Weekly Chasidic Story #1253 (s5782-15)
9 Tevet5782/Dec.13, 2021
"Does G-D Ride the Brooklyn
"Ive been living in New York long enough
not to start conversations with strangers. But being a photographer, I have the
peculiar habit of analyzing peoples faces, and I was struck by the features
of the subway passenger on my left."
Connection: This Tuesday is the
dawn-to-nightfall Fast Day of the Tenth of Tevet, when [in addition to
commemorating the Siege of Jerusalem leading to the destruction of the Holy Temple,]
Kaddish is also said for the murdered victims of the evil Nazis whose dates of
death are unknown.
Story in PDF
format for more convenient printing
Does G-D Ride
the Brooklyn Subway?
Marcel Sternberger was a
methodical man of nearly 50, with bushy white hair, guileless brown eyes, and
the bouncing enthusiasm of a czardas dancer of his native Hungary. He always took
the 9:09 Long Island Railroad train from his suburban home to Woodside, N.Y.,
where he caught a subway into the city.
On the morning of January 10, 1948,
Sternberger boarded the 9:09 as usual. En route, he suddenly decided to visit
Laszlo Victor, a Hungarian friend who lived in Brooklyn and was ill.
at Ozone Park, Sternberger changed to the subway for Brooklyn, went to his friend's
house, and stayed until midafternoon. He then boarded a Manhattan-bound subway
for his Fifth Avenue office. Here is Marcel's incredible story:
was crowded, and there seemed to be no chance of a seat. But just as I entered,
a man sitting by the door suddenly jumped up to leave, and I slipped into the
empty place. I've been living in New York long enough not to start conversations
with strangers. But being a photographer, I have the peculiar habit of analyzing
people's faces, and I was struck by the features of the passenger on my left.
He was probably in his late 30s, and when he glanced up, his eyes seemed to have
a hurt expression in them. He was reading a Hungarian-language newspaper, and
something prompted me to say in Hungarian, "I hope you don't mind if I glance
at your paper."
The man seemed surprised to be addressed in his native
language. But he answered politely, "You may read it now. I'll have time
During the half-hour ride to town, we had quite a conversation.
He said his name was Bela Paskin. A law student when World War II started, he
had been put into a Hungarian labor battalion and later sent to the Ukraine. After
that, he was captured by the Russians and put to work burying the German dead.
After the war, he covered hundreds of miles on foot until he reached his home
in Debrecen, a large city in eastern Hungary.
I myself knew Debrecen quite
well, and we talked about it for a while. Then he told me the rest of his story.
When he went to the apartment once occupied by his father, mother, brothers and
sisters, he found strangers living there. Then he went upstairs to the apartment
that he and his wife once had. It also was occupied by strangers. None of them
had ever heard of his family.
As he was leaving, full of sadness, a boy
ran after him, calling "Paskin bacsi! Paskin bacsi!" That means "Uncle
Paskin." The child was the son of some old neighbors of his. He went to the
boy's home and talked to his parents. "Your whole family is dead," they
told him. "The Nazis took them and your wife to Auschwitz."
was one of the worst Nazi concentration camps. Paskin gave up all hope. A few
days later, too heartsick to remain any longer in Hungary, he set out again on
foot, stealing across border after border until he reached Paris. He managed to
immigrate to the United States in October 1947, just three months before I met
All the time he had been talking, I kept thinking that somehow his
story seemed familiar. A young woman whom I had met recently at the home of friends
had also been from Debrecen; she had been sent to Auschwitz; from there she had
been transferred to work in a German munitions factory. Her relatives had been
killed in the gas chambers.
Later, she was liberated by the Americans and
was brought here in the first boatload of displaced persons in 1946.
story had moved me so much that I had written down her address and phone number,
intending to invite her to meet my family and thus help relieve the terrible emptiness
in her life.
It seemed impossible that there could be any connection between
these two people, but as I neared my station, I fumbled anxiously in my address
book. I asked in what I hoped was a casual voice, "Was your wife's name Marya?"
turned pale. "Yes!" he answered. "How did you know?"
looked as if he were about to faint.
I said, "Let's get off the train."
I took him by the arm at the next station and led him to a phone booth. He stood
there like a man in a trance while I dialed her phone number.
hours before Marya Paskin answered. (Later I learned her room was alongside the
telephone, but she was in the habit of never answering it because she had so few
friends and the calls were always for someone else. This time, however, there
was no one else at home and, after letting it ring for a while, she responded.)
I heard her voice at last, I told her who I was and asked her to describe her
husband. She seemed surprised at the question, but gave me a description. Then
I asked her where she had lived in Debrecen, and she told me the address.
her to hold the line, I turned to Paskin and said, "Did you and your wife
live on such-and-such a street?"
"Yes!" Bela exclaimed. He
was white as a sheet and trembling.
"Try to be calm," I urged
him. "Something miraculous is about to happen to you. Here, take this telephone
and talk to your wife!"
He nodded his head in mute bewilderment, his
eyes bright with tears. He took the receiver, listened a moment to his wife's
voice, then suddenly cried, "This is Bela! This is Bela!" and he began
to mumble hysterically. Seeing that the poor fellow was so excited he couldn't
talk coherently, I took the receiver from his shaking hands.
where you are," I told Marya, who also sounded hysterical. "I am sending
your husband to you. We will be there in a few minutes."
Bela was crying
like a baby and saying over and over again. "It is my wife. I go to my wife!"
first I thought I had better accompany Paskin, lest the man should faint from
excitement, but I decided that this was a moment in which no strangers should
intrude. Putting Paskin into a taxicab, I directed the driver to take him to Marya's
address, paid the fare, and said goodbye.
Bela Paskin's reunion with his
wife was a moment so poignant, so electric with suddenly released emotion, that
afterward neither he nor Marya could recall much about it.
only that when I left the phone, I walked to the mirror like in a dream to see
if maybe my hair had turned gray," she said later. "The next thing I
know, a taxi stops in front of the house, and it is my husband who comes toward
me. Details I cannot remember; only this I know-that I was happy for the first
time in many years.....
"Even now it is difficult to believe that it
happened. We have both suffered so much; I have almost lost the capability to
not be afraid. Each time my husband goes from the house, I say to myself, "Will
anything happen to take him from me again?"
Her husband is confident
that no horrible misfortune will ever again befall them. "Providence has
brought us together," he says simply. "It was meant to be."
persons will no doubt attribute the events of that memorable afternoon to mere
chance. But was it chance that made Marcel Sternberger suddenly decide to visit
his sick friend and hence take a subway line that he had never ridden before?
Was it chance that caused the man sitting by the door of the car to rush out just
as Sternberger came in? Was it chance that caused Bela Paskin to be sitting beside
Sternberger, reading a Hungarian newspaper?
Was it chance-or did God ride
the Brooklyn subway that afternoon?
I don't remember. Is it familiar to anyone?
Connection: The Fast of the
Tenth of Tevet (this year: Dec.14), in addition to commemorating the start of
the siege of Jerusalem which culminated in the destruction of the Temples on Tisha
b'Av, has also become the day on which Kaddish is recited for all those whose
death day is unknown.
Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor
of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories
to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them
live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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