You know that twinge you get in the pit of your stomach when you survey two events many years apart and sense some grand overarching scheme? That is your recognition of Fate. Unless of course you are subject to dyspepsia.
A news item informs us this week that Stephen Breitenstein of Palatine, Illinois, returned to Mr. Ray Heilwagen of Hannibal, Missouri, his lost wallet. Breitenstein found the wallet in a drawer in the home of his recently deceased father, a WWII veteran. Using the Internet, he traced the current address of the rightful owner. He called to confirm Heilwagen had indeed been missing the wallet. Yes, it was lost — 62 years ago on a battlefield in France. Fellow soldier Breitenstein had picked it up and sought its owner unsuccessfully, eventually consigning it to the shelf. The son, conscientious and computer-savvy, completed the good deed his Dad had begun.
Was that Fate? Was God sending a message to Mr. Heilwagen his life was a complete unit and his service to humanity six decades ago is a fresh memory in Heaven? Was he — and, be extension, were we — being told his grim exertions on distant plains secured the blessings of prosperity for our posterity? That in a way he and his comrades-in-arms created the Internet and fashioned the links that enable younger generations to click?
How about this one? Yvonne De Carlo died last week at age 84, fifty years after playing Zippora, wife of Moses, in The Ten Commandments. As it happens, that very week Jews the world over read in synagogue (the Bible is divided annually into equal weekly readings) of Moses meeting and marrying Zippora. Could that be God’s way of honoring her, declaring she played the role with pure intent, trying to enhance people’s appreciation of the Bible? If history spells out a unifying vision of divine purpose, it always pays to observe how incidents play out over the span of decades. Centuries might be nicer, but we don’t live that long.
Skeptical, eh? I’ll tell you what. I may be the only living person who knows both of the following stories. I will lay them out as I heard them and you can decide if you agree with my analysis that together they represent the hand of Fate working through the ages.
Back in 1980, a friend of mine consulted the late Rabbi Jacob Kamenetzky, about 90 at the time, for advice how to encourage his widowed mother to remarry. The rabbi shared a memory from his youth in Minsk, now part of Belarus. The rabbi of Minsk in the late 19th century was named Perlman; he was lionized in popular argot as the “Great Man of Minsk” (1835-1896). Circa 1885, his first wife was very ill and she made the following deathbed request: “Please, I would like you to remarry. You are not a man who should be alone. But promise me you will be buried alongside me.” The promise was made; she passed away; after the traditional year of mourning, he remarried.
Whenever fighting broke out between Russia and Poland, Jews escaped from Minsk to the neighboring towns. They tended to be blamed by both sides for whatever went wrong. Better to evacuate to rural areas and wait out the storm. But Rabbi Perlman refused to leave. He was afraid he might die or be killed somewhere outside the city and be buried in that area. That would violate his commitment to his departed wife. He stayed, survived the various skirmishes, and was eventually buried next to the first Mrs. Perlman.
My second story emerged from a series of interviews of the late Grisha (Hershel) Lieberman I conducted in 1987. Lieberman had been active in the refusenik movement in the former Soviet Union. He was a Russian war hero from WWII, with sixteen purple hearts. One arm dangled and one leg dragged and a bullet had plowed a permanent furrow across the dome of his skull. Because his hero status rendered him untouchable by the KGB, he had been able to perform many valuable errands for the refuseniks until the government decided it was safest that he be allowed to emigrate to Chicago.
He told me a lot of amazing things, but one episode meant something to me beyond the adventure. The Soviets had decided in the mid-1970s to run a road through Minsk that would cover the entire Jewish cemetery. The hardy band of Jewish rebels had only a few days before construction. They quickly threw together a crew. One guy drove a truck he was allowed to take home at night, although his mileage was monitored.
Each night they drove to the cemetery, bribed the guard with vodka, dug up a few graves, loaded them into the truck and drove them fifty miles or so up the road to the next Jewish cemetery. They had to dig there to reinter the remains. Then back into the truck, race home, get under the hood to tamper with the odometer, and scamper to individual residences before sunup. The gas for the truck would be cadged and siphoned from an array of sources. In this way they moved tens of bodies before the graveyard was obliterated forever.
“Sadly,” Grisha told me. “We could only do very few. It was a tragic triage. One thing I remember for sure. The first two bodies we moved were the Great Man of Minsk and his wife.”
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