OWING A DEBT OF GRATITUDE

OWING A DEBT OF GRATITUDE

From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Owing a Debt of Gratitude

Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths: Where is the good way? Walk in it and find rest for your soul.

Jeremiah 6:16

It was the summer of 1996. My husband Joe and I, along with two other couples, were on a journey “tracing our roots” through Eastern Europe. Right before our trip to Annykst in Lithuania, the hometown of my husband’s grandmother, we were joined by four more tourists. One of them, Miriam Libenson, was a witty, cultured woman who could recite reams of Hebrew and Yiddish poetry. She had left Annykst as a very young woman, and now she was returning for a nostalgic visit with her two sons, Michael, a psychologist, and Eli, an educator from Israel.

Before their trip, Michael had done some Internet research on Annykst. He had learned the story of Max Curtis, an Annykster who, in 1941, at the age of eighteen, had fallen victim to the Nazis. He had been stripped naked and taken to a pit in town. There, together with several other young men, he was shot and left for dead. By a miracle he had survived and had come to the United States after the war.

Michael got in touch with Max, who was living in Cleveland. They soon became close friends, and the Libensons invited Max to join them on their trip “home.” So Max Curtis was the fourth person who joined us as we headed for Annykst.

As we traveled, Max told us his wartime story. After being shot three times, he had regained consciousness and climbed with great difficulty to the top of the pit. There, he discovered, to his horror, that he was the sole survivor of the massacre. Grief-stricken, he went down to a nearby river that night to wash his wounds. He then lay in a cornfield to hide. As dawn broke, he saw people walking by, and he recognized Verutke, a local gentile girl. He instinctively decided to trust her, even though most of the townspeople had demonstrated allegiance to the Nazis. He revealed his presence to her. Verutke brought Max clothes, and for several days, brought him water and a small amount of bread. One cannot imagine the great risk she took, but Max, who had seen his entire family and all his friends and their families taken away and shot, realized the danger in which Verutke had placed herself. Her brother-in-law, with whom she lived, was an active member of the Nazi Youth Movement.

After several days, Verutke told him that she had confided in the local priest, who had suggested that Max come to the church. Not knowing what would await him there, and very frightened, he fled.

Max endured many hardships after that. He fought with the partisans and later was caught by the Germans, who thought at first that he might be a Russian spy. They were about to shoot him, but upon discovering that he was a Jew, they decided to put him in the ghetto instead.

Through all the ensuing years, Max had remembered Verutke. She was gentle, pretty and young, and knew that she had to do what was right no matter what the personal cost to her might be.

When we reached Annykst, we all went to the pit where Max had been shot. At the site stands a monument dedicated to the memory of the people who died there. It was a very emotional occasion, and we all cried bitterly as Max told us that he actually knew some of the people who had rounded him up and shot him. He had played the trumpet in a band with them. This betrayal was as painful as the bullet wounds. Max had a special request of Joe. Would he please make an El Malei Rachamim (the traditional Hebrew memorial prayer) for his friends? Joe was honored to fulfill the request, as Max supplied the Hebrew names of his friends, one at a time. Then suddenly, Max added one last person to the list: his own Hebrew name. “So much of me died along with them the day we were all shot,” he wept. And so an El Malei Rachamim was then recited for Max, the sole survivor.

Regina, our resourceful guide, was deeply touched by Max’s story. She was determined that he should find Verutke since it was clear that the enormous debt he owed her had been on Max’s mind for over fifty-five years.

The next day, a Lithuanian author who has written a book on the relationship between Jews and gentiles in Lithuania during World War II, accompanied Max Curtis and the Libensons to Annykst in search of Verutke. Max, demonstrating his usual sensitivity to others, repeatedly requested that if they should find her, they not immediately reveal his identity to her. He feared that the revelation of what she had done might still put her in jeopardy. He also prepared himself for the fact that she might no longer be alive. He said that in that case, he would repay whatever debt he could to her heirs if he could find them.

Together they walked through the town interviewing elderly people who might know of Verutke. With the help of local residents, they eventually found her. She was living with her daughter and son-in-law.

When they visited Verutke, they found a poor, elderly woman. Some of her teeth had gone and had not been replaced. Her skin was leathery and wrinkled. She was most curious about her visitors.

After they had exchanged pleasantries, the Lithuanian author asked Verutke about the war years, and whether she remembered the boy of eighteen she had saved. Verutke nodded vigorously. Yes, she remembered him clearly, and she went on to relate the entire incident, referring to Max as “Motke.”

Max, who had been listening to Verutke with deep emotion, knew that the time had come to speak up. He stepped forward and announced in a firm voice, “I am Motke!” For a moment or two, Verutke looked at him, shocked, disbelieving. Then she began to smile, and her eyes, undimmed by time, sparkled once more. Max took another step forward and in a moment they were embracing, stiffly and awkwardly at first, but then with warmth and tenderness.

Max was overcome with joy, and the weight of the years seemed to fall away. For Max, the old woman to whom he owed so much was once more the pretty, young, vibrant, protective girl who had come to his aid when he had most needed it. When their embrace ended, Max spoke gently to Verutke. His words had a simple eloquence. “Your acts of kindness and concern encouraged me to continue and succeed in life,” he said. “I owe you my life, but more than that, you confirm my faith in humanity. I can never repay you enough.”

Verutke looked at Max and nodded her silent understanding. As they parted, Max promised to stay in touch.

Since that emotional reunion, Max has sent Verutke a monthly stipend that more than doubles her meager pension. Max is still visibly moved as he tells of those days in the fields, and he is forever in awe of Verutke’s simple, generous spirit.

Erica S. Goldman-Brodie

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