Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Nissan 5762 - March 20, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family
Cast a Favor...
a true story, some details changed, by Shira Shatzberg

Our story begins in the enormous city of grandeur, Vienna, where the Streit family had resided in prosperity for generations. Mr. Alfred Streit, an honorable Jewish businessman, lived in a spacious, modern apartment in the upper class section of town, along with his wife Francisca, and their three children. The family had modernized itself as presumably befitted a family of such high social status, leaving behind a heritage of love and faith as its members strode forward blindly into the superficial world of glamorous riches and honor. Nevertheless, they were content, living as comfortably as possible for Jews in prewar Europe.

Otto, the eldest child, attended one of the most highly acclaimed academies in Vienna and excelled both in his studies and social life. The anti-Semitism that was slowly drifting in from Germany had not yet developed fully in Vienna, and the hatred and hostility that was mounting in the hearts of the Austrian nation like lava inside a volcano was not quite ready to erupt. Thus, for the time being, the Austrian malice towards the Jews was contained on the whole.

Ida and Gertrude, the youngest members of the Streit family, also led carefree lives. The were both graceful, charming and adept at ballet. They never missed a party or social event. And why shouldn't they enjoy life: for the Streit family, it was just one, seemingly endless sunrise.


"Excuse me, Madame," said Klara, the Streit's hunchback Austrian cleaning lady, as she walked rather hastily into the family lounge where Francisca was relaxing on the plush couch, reading. "I have completed all the tasks you assigned me today. May I have my monthly wages?"

"Of course, Miss Klara. Sit down here a moment while I fetch the money. I'm sure you could use a few minutes rest after all the hard work you put in today. We are very fortunate to have such a devoted housekeeper."

She searchingly studied the woman's flushed cheeks and lowered eyes. "Why is Klara so uneasy?" she wondered. "One would expect her to beam with pride at such a compliment." Despite her maid's unusual reaction, Francisca made no comment. She wasn't the type to pry and really, it wasn't her business.

She returned two minutes later and handed over a small wad to the fidgeting cleaning lady, who had been too restless to even take the offered seat, a privilege she should have appreciated...

"Thanks again, Klara," Mrs. Streit said warmly, as she accompanied her to the door. "We'll see you again on ..."

A loud crash interrupted her as a gleaming object fell to the floor with a clamorous thud. Francisca recognized it immediately: it was a silver heirloom that had been in the family for generations, an object very dear to her and worth a small fortune. Francisca stood there, staring, absolutely horrified and dumbstruck. The cleaning lady, whom she had trusted implicitly, had proved so disloyal, dishonest and ungrateful.

She tore her eyes away from the antique and refocused them on the woman before her. Klara's demeanor had changed from fidgety to downright frightened. Her pale green eyes reflected panic and despair, justifiably so, since she would, no doubt, now be imprisoned for a few years and after her release, life would never be the same. She would never find employment again. Tears sprang to her eyes.

"Madame," her broken voice sounded desperate, "I-I am sorry. I couldn't help myself. You see..." she went on to relate the poor financial state of her family, the hunger they suffered despite Mrs. Streit's generosity, her children's threadbare clothing. She begged her mistress to have pity on her and not hand her over to the authorities; she promised never to steal again.

Francisca's Jewish heart melted at her pleading. Klara's green eyes looked so desperate and frightened. And her fate lay in Francisca's hands. Only she could grant her a fresh start.

"Miss Klara," she said softly, "I hope you realize how terrible was your crime, really too grave to overlook. Not only is this heirloom priceless, but our family has deep sentimental attachments to it. I find it very, very difficult to forgive you, but I will. And I trust that you have learned your lesson."

Klara nodded, speechless, but her expressive green eyes gleamed with renewed hope, respect and admiration for her mistress.


Years passed and a madman rose to power in Germany. His demented ideas quickly spread throughout Europe like a blazing fire in a parched forest. The smoke was thick, gray and ominous -- and headed in the Jews' direction.

Hard times befell the Jews in Germany and its neighboring country. It started off with basic, harsh laws exhibiting discrimination against the Jewish race, and soon became... a holocaust.

In 1938 the Streit family experienced the effects of the impending war for the first time. It was the first bombshell to be fired directly at them but it hit hard. Their family business, along with most of their household possessions, was confiscated by the Austrian government, never to be returned. Moreover, Alfred and his wife were imprisoned for several months on no basis whatsoever. During these bleak months they were stripped by the Nazi government of their entire fortune. Klara's service was no longer required but the government offered her a position in some office; her years of service with Jews, they felt, had taught her many things that could be of use to them.

She entered the hierarchy on the bottom but the Nazis turned the world upside down in every sense and a lowly citizen like Klara was given an opportunity to rise to power. Paupers, dregs of society, soon filled responsible positions at excellent salaries. Petty criminals became police chiefs, street cleaners -- mayors, drudgery maids were transformed into high government officials, just like the demon-of-all had risen from a house painter to ruler of the Third Reich.

After their release from jail, Mr. and Mrs. Streit agreed that the wisest thing was to escape as soon as possible. Jews were now outright persona non grata and there was nothing to keep them in Austria any longer. Their magnificent past was dead.

Escape was much easier said than done. No one wanted the Jews, the helpless lamb amidst seventy voracious wolves, as History had proven time and again. Visas, to anywhere, were almost impossible to obtain; for every available document there were hundreds of desperate hands. But the Streits were determined not to give up.


Until the very last days of their lives, decades later, Mr. and Mrs. Streit continued to shudder at the thought of waiting in line. Lines held too many memories -- of apprehension, fear, dread and despair, of hopes raised and dashed.

Each morning anew found either Alfred or Franciska in line for necessary documents, and by sunset, one of them would be found facing a callous official who denied their request with a flick of the hand. Pleading that they had been waiting in line since early morning, they would be told, ever so calmly, that no passports were available at the moment but they could try again... "Tomorrow or some other day..." They would be dismissed with a raise of the official's voice, "Next!"

They tried again. And again. They bided their time in line hoping that "today our salvation will come." But repeated failure threatened to crush their spirits altogether.

Then one day the unbelievable occurred, quite suddenly. Mrs. Streit had been waiting in line longer than usual and as time wore on, she had become morose and despairing. Anger crept into her heart, along with total exhaustion. All these feelings combined and combusted to a breaking point. She couldn't take this one moment longer!

"May I help you?" came the cold, polite voice of the official behind the desk.

"My husband and I have spent the past two months waiting on your lines," Francisca said in tones louder, more emphatic than her usual aristocratic demeanor. "If I don't get the necessary papers this moment, I will..."

What would she do? Was there anything in the world she could threaten to do that would make a difference here? She felt suddenly drained, deflated, helpless.

"No, there is nothing I can possibly do. There is nowhere we can turn. I beg of you, please, please give me the documents I need to leave Austria."

"And what is your name, Madame?" This was the very first time someone had bothered to ask her name! The official was peering at her curiously. Strangely enough, there was something familiar about her, now that Francisca looked more closely. Those green eyes... how come she had not noticed them before?


"Oh, Mrs. Streit, how you have changed!" She rose from her chair and came around the desk to embrace her former employer. The people on line began murmuring their protests and Klara whispered, "Don't think I have every forgotten the kindness you showed me. I will do my best to obtain passports and visas for your family."


Francisca looks back to the past with fresh wonder each time. Her act of kindness, forgiving Klara's crime, had planted the seed to her family's imminent freedom. It was then and there that Francisca had heartily thanked the Divine Providence that had stood by her, and she resolved that when she reached safe shores she would reestablish her feeble ties with her Jewish tradition.


The sun was just beginning to rise in the east when the Streits, standing on ship's deck, caught their first glimpse of the lights of the Haifa harbor. They shed tears of joy. The sudden burst of glorious sunlight blended with their feelings. An end to darkness. Dawn. New beginnings in a land of their heritage, a home where they belonged, where they would rebuild their lives upon traditional Torah values...


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