5 February 2016
There are some subjects about which it is difficult to write without exaggeration, but if one restrains oneself the impact may be lost. This incident, one of so many horrors in the twentieth century, is best told without frills, baldly even. One so hopes to do justice to heroes and martyrs; words will never be sufficient.
BH had another birthday not long ago; a quiet affair this year. However, our son sent him a remarkable present: an extract from the Yad Vashem website.
In 1939 BH’s father was arrested at his estate in what is today Belarus, and taken to prison in the local town. From there he was moved to harsher conditions in the prison at Slonim, the main town of the region. His wife, Anna, followed him with their two teenage daughters and the ten year-old BH. They lived there unobtrusively; Anna visiting the prison every day to hand in food, fresh clothes, and such medicines as she could get hold of. Apart from her visits to the prison she attended daily Mass, escorted by her young son.
Acting as Altar boy (Server) at Mass must have been a welcome distraction for the boy during those darkest of times. The parish priest was Fr Adam Sztark, a Jesuit in his late thirties. This photo would have been taken when he joined the Order. BH remembers him as looking older – and he remembers him clearly.
After some months the prisoners, including BH’s father, were taken from Slonim to Minsk, and the family never saw him again. Anna, the girls, and BH were rounded up with hundreds of other civilians and crammed into cattle wagons heading to an unknown destination in the East; part of a vast and brutal exodus of innocents.
The station platforms were packed with anxious friends, frantic relations, officials, and the merely curious. Pushing and shoving, yelling and crying; some trying to push food and extra clothing between the bars of the windows, most too tearful to say goodbye.
Just as the train started to move away Fr Sztark was seen, noticeable in his long black cassock, pushing through the crowd to their wagon. He just had time to give a blessing, and to hand BH a small wooden crucifix. Then the train slowly rumbled out of Slonim railway station heading for Siberia.
BH guarded that little cross and, eventually, after many adventures brought it to England in 1947.
It was in England that in due course the fate of Fr Adam Sztark became known. He and two nuns had been executed in 1942 by the Nazis in Slonim; their crime was sheltering Jewish children and assisting their escape by hiding them with Polish families. His last request was to be executed in his cassock. Today, a cross (left) marks the place where he was executed.
They were not the only victims of the Nazis in Slonim. About 35,000 Jews were butchered.
Yad Vashem recognised Fr Sztark as a Righteous Among the Nations:
And here is the wooden crucifix which Fr. Sztark gave to BH, kept and cherished all these years: