'Hidden child': Survivor of the Holocaust shares his testimony of two faiths
In early childhood, Abraham H. Foxman learned the rites and rituals of the Roman Catholic faith.
Like many Catholics, he wore a crucifix, was taught to make the sign of the cross at church and to hold priests and other Catholic clergy in high esteem.
Except Foxman wasn't Catholic — he was Jewish.
He was a "hidden child" — raised from the time he was 15 months old until he was about 6 by his Polish nanny as Nazis slaughtered Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The woman's secret act of compassion saved his life.
"As you have heard, I was born in the wrong place and the wrong time to be a Jewish child," Foxman said Sunday at the 2019 Yom HaShoah Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony in Oklahoma City.
A crowd of more than 500 people gathered to hear as Foxman, national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, told his personal story of faith and survival.
The annual ceremony was hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City, in partnership with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Bishop McGuinness High School, 801 NW 50, where the presentation took place. Other community groups that partnered for the event included Michael Baron, producing artistic director of Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, and the University of Central Oklahoma Musical Theater Department.
- Related to this story
- Article: Survivor says world should heed Holocaust lessons
The Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, welcomed the crowd.
"The identity of every people is rooted in remembrance," he said. "We are a people who need to remember so that the lessons learned from the past can be carried on and handed on to the younger generations."
Through music, prayer, dramatic presentations and a candle-lighting ceremony, Oklahomans honored Holocaust survivors, rescuers and liberators.
Foxman's poignant message was one of the highlights of the event, appropriately titled "Testimony of a Hidden Child."
He was born in Poland in 1940. He said he survived the Holocaust because his Catholic nanny Bronislawa Kurpi offered to keep him when his Jewish parents Joseph and Helen Foxman were ordered by the Nazis to enter one of the ghettos the Nazi regime set up to segregate and confine Jews. Foxman said Kurpi had him baptized and raised him as a Catholic until his parents returned to claim him after World War II.
Over the years, Foxman became well-known worldwide for his leadership role with the Anti-Defamation League where he served from 1965 to 2015 (he was national director from 1987 to 2015). He currently serves as head of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Musuem of Jewish Heritage in New York City. He said in his meetings with other Holocaust survivors he has yet to meet another family of three with an infant who survived the Holocaust. Staying alive amid the Nazis' killing spree with an infant was often insurmountable for Jewish families.
And Foxman said hiding a Jewish child, particularly a boy, was to risk one's life.
Foxman said he learned just how risky it was for Kurpi to keep him when he attended a conference as an adult where "hidden children" like himself gathered together. He said most of these children were girls because there was a good chance that a person raising a circumcised boy would be reported to the Gestapo for investigation.
Foxman said his nanny refused to give him up to his parents willingly and a custody battle ensued.
Shortly after they won custody, his parents left Europe to raise him in America.
He never saw Kurpi again but nestled in the family's luggage were several pictures of her. Foxman said his father told him that he wanted to make sure that he would remember her and that he would see the face of the woman who loved him and saved him every single day of his life.
"I never said goodbye to my nanny. I never said thank you to my nanny and so, symbolically, every time I have an opportunity as today to think about her, about her heroism, it's a way that I embrace her and say thank you," Foxman said.
The Jewish leader said his father was a wise man and began to teach his son the traditions of his Jewish faith in many ways.
He had him exchange his crucifix for a small tallit katan, a traditional Jewish garment. His prayers that Kurpi had taught him to pray in Latin were exchanged for the Shema, a traditional Jewish prayer.
Foxman said as an adult, he asked his father why, after everything the Jews had been through, after everything their family had been through — losing 14 members in the Holocaust — did they decide to raise him as a person of faith?
His father replied that despite all the tragedy that happened, they felt that godly interventions and miracles had also taken place.
Sunday, Foxman thanked the crowd for their presence.
He said he often wondered why many Jews in the Nazi concentration camps bartered their much-needed food and other essentials for ink and paper to write about their lives and experiences.
Foxman said his father explained that the Jewish victims "feared that they would have lived and died and no one would ever know."
"As I look out at you, if they only knew then that 70 years later in Oklahoma City, of all the places in the world, that you would come together to remember them, maybe, maybe, they wouldn't have died as alone as they did," he said.
"So thank you. It is very meaningful, especially for those of us who are survivors, to know that you are here to remember."