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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Fred Basci

Like a post I wrote last year, this is not really my story to tell... but it is a story that, today*, needs to be told:

When our older son Gilad was approaching his 3rd birthday (he's 10 now) he began a one-man harassment campaign to get us to let him have his first pair of 'tzitzi'ot' (a small undershirt-type garment that has ritual fringes attached to it on its four corners) a few weeks early. 

Traditionally in many families where the boys wear this garment, parents wait until the 3rd birthday so that they are sure that the boy is old enough to be both 'potty trained' and able to understand the significance of the blessing he is making over the garment each time he dons it.

Gilad was absolutely relentless with his repeated requests to have his first pair of 'tzitzi'ot', but we still made him wait until he actually turned three.

On the morning of his third birthday I woke him up and pointed to the neat folded pile of his clothes next to his bed and his eyes instantly locked on the crisp white garment folded on top with the knotted strings tied to the corners.  No little boy in the history of the world has ever gone from sleeping to fully dressed so quickly.  As I stood proudly watching him literally leap into his clothing, I was pleased to hear him recite the blessing perfectly.  Clearly he'd been practicing for some time!

As it was a school day and it was my job to bring Ariella to her school and Gilad to his nursery school, we all hurried through breakfast and piled into the car.

The first stop was at Ariella's school which happened to be right next to our synagogue. 

As we pulled into the parking lot I spotted one of the older Hungarian gentleman in our community coming out of the morning service and waved him over to the car.  This man, who we called Fred Basci (The honorific 'basci' is actually pronounced 'batchi' and is the respectful Hungarian term for old man and/or uncle) was a solid, fireplug of a man who was a retired master plumber and had the powerful corded arms and shoulders to show for his years of work.  However, whether from malnutrition as a youth or simple old-world genetics, he stood only a few inches over 5 feet tall.

Adults sometimes found Fred Basci to be prickly... and often even difficult (I'm being kind... I've heard him called a 'tough old bastard' on more than one occasion), but the obvious love and admiration between Fred and our children could not have been stronger if they had been his own flesh and blood.

It was because of this strong bond between Fred Basci and our kids that I waved him over in the parking lot that morning so he could personally wish Gilad a happy birthday and congratulate him on wearing his 'tzitzi'ot' for the first time.

However, when Fred came up to us and I proudly explained to him that Gilad was now three and had made the blessing on his first pair of 'tzitzi'ot' all by himself that morning, I was completely unprepared for this wizened old man's reaction. 

Instead of smiling warmly and giving Gilad a congratulatory kiss on the cheek as I'd expected, his eyes welled up with tears and he turned on his heel and strode quickly away towards the corner of the parking lot where his car was parked.  As I watched him stand there next to his own car with his back to us, it was obvious to me that he was sobbing uncontrollably.

I waited a few minutes until it appeared that Fred Basci had gotten himself somewhat under control and told Gilad to wait while I walked over to see if everything was alright.  When Fred Basci finally turned around he was holding a damp handkerchief in his hand and had only succeeded in spreading the tears around his cherubic face.

I had no idea what to say.  As a rule, men don't deal well with the sight of one another crying... but Fred had earned his reputation as a 'tough old bastad', and I was shocked silent by the unexpected/unexplained outburst of emotion.  I just stood there wondering if perhaps I was shaming him by coming over before he'd had a chance to fully regain his composure.

To my surprise, Fred smiled at me through the last of his tears and waved me closer.  Without any reference to his behavior or his damp face he began by saying the following (you'll have to imagine the thick Hungarian accent... I can't do it justice here):

"I'm going to tell you a story about myself, but the story isn't for you... it's for Gili.  The problem is, Gilad is too young to hear this kind of story right now, but I may not be here to tell him by the time he is old enough.  So, I'm telling you the story and you have to promise that when you think Gilad is ready to hear it you will tell it to him in my name, Okay?"

What could I say? Of course I agreed.

Without making any further attempt to dab at his streaming eyes or mask the husky remains of the tears in his voice, Fred Basci began telling me that he had lost most of his family in Auschwitz and he had emerged from the camp at the end of the war more dead than alive.

Rather than submit to living in a displaced person's camp, Fred set off on foot and began the long walk back to Hungary to see if anyone in his family or community had survived. 

For weeks he walked and slept in forests and inside ruined buildings, but when he got back to Hungary he had the misfortune to be captured by Russian troops who were arresting anyone and everyone who might possibly have been a German in order to exact vengeance for the atrocities the Nazi's had inflicted on their people.

Fred knew only one word in the language of his captors - the Russian word for 'Jew' - and he used it over and over while pointing to himself to try to convince the Russian troops that he was a Jewish victim and not a German collaborator or (G-d  forbid) a Nazi. 

No amount of using the word 'Jew' and pointing to himself had any effect on the Russian soldiers and it soon became clear that Fred and his fellow prisoners (most of whom were in fact collaborators and Nazis) were going to be given a field trial and summarily executed.  So deep was the Russian hatred for the Germans in the wake of countless atrocities that all attempts to explain and plead for mercy fell on deaf ears.

One day when a Russian officer appeared and it seemed that the trials and executions were about to begin, Fred made one last attempt to convince his captors that he was Jewish and not a German war criminal.  The officer overheard him screaming the Russian word for Jew and came over to the caged enclosure where the prisoners were being held.  After determining that Fred didn't know any other Russian, the officer asked through a soldier who spoke some Hungarian why Fred kept screaming the word Jew.

Fred answered that it was because he was a Jew who had been in a concentration camp and that he had been mistakenly arrested while trying to make his way back to his home village in Hungary.

The officer asked him via the interpreter why he should believe him.  He continued by saying that this was a common trick among the Germans to try to avoid the firing squad.

Fred responded by untucking one side of his shirt and pulling out the soiled strings of the 'tzitzi'ot' he wore underneath.

The officer looked at the strings and said,

"So what... how do I know you haven't taken these strings off the body of a dead Jew?  Surely it would have been an easy thing to accomplish with so many of them dead all over Europe.  Tell me, is there some prayer or blessing that one has to say on these strings that would prove to me that you are a Jew?"

Without hesitation Fred recited the Hebrew blessing one says each morning over the 'tzitzi'ot', all the time staring up into the cold eyes of the Russian officer.  As he finished the blessing the officer said something in Russian to the soldier who had been acting as interpreter and the soldier went around to the gate of the enclosure clearly intent on unlocking it.

While Fred watched in disbelief as the gate was being unchained, the Russian officer took advantage of their momentary solitude to whisper to him softly in perfect Yiddish:

"I am also a Jew so I hope you understand why I had to be sure you were who you said you were.  By the time you wake up tomorrow morning the rest of these prisoners will be dead and buried.  It is not a common thing to find a Jew in a position of authority in the Russian army so take my advice... as you make your way to your home village, try to avoid any other Russian troops if you can." 

As Fred Basci finished relating the tale of his narrow escape, his clear blue eyes locked onto mine and he grabbed my upper arm in a vice-like grip, and said,

"When you think Gilad is old enough to hear this story I want you to tell him in my name that these strings we wear are important.  They remind us who we are every single moment that we wear them... and sometimes they remind others who we are too.  Because of these strings I lived instead of being shot.  I was able to marry, raise a family and live to be an old man who gives candy to your beautiful children in shul.  Please tell Gili in my name so that every morning while he is making this blessing, he will never forget how important these strings are to us."

When I got back to the car Gilad asked me if Fred Basci was OK.  I assured him that he was, and told him that Fred had given me a birthday gift for him... a story that in a few years I would share with him. 

And a few years ago I kept my promise to Fred Basci and told Gilad his belated Birthday story.

Note:  Today is Yom HaShoah (Holocaust remembrance day).  At 10:00AM a two minute siren will sound throughout the country and the entire nation will stand in silence thinking about the incomprehensible idea of six million Jews who were murdered only a few years before the establishment of a Jewish state/homeland. 

When the siren sounds I will be thinking about one Jew who survived.

Posted by David Bogner on April 25, 2006 | Permalink


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thank you so much for this story. as it happens, we are having a tough time getting our son to wear his tzitziot every day. whatever explanation we give him as to why it's important to wear them falls on stubborn ears. he is old enough to deal with a story like this, and i will sit down and share it with him. perhaps it will be enough of an inspiration to him and his tzitziot will become a regular part of his daily wardrobe.

Posted by: nikki | Apr 25, 2006 12:53:44 PM

It's fortunate for us all that Gilad, his new tzitziot and Fred came together that morning, and that you were there to hear and repeat the story. Stories like this one, and the one you shared last year, remind me how resilient, strong, persistent and good human nature can be.

Posted by: Steve Bogner | Apr 25, 2006 1:33:44 PM

have you heard marty s's story? i have, and it's one of my "favorites" (if such a word can be used here). showing that, in fact God was with us, even though for whatever His reason, he took back 6 million of us.

Posted by: Tonny | Apr 25, 2006 1:42:52 PM

Thank you...

Posted by: Safranit | Apr 25, 2006 1:48:56 PM

That was a beautiful story and a beautiful posting, David.

Posted by: A Simple Jew | Apr 25, 2006 1:54:42 PM

Nikki... That's quite natural and even Gilad occasionally tries to not wear them. Especially in the warm weather they can be hot and cumbersome. We try not to push and I sometimes offer him the compromise of putting them on for a little while in the morning with a blessing and then taking them off to play.

Steve... I don't believe in coincidences.

Tonny... One only has to hear Marty S. leading services to be 100% sure of the existence of G-d. I have heard his story second hand but never from him.

Safranit... Like I said at the outset... not my story to tell, so not my thank you to accept.

A Simple Jew... I'm just the messenger.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Apr 25, 2006 1:57:45 PM

I'm one of those who believes that fortunate doesn't have anything to do with it. I would say that it happened as it was meant to... that the excitement Gilad felt and the childhood pride in his new garment was given the key to develop into an adult pride, aided by the words that you shared with him recounting the story that Fred Basci shared with you.
A lovely story.

Posted by: nrg | Apr 25, 2006 2:06:41 PM

HANDKERCHIEF WARNING! Geez, Dave, put the friggin' handkerchief warning sign up before you post something like that, willya?

Posted by: efrex | Apr 25, 2006 3:04:47 PM

Thank you for being the messengre and passing one of the millions of stories along.

Their stories will not be forgotten.

Posted by: seawitch | Apr 25, 2006 3:48:30 PM

Absolutely beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing this story with us.

Posted by: Tracey | Apr 25, 2006 5:07:03 PM

David, the tears trekked down my cheeks as I read this beautiful and most significant story. Thank you for sharing it with your readers. I will share it with my family and friends this week at the Shabbos table, and Fred's story will no doubt be repeated by them.

Posted by: Pearl | Apr 25, 2006 5:27:19 PM

That is a beautiful story.

Posted by: Jack | Apr 25, 2006 5:33:07 PM

This is a beautiful, challenging story. May I link back to this on my own blog? I think this expresses much more about the power of faith than my feeble skills can possibly come up with.

Thank you so much for sharing.


Posted by: Kate | Apr 25, 2006 5:53:40 PM

You have honored Fred Basci by sharing his story not only with Gilad, but with the many who will read it here as well.

Thank you.

Posted by: wanderer | Apr 25, 2006 6:01:47 PM

You know. I sent you a "hankie warning" icon. (And I doubt I'm the only one who answered the request.) *sniffle*

A beautiful story, remarkably told. It's so important that you pass them on, so they aren't forgotten. Well done.

Posted by: Tanya | Apr 25, 2006 6:04:14 PM

You can write your sob stories, all you want, right after you cruified a person, whom you accused of writing an e-mail in Nov, 2004. You don't know if "Joan" is that person, but you went ahead anyway and accused a person named Joan, who just asked you a simple question. Which, by the you never answered the question that she put to you.
Sometimes you make me ashamed to be a Jew. You are a tripp, Trepp

Posted by: Ma? | Apr 25, 2006 6:23:49 PM

That story brought me to tears, David. Thanks so much for sharing it. When I think of all that I complain about and grumble through, these kind of stories really humble me. It is so wonderful to know that we are connected to God through what seems the most mundane things, but, yet, they are so powerful... thanks again...

Posted by: Regina Clare Jane | Apr 25, 2006 6:28:36 PM

I didn't grow up in a religious home, so I especially relish seeing my sons with their white strings hanging out of their shirts - especially when doing typical boy stuff like playing basketball. Now I have a story to tell them if they want to "deprive" me of this pleasure. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: westbankmama | Apr 25, 2006 6:33:00 PM

You've gone and done it again. What a wonderful writer you are, David. Your story of Holocaust remembrance captures both the tragedy of the past and hopes for the future of our children. A+ (Sorry - I used to be a teacher. Can't help myself.)

Posted by: Gail | Apr 25, 2006 6:39:20 PM

Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing it.

Posted by: ezer knegdo | Apr 25, 2006 6:41:07 PM

Todah Rabbah.

It is stories like this that make reading you a positive and valuable experience.

Posted by: Sona | Apr 25, 2006 7:04:55 PM

I never *quite* understood the significance of tzitziyot... this story was a beautiful, inspiring answer.

May their names never be forgotten...

Posted by: Irina | Apr 25, 2006 7:07:34 PM

I never *quite* understood the significance of tzitziyot... this story was a beautiful, inspiring answer.

May their names never be forgotten...

Posted by: Irina | Apr 25, 2006 7:08:47 PM

Wow. I was also crying at the end! This is such a powerful story and you recounted it so well.

I want to add something though, and I really don't mean for this to take away *at all* from any of what you've written, but I can't help but feel that stories like this show how meaningful tzitziot are on so many levels, but they're really not about being Jewish at all. They're about being Jewish and male, which is really a different thing. Jews don't wear tzitzit... male Jews wear tzitzit. This post just makes it seem even sadder.

Posted by: Tara | Apr 25, 2006 7:26:58 PM

What a wonderful, powerful story. I say this as I type through my tears...tears for Fred's lost family and the other of the 6 million of our ancestors who perished.

Posted by: Stacey | Apr 25, 2006 7:34:31 PM

I too am requesting a handkerchief warning. Maybe a little kleenex box symbol next to the title or something. My pregnant hormones need to be ready for something like this!

Posted by: Fran | Apr 25, 2006 7:36:56 PM

Fred is a softy. Well educated in Yeshiva before the war.

Posted by: dave | Apr 25, 2006 7:49:20 PM

Very *sniff* nice. Why is the room all dusty all of a sudden?

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Apr 25, 2006 9:49:29 PM

A powerful post, perfectly appropriate for the day. Thank you so much. Now, if I can just get that lump outta my throat...

Posted by: Elisson | Apr 25, 2006 10:37:37 PM

wow... perfect post for rememberence day.. as we should remember EVERY day.

Posted by: val | Apr 25, 2006 10:58:39 PM

nrg... In other words, things happen for a reason. I agree.

Efrex... I got lots of icons when I asked for them way back when... but the problem is that I never know how my posts are going to be received. I live with the stuff inside my head and it doesn't make me cry (usually).

Seawitch... That's the idea. It so happens that Fred is (B"H) alive and well, but I think (hope) he'd want such an important story passed along.

Tracey... I'm proud that I had the privilege of sharing it.

Pearl... Nothing would make me happier. Thanks.

Jack... Yes, I agree.

Kate... Of course. Thank you for the compliment.

Wanderer... Fred is one of the most special people I've known in my life. I think he will be pleased to see the story being passed on.

Tanya... Yeah, I know. I just don't read my posts the same way as others do. It isn't until much later that I go 'Oh geez, I shulda put up the icon...duh!'. :-)

Ma?... As I asked you countless times before: Why do you come here if I offend your sensibilities to such an extent? I was truly embarrassed for you and was going to delete your comment... but decided you need to be shamed for such behavior. Let everyone see you for who you are.

Regina Clare Jane... I agree. Too many times we wait for big signs when all along the mundane things are telling us all we really need to know.

Westbankmama... Happy to give you some ammo. BTW, until my late teens I didn't know such things even existed. :-)

Gail... That is high praise indeed. Considering that there were very few A's in the alphabet soup report cards I got throughout my school career, I'll take whatever good grades I can get. Thanks!

Ezer Knegdo... Like I said, I had good material with which to work.

Sona... As opposed to those other ones I write that leave you scratching your head and wondering what you could have possibly been thinking? :-)

Irina... Amen.

Tara... Thank you. I'm sure you are aware that there have been prominent women who have taken upon themselves the wearing of both Tallit and Tefillin (Rashi's daughters come to mind). I hope that you perform any mitzvot that you sincerely wish to and that you do so for all the right reasons.

Stacey... As fewer and fewer of the survivors are around each year to tell their stories it becomes our responsibility to take over.

Fran... Sorry about that. Some generous folks have even sent me some great icons. I just keep forgetting to use them. My bad. :-)

Dave... I know that. But he works very hard to hide his softness (and his education) from the rest of us. The kids see right through him though. :-)

Doctor Bean... Lots of pollen this time of year. Take a Tavist, Claritin or Allegra (whichever has the cutest drug rep). :-)

Elisson... Aw, you're just a big softy. Don't worry... I won't let it get around your morning minyan fish breakfast club. :-)

Val... Agree 100%

Posted by: treppenwitz | Apr 25, 2006 11:55:34 PM

Thank you for sharing this wonderful story...

Posted by: Lisa W. | Apr 26, 2006 1:04:39 AM

David, I couldn't wait for Shabbos, and forwarded your story and blog name to several people. It's already circulating out there in blogland, 'cause one of my sendees sent it to his email roster, and the story found its way back to my in-mail box a short time later.

Posted by: Pearl | Apr 26, 2006 1:10:55 AM

Trepp, I think this is one of the most powerful stories I have ever heard. Many people find it difficult to talk of their experiences during that time...Fred must have seen something special in you and your son, to be able to open up and pour out the fragile contents of his heart.
How good of you to pass this on to all of us.

Posted by: Randi(cruisin-mom) | Apr 26, 2006 1:29:27 AM

I stand (and kneel) with you and millions of others on this day.

Posted by: Tim | Apr 26, 2006 2:41:25 AM

Simply amazing.

Posted by: Shevy | Apr 26, 2006 3:03:21 AM

Thank you so much for sharing that story. I am beyond moved.
If I ever have a son I will share that story with him and maybe with my nephews too when they are old enough (and if my brother lets me - he already said yes to gum!)

Posted by: Shifra | Apr 26, 2006 3:40:05 AM

I printed out the story and read it to my fourth graders today.

They were very impressed. It was a great lesson in how important Jewish rituals and traditions are. Kids really get that part.

Come to think of it, the printout went around the teaching staff when I was finished with it.

Posted by: Meryl Yourish | Apr 26, 2006 5:21:02 AM

Beautiful...I can think of some people who might like to read this post...I'll try to pass this around. One technical question- I presume you're a techelet wearer, based on that link in the first or second paragraph of the post?

Posted by: tnspr569 | Apr 26, 2006 6:25:01 AM

I forwarded this to my 16-year-old's email box. He is a teen, and in our frum-challenged neighborhood, he is usually proud but ocassionally self-conscious about wearing tzitzit....I think this remarkable account will reinforce his yetzer tov--thank you for sharing it with us. I know I will never look at tzitzit again without thinking of Mr. Basci, his survival and hasgacha pratis.

Posted by: aliyah06 | Apr 26, 2006 6:35:33 AM

Any young person with the ability to bypass Consular Religious, Financial and Racial elitism please volunteer for this Youth Summer Camp.

Posted by: pk (formerly k.a kakarizz) | Apr 26, 2006 9:04:21 AM

Thanks for sharing this very moving story. I was in tears when I read it.

Posted by: Judy | Apr 26, 2006 11:10:08 AM

Thank you for posting this story, David. Now I have to dry my keyboard.

I wonder how many Jews were not as lucky as Fred Basci. What a final, horrible irony they faced -- to be mistaken for their own persecutors. As if everything they had already gone through wasn't enough -- they had to suffer that, too.

And I think what a miracle it is that the Jewish people still exists.

Posted by: Rahel | Apr 26, 2006 11:36:01 AM

Thank you for sharing such a beautiful and moving story. (I really mean that - thank you.)

Posted by: zemirah | Apr 26, 2006 2:03:02 PM

That was beautiful. Thank you.

Posted by: Bookworm | Apr 27, 2006 2:17:31 AM

Didn't have time to read your blog all week so now I am catching up. This was beautiful. Tears and chills. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: Essie | Apr 28, 2006 6:16:49 PM

very touching story

Posted by: Rafi G | Apr 30, 2006 10:34:35 AM

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