't part as friends.
He died the following year.
And so, I come here every year to his grave to say a Hail Mary for him.

Alex Wieseltier - Uredte tanker
Alle rettigheder forbeholdes 2019
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