“Always do what’s right,” papa would tell me growing up. “Even when doing so is difficult.”
Papa was a naturally good man with a gentle demeanor and a welcoming nature. People loved him. What I remember most were his warm hugs.
By trade, papa worked as a doctor, spending much of his day treating patients in his small office near the town center. He was known in our parts for his brilliance and for never rejecting anyone seeking treatment. Some scoffed at him doing so, calling him a fool and worse. They expected papa to turn away those who couldn’t pay or those who were, in their eyes, of unsuitable races and religions. But he never wavered on whether to treat or not – “people are people, and every person deserves care,” he’d say and often do.
In our small countryside town just outside of Warsaw lived a large Jewish population, many of whom moved in while papa was in his early years practicing medicine. Papa, who wasn’t Jewish and knew little about Judaism, treated the new residents as they settled in, often doing so for free. Some became new friends too, and their children became my friends. I thought nothing of differences and even learned some Yiddish. On many Friday evenings, Papa’s Jewish friends would invite our family for Shabbat dinner. We’d attend, walking to and from their homes. Papa wanted to respect the traditions and tolerated no grumbling.
While not perfect, life was pleasant. That all changed with a tuberculosis outbreak in town. Many died. Mama begged papa not to see patients, but he continued treating anyone sick. He too soon contracted the illness. I still remember mama’s tears when papa passed. I was eight years old then, and that night I cried and cursed his principles.
From then on, it was just mama and me. We’d talk about papa. She’d often tell me how I reminded her of him. “You have his loving demeanor and hard-headed nature,” she’d say, emphasizing the latter, though I could tell she meant it as a compliment. She loved papa dearly, marrying him against her family’s wishes. “He is my love; there is nothing more to discuss,” she wrote her parents after their objection. And when they threatened to disown her, she replied, “do as you please, my decision is made.” Sometimes I wondered if my hard-headed nature came from her.
I graduated high school and took a teaching position at a girls’ school in Warsaw. There was much life in the city. Mama wrote me with encouragement to marry. “Find a nice man,” she’d say. But I wanted to work and find a way to help people. Then life changed again when the Nazis took over Poland in 1939. They forced Jewish people to wear armbands, passed laws that led to high rates of Jewish unemployment, then they boarded Jewish people behind ghetto walls. The Warsaw Ghetto. Four hundred and fifty thousand people in about a one square mile area.
I thought of papa often in those early days. “Always do what’s right,” I would picture him saying. Soon a Jewish friend asked to meet through a mutual friend. She asked if I would join the resistance. “We need your help.”
“Of course,” I replied.
Note: “Always do what’s right.” is a work of historical fiction. The story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.
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