NEW YORK - "If my parents were not concentration camp survivors, I would probably be a good Christian and maybe even a priest," says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Following the recent news item that the Catholic church issued an order, immediately after World War Two, barring the return of Jewish children saved by Christians to their families of origin, Foxman found himself reliving the most painful and fascinating chapter in his life.
As an infant, Foxman was handed over to a pious, Polish Catholic woman by his parents, and raised as a Catholic until he was 3 years old.
"Now a mystery has been solved that plagued my parents for many years," Foxman relates. "Until their deaths, my parents tried to make sense of Brunia's behavior, and her stubborn refusal to return me."
Last week Foxman had difficulty maintaining a steady voice as he conducted the conversation in his office in the ADL building across the street from the UN. He watched the closed door as if he feared that one of the secretaries would enter only to find him so troubled and moved. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera revealed the existence of a Vatican letter issued in October 1946 and sent to Angelo Roncalli, then-Vatican representative in Paris and later Pope John XXIII, ordering that only those Jewish children who had not been baptized be returned to parents who demanded to be reunited with their children.
"And I was baptized," Foxman says, "And given the name Henrik Stanislav Korpi."
At the beginning of World War Two, Foxman's family fled from their city of origin, Baranowicz, to Vilna. Foxman's father, Josef Foxman, was one of the leaders of the Revisionist Zionist Organization and the editor of the Revisionist newsletter Blau Weiss. Josef was arrested and sent to a concentration camp after one of the first selections following Vilna's capture by the Nazis in 1941. His wife escaped from the ghetto and posed as an Aryan. When Abraham was handed over to Bronislawa Korpi by his parents, he was a year and a half old, and an only child.
"My parents gave me to Brunia without hesitation," Foxman says. "The Polish Catholic worked in our home and was treated as a member of the family."
As a pious Catholic, Brunia was quick to baptize the Jewish toddler in a neighborhood church. Her decision to raise the Jewish infant involved a risk to her own life.
"Because I was circumcised, Brunia would have been put to death if the Nazis had discovered that she was hiding me."
Foxman's mother, who lived in the Aryan Quarter, occasionally risked a visit to her infant son and brought him food. Korpi proved to be a devoted caretaker, who saw to the protection of the infant's soul, as well as his physical needs, when she had him baptized.
Foxman vaguely remembers that Korpi treated him like a member of the family and saw to all his needs during the period when she cared for him. He was not aware of his Jewish heritage.
Immediately after the war, a tortuous chapter began in the life of the toddler Abraham Foxman, or Henrik Stanislav Korpi. After returning to Vilna, Foxman's parents decided to live temporarily in Lodz, and "It was only natural that Brunia would join us in Lodz," Foxman says.
However, even after his father assisted and supported Korpi, she refused to return the child to his parents. "The child was baptized as a Christian and will remain a Christian," she said.
At first, Foxman says, "My father tried to avoid an argument, and he tried to get me back by means of persuasion."
But Korpi insisted that she would not return the boy to his parents. In order to undermine any attempts by the father to get his son back, Korpi turned to the KGB in Lodz. She informed on Josef and caused him to be arrested twice.
On the advice of the KGB, Foxman's parents sued Korpi and demanded in court that he be identified as a Jew and returned to his family of origin. The court battle extended for a year and a half.
However, even after the court found that Abraham was a Jew, and ordered Korpi to return him to his parents, the devoted Catholic woman did not surrender. She kidnapped Abraham twice and hid him.
"With the help of friends in Lodz, my father discovered where I was hidden and took me back," Foxman says. Foxman's parents decided to leave Poland in order to get over the trauma of the battle in court. They lived in Austria for years, and later emigrated to the United States. Foxman's father continued to send money to Korpi.
Several weeks ago, Foxman met with Pope John Paul II. "I asked him to pray for Brunia's memory, the woman who saved my life," Foxman says. "The existence of the Vatican document ordering that Jewish children not be returned to their families, was publicized several days after I met with the Pope, and I suddenly understood why Brunia struggled to keep me as a Christian," Foxman continues. "I believe that the priest in the church where I prayed with Brunia told her about the Vatican letter and ordered her not to return me because I was baptized."
Foxman is convinced that "there are now thousands of people who are unaware, and we are unaware, that they were born as Jews and baptized as Christians by the Catholics that saved them during the Nazi occupation. The children's saviors are now dead, and their secrets were buried with them."
He said the newly revealed document "made me very sad. The rescue of children by Catholics was a noble chapter, but in retrospect, the order not to return children robs the rescue of its human significance. They didn't save children. They wanted to save souls."
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