Why My Jewish Grandmother Helped a Nazi’s Boy

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Pauline Steinhorn headlined “Why My Grandmother Helped a Nazi’s Boy”:

Israel said it received a request for earthquake relief from Syria and will send aid. Bashar al-Assad’s government, which maintains a state of war with Israel, denies having made the request. Israel’s willingness to help care for enemy civilians reminds me of a story I discovered in the journal of my maternal grandmother, Bronia Feldman Rubinstein.

A Polish Jew, Bronia was imprisoned during much of World War II in several Nazi concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen, and worked as a nurse in the camp infirmary. In that capacity, she made a habit of deceiving the Nazis by reporting that her patients had the flu instead of typhus—if it was typhus, the patients would have been shot.

One evening in the summer of 1943, Bronia was startled when a guard ushered her out of the camp. She wondered if her deception had been discovered and feared she would be killed that night.

Instead, the guard told her that his infant son was sick and no doctor was nearby to help. Could he trust her to help his child? Under the guard’s gruff manner, my grandmother perceived the plea of a frightened father.

Refusing wasn’t an option; the child was innocent. The boy bore no responsibility for the sins of his father. Bronia showed the child’s mother how to reduce his temperature with cold baths and how to use steam to ease his coughs. The next night when the guard came back for her, she brought a tincture to lower the boy’s fever. He recovered. Soon, there were more sick children of other Nazi guards for Bronia to care for.

When I first read this story, I wondered if I would have been as forgiving. At that point in the war, Bronia’s husband and their two youngest daughters had been transported to the death camp at Treblinka. She knew there was little chance of seeing all of them alive again.

Yet she continued to nurse those who needed help whether they were fellow inmates or the children of Nazis.

My grandmother survived the war, immigrated to the U.S. with her only surviving daughter, my mother, and continued her nursing career in Baltimore. She died in 1994 at 85.

The trust my grandmother earned by nursing her enemies’ children allowed her to save more of her fellow inmates. She had broken down barriers to touch a shared humanity.

The late Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of England, wrote: “Your enemy is also a human being. Hostility may divide you, but there is something deeper that connects you: the covenant of human solidarity.”

Surely that’s what Israel had in mind when it carried out Operation Good Neighbor during Syria’s civil war. The humanitarian-aid program sent hundreds of tons of food and clothing and established three medical facilities at the border that treated thousands.

In the wake of Syria’s destructive earthquake, Sacks’s words are relevant once again. A decent society, he observed, is one in which “enemies do not allow their rancour or animosity to prevent them from coming to one another’s assistance when they need help.” It shouldn’t take a natural disaster for the rest of us to remember that.

Pauline Steinhorn is a writer and filmmaker. She is writing a book based on her mother’s and grandmother’s stories of survival in Nazi Germany.

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