Two Who Dared and the Little Polish Boy

By Arthur Kegerreis
Originally published December 19, 2013

Shortly after I moved into my apartment a dozen years ago, I met an elderly woman named Maria who offered to sell me some plants. She was quite friendly, but moved at a pace much slower than my frenzied lifestyle, so I didn’t take the time to get to know her. A few years later, a termite infestation forced our temporary relocation during fumigation, and subsequently, I met her older brother Peter. I was moving a number of musical instruments, and he inquired if I was a composer; he’d like to have a poem he wrote set to music. I invited him in to my apartment and we began to chat about his story.

Peter and Maria had been children in Budapest during the Nazi occupation, and were kept in hiding. Polanski’s film “The Pianist” bears many similarities to Peter’s story. The last time they heard from their parents were during a phone call where they said goodbye. They were raised Jewish, but were not very religiously observant. Some of their friends and classmates had been shot point blank by the Nazis, in front of the school they’d attended as children. As they told me the story together, their faces clenched and they recalled that the school had been torn down. “It should have been made into a memorial.”

Years after the war, while looking through an old “Life” magazine here in LA, Peter discovered a photo of a small boy with arms raised, rifles pointed at him by a group of Nazi soldiers. Peter was haunted by the photo, and several years later, woke in the middle of the night with a sense of the presence of the boy. He was inspired to write a poem about the child, and it now is exhibited in the Museum of Tolerance, also slated for exhibition in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Peter has made his life’s work the use of the poem and photo for holocaust education, travelling around the state to meet and educate adults and children.

Years earlier, when I first arrived at Hampshire College as an undergrad, in 1981, a number of us went rock climbing and hiking in Vermont. One of the friends I made during this pre­college trip was an amiable fellow hippie named Timmy. As our lives progressed, he managed to win the heart of a gal I’d dated a bit, to my dismay, but I found it hard to hold much of anything against him. After our graduation, he made a sizable alumni donation, helping secure the school’s endowment. My boarding high school had closed due to financial problems the summer I graduated, so I was happy somebody was taking steps to prevent that happening to my college too. Actually, when I looked for colleges, a priority for me was that the school seemed stable enough to last a while – often not the case with alternative colleges. As time went on, Timmy made a number of financial investments for economically challenged countries. He explained how it all worked to me, and I couldn’t explain the economic details again, but I was dazzled that somebody could do that, help the country, and make money at the same time.

But behind the scenes Timmy was developing a condition that gradually made it difficult and nearly impossible for him to walk, and when I’d see him at alumni events, I often was saddened by the progression of his disease.

Last year, he released a documentary he’d been working on, “Two Who Dared: The Sharps’ War,” and then I noticed that it was slated to be shown at Neighborhood Unitarian Church, next to the Gamble House in Pasadena, so I decided to attend the screening.

What I didn’t know about the film beforehand was that it was the story of his grandparents who were Unitarian ministers in Wellesley, MA. They had traveled to Prague during the late 1930’s, working underground together with Quakers to help Jews and Unitarians escape from the Nazis. I hadn’t realized that Unitarians were also targets of the Nazis, and the Unitarian church there once had 4000 people in it – the largest in the world. Their efforts ultimately resulted in a casualty; their marriage. But over the course of the time they spent in Europe, they saved thousands of lives. Among those was a German writer named Lion Feuchtwanger. He was smuggled over the border into Spain cloaked as a woman, and evacuated in the minister’s wife’s berth aboard a steamer to the US. The writer settled in the Pacific Palisades, and had a beautiful home in the hills above the Lake Shrine there. By strange synchronicity, I had just learned of the home shortly before seeing the film. It now serves as a German artist’s colony called “Villa Aurora.”

Artemis at Villa Aurora

Another one of our college alumni also knew of the coincidence; he lived across the street from it, and arranged a screening of Timmy’s film there. I invited my neighbors Maria and Peter to join us for the event.

I was unsure how they’d react; I wasn’t sure if it would stir up extremely uncomfortable emotions rather than serve as an inspiration. Maria responded, “it is ALWAYS difficult, but we must do it.” We were all excited by the upcoming trip, which had much more of the character of an expedition than a short trip near the beach.

Then came the innocent questions that I was somewhat surprised by my limited ability to answer; “What do Unitarians believe?” Although I’d been one for 9 years in NYC, primarily because I was invited to participate in their choir, Musica Viva, I didn’t know the dictionary definition claims they don’t believe in the holy trinity and don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God. In NYC, our controversial minister, son of famed Senator Church, and an inspiring speaker himself, had been involved in a scandal when he left his well ­loved wife for a member of the congregation, and had been featured on the cover of “New York” magazine. Yes, I had been perplexed when Wiccan sermons had been delivered to the suit­-and-tie-­clad upper east side congregation, and I’d heard people mention that many Unitarians would get upset if Jesus was mentioned on Christmas, but often things seemed just like any (very well funded) protestant gathering on a Sunday morning. Yes, Leonard Bernstein had cut the first check for the organ, and the executor of his estate, Schuyler Chapin was on the board; Blythe Danner and Renee Fleming had performed with us, but after all, it was the upper east side. Gossip Girl hadn’t come along yet, but gossip and reputation often overshadowed any sort of religiousity, and frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn; eventually all I cared about was the great music we got to perform. I never expected to have to explain Unitarians to someone, and it was usually adequate to tell people that many interfaith Jewish/Christian marriages were performed by Unitarians.

“What do Quakers believe?” Maria turned to the dictionary for the answer. Although I knew Quakers had Christian foundations, I was surprised the dictionary definition was surprisingly less inclusive than the un­ programed meetings I’ve felt welcome at, and bore more resemblance to the protestant religions I’d gradually developed a distaste for. Un­programed Quaker “meetings” have no minister or leader, and attendees or members sit in silence until they are inspired to stand and speak to the group. Programed Quaker “churches” often mix this style of meditation and worship with a sermon and music, in a style familiar to anyone who’s ever attended a church, but with silent reflective periods, uncharacteristic of many other religious institutions.

So after our religious research, we drove west on Sunset to the sea, and into the hills above, where we watched the film together, with Timmy, who now uses his full name, Artemis. Afterwards, he was kind enough to have Peter read his poem:

To the Little Polish Boy Standing with His Arms Up
by Peter Fischl

I would like to be an artist
So I could make a painting of you
Little Polish Boy

Standing with your little hat on your head
The Star of David on your coat
Standing in the ghetto with your arms up
As many Nazi machine guns point at you

I would make a monument of you and the world
Who said nothing

I would like to be a composer
So I could write a concerto of you
Little Polish Boy

Standing with your little hat on your head
The Star of David on your coat
Standing in the ghetto with your arms up
As many Nazi machine guns point at you

I would write a concerto of you and the world
Who said nothing

I am not an artist
But my mind has painted a painting of you

Ten Million Miles High is the painting
So the whole universe can see you now
Little Polish Boy

Standing with your little hat on your head
The Star of David on your coat
Standing in the ghetto with your arms up
As many Nazi machine guns pointed at you

And the world
Who said nothing

I’ll make this painting so bright
That it will blind the eyes of the world
Who saw nothing

Ten Billion Miles High will be the monument
So the whole universe can remember you
Little Polish Boy

Standing with your little hat on your head
The Star of David on your coat

Standing in the ghetto with your arms up
As many Nazi machine guns pointed at you

And the monument will tremble so the blind world
Now will know

What fear is in the darkness

The world
Who said nothing

I am not a composer
But I will write a composition
For five trillion trumpets
So it will blast the ear drums
Of this world

The worlds
Who heard nothing

it was you
not me

Then Maria shared her emotions, recalling the feeling of her childhood in hiding from the Nazis. The intimate upscale screening audience seemed to have numerous connective threads with the family, and a couple had been students of Artemis’s grandmother. Artemis recounted the advice given by his grandmother when he initially came down with his disease; “you must NEVER give in to self­pity. You are destined for GREATNESS!” Coming from someone with her history, this sage advice took on a deeper meaning than it would have from, say, a new age guru. Incidentally, our fellow alumn Ken Burns recently signed on as executive producer for the film, so it may be televised soon, although it already has enjoyed a remarkably robust screening schedule across the country.

As we drove home that night, Maria asked about my religious beliefs. She insisted that we all should have much more religious tolerance, and after all, we’re all praying to the same God, and most religions are more alike than different.

Then she began to tell a story, previously undisclosed to anyone, about her bout with cancer in the early 1980’s. She had ended up in a bed in Cedar Sinai Hospital, waiting for surgery. Having officially converted to Roman Catholicism to escape from the Nazis and come to the United States, she had told the hospital she was Catholic when she was admitted. During a pre­surgery visit, the doctor heard her saying a Jewish prayer. “So you’re Jewish then? It says here you’re Catholic.”

“I was afraid to tell anyone,” she admitted.

He pulled back the curtain to reveal the Star of David atop the hospital and pointed to it. “You’re afraid HERE?” he inquired. She breathed a sigh of relief.

As Maria continued, she alluded to the anti­semitic behavior that she has found everywhere; and supported her continuing decision to keep her faith mostly secret. I choked up as I realized the war had been over for 40 years when this happened at the hospital, and she was still afraid to reveal her birth religion.

Incidentally, Cedars Sinai security threatened to arrest me for taking that picture. Apparently they’re a bit photo­shy.

Maria pulled through that surgery, and both her and Peter have endured a number of medical challenges. Peter recently suffered a heart attack during a visit from his children, perhaps brought on by the excitement of the event, but seems to be doing well now. When I asked if I could share his poem with you, he became elated.

A couple of years ago, I was about to pull into our apartment building’s garage, and discovered Maria lying in the driveway. A neighbor had pulled into the driveway too quickly, hit her, and knocked her over. Soon an ambulance arrived and she was whisked away, leaving me unsure if she was going to survive. But she was back in a couple of weeks, and after that event I decided I should really nurture the friendship. I discovered that she spent time with spiritual master Krishnamurti after synchronicity brought them together. Then she became a dance and movement instructor, and acting teacher, following her time as a student at UCLA.

Maria just celebrated her 86th – I mean 29th – birthday, and since we discovered our birthdays are two days apart, we celebrated together. At Disney Hall, we listened to a number of works by Dvorak, followed by a lunch with her favorite waitress at Denny’s. As dessert was presented to her, she confided, “I think chocolate ice cream could bring about world peace. Whenever people start fighting, just give it to them, and…” She gestured a calming motion with both her hands, and we smiled together.

Ice Cream
by Sarah McLachlan

Your love is better than ice cream
better than anything else that I’ve tried
and your love is better than ice cream
Everyone here knows how to fight
and it’s a long way down
it’s a long way down
it’s a long way down
to the place where we started from
Your love is better than chocolate
better than anything else that I’ve tried
oh love is better than chocolate
everyone here knows how to cry
it’s a long way down
it’s a long way down
it’s a long way down
to the place where we started from…