They say there is a first time for everything, and that was certainly the case when an elderly Jewish man called our Manhattan office to say he wanted to become a Catholic. When I asked what he meant, Erwin explained that he wanted to believe in the one that the Jewish priest told him about in the Catholic church – the church where he and his sister had hidden from the Nazis.*
Erwin was only a child when the Nazis forced him and his family into the Warsaw ghetto in 1942. He saw everyone in his family killed, except for an older sister, Sonia. “God was watching over me” was his continual refrain for many years. He and Sonia found shelter in a church; the priest was a Jewish man who was preaching about Yeshua (Jesus) in Yiddish. He also was sheltering many other Jews throughout the church.
When Erwin was twelve years old, the Nazis bombed the church but the bomb turned out to be a dud. The SS officer said they’d be back the following day. Sure enough, the next day the sirens began to wail and everyone ran in all directions. It was a false alarm. However, when Erwin and his sister returned to the church, they witnessed the priest being gunned down in cold blood. That began a harrowing period of continual running and hiding. Erwin and his sister went for ten days with no food and only drops of water. They spent four days in an underground sewerage line. They were hidden and protected by various Christians.
Finally, one of their protectors gave them a map to freedom. They were directed to a path through the woods, which they were to follow until they reached a set of train tracks. On the other side of the tracks, freedom waited – but to avoid being seen, they would need to dive under the slow moving train. On the way, they met a small boy who had been separated from another group that was trying to escape the same way. Sonia and Erwin took the boy along with them.
When they reached the tracks, Sonia went first and crossed successfully. Erwin went next, but half way across the tracks he stopped, urging the boy to hurry or the Nazis would see him. Finally the boy dove beneath the train, but he was run over and died in Erwin’s arms. There was nothing Erwin could do but finish crossing. He and Sonia escaped, and in 1949 they were brought to the United States.
In the 50s and 60s Erwin worked for his uncle as a furrier – the same furrier, I discovered, that I’d worked for in the 70’s! Which brings me back to our all too brief time together.
When Erwin said he wanted to believe in the one that the Jewish priest had told him about, I told him about my Jesus. “Yes,” he said, “this is the same one.” He knew that he was dying and he associated Jesus with redemption and protection. After making sure he understood the gospel, I led Erwin in a prayer to receive Jesus. Then I visited him in person the next day.
Erwin wanted to tell his story to the various holocaust agencies and I made numerous calls on his behalf – but not one person was willing to make a trip to come speak with him. But even more than telling his own story, Erwin’s greatest desire was to sing praises to Yeshua in a house of worship.
Sadly, over the next couple of months Erwin was in and out of hospitals, and then I could no longer reach him. I made many calls and personally visited the home where he’d been staying to no avail. I had contact with a high level social worker in NYC who looked into Erwin’s disappearance but was unable to find anything.
I wish that Erwin’s story of survival and redemption could have been made available to millions – but I’m glad we can share it with you and hope that you will share it with others. And I wish that Erwin had been well enough for me to bring him to a local congregation where he could sing praises to Yeshua as he longed to do. But I know that he has all eternity to sing those praises in the very presence of Jesus, who not only helped him escape the Nazis, but rescued him from sin and death.
*Surprisingly, there was a significant number of Jews who trusted in Jesus – including Catholics and Protestants – in the Warsaw ghetto.
Stewart Weinisch is a full time missionary with our New York branch. Find out more about Stewart.