This I Believe

Richard - Minneapolis, Minnesota
Entered on April 23, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: Holocaust
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This I Believe: “B’sherit”

I believe in the idea of B’sherit. It’s a Yiddish word that means that unexplainable and unexpected things happen–but for a reason. We don’t know how and why. They are just meant to be.

There have been a handful of times during my life when an extraordinary event has happened, the kind when I’ve murmured solemnly, “Whoa. That was way too coincidental.” Like the time when I was eight and I was terrified but required to dive off the high board on Parents’ Day at my summer camp, but Hershey Larson collided with me during a demonstration game of Capture the Flag, and our counselor made me sit out the diving exhibition. Or the time I took my two-year-old son to the sandbox in Prospect park in Brooklyn one early Sunday morning, and from out of nowhere three sinister-looking men approached us from three directions. I prepared to grab Jake off the sand and try an end run around the men before they could snatch him. Just when they were within ten or twenty foosteps from us, out of another nowhere appeared a cop–on this silent, spring Sunday morning. The three men stopped, turned and disappeared into the park.

But what happened to me two summers ago in Warsaw, Poland solidified my belief in B’sherit. Here’s what happened: I’m sitting in a hotel coffee shop late at night visiting with a couple who, with me and a few others, are part of a group visiting Holocaust sites in Eastern and Central Europe. Another of the travel companions is a loud, excessively flirtatious woman at a nearby table who is trying to connect with a man nearby. He’s obviously disinterested in her but courteously answers her questions, one of which is, “Hey. Whereyafrom?” He answers, “Jerusalem, but I was raised in Minneapolis.” I chuckle a bit, because that’s where I was raised, too. The man finally has his fill of her and leaves. I follow him into the elevator, and I excuse myself for seeming like a stalker, but I have to tell him that I, too, am from Minneapolis. His name is Matthew and he’s the cousin of Danny Frier, a childhood friend of mine. But that’s not all. That’s not even close to all. Matthew’s uncle is Henry Frier, a long-time family friend, who gave me my first swim lesson (but not diving lesson) when I was about six up at Devil’s Lake one summer so long ago. While Henry was holding me buoyant in the water, I noticed the faded bluish numbers tattooed on his forearm. That evening I asked my father what those numbers were for, and he explained how Henry was once at a place called Auschwitz when he was a boy and almost murdered by the Nazis. As the years passed, the image of those numbers remained a seared image in my mind and a catalyst for my near obsession with trying to comprehend the horror and magnitude of that genocide.

For nearly my entire life I’ve thought about Henry and that staggering moment of awareness at Devil’s Lake when I was so innocent and young. And now, at age 54, the night before I will walk through the horrific arched gate of Auschwitz and into the most prolific killing place the world has ever known–a moment I’ve rehearsed in my mind a thousand times during my lifetime–where Henry and millions of others were delivered by cattle cars, humiliated, stripped, tattooed, starved and tortured, I’m standing in an elevator in Warsaw, Poland with his nephew, who just arrived from Jerusalem and I from Minneapolis, both of us thousands of miles from our homes, unable to explain how and why moments like this happen but accepting the fact that they just do. They just do.

B’sherit. This I believe.