Back in the early 1930’s when Max was a lad, he would often play soccer with his friend Karl. In those days, it was, perhaps, unusual for a Jew and a Catholic to be friends – more so because this was in Poland, a place where Jews were often treated with contempt and loathing by their countrymen. But in the town of Wadowice, a stone’s throw from Kraków, the Jews and Poles played soccer together. Karl, a skilled goaltender, even would play on the Jewish team if they were shorthanded.
One day, Karl came around to see if Max could kick the ball around. But it was Saturday – Shabbat – and Max told him he could not, for on that day he would accompany his mother to synagogue. Karl may have been momentarily disappointed, yet he did not let on. Instead, he said Max should be proud that he was honoring his mother and upholding his religious traditions.
Over time, the boys went their separate ways. Karl eventually became very successful in his work, and Max soldiered on in his own business ventures. But then war broke out… and that changed Max’s life forever.
He enlisted in the Polish army, eager to fight the German enemy. It was not too long, however, before he was captured by the Russians. They shipped him off to various labor camps, where he did whatever kind of backbreaking work his taskmasters set before him. It was a rough life, but Max survived. Most of the rest of his family did not, having stayed behind to face the tender mercies of the Nazi death machine. The ovens of Auschwitz swallowed them all.
Emigration to Palestine was a temptation, then, but Max wanted to stay and help rebuild his homeland. He ended up in the electroplating business, running several factories. But the Communists came, and life – difficult enough in a land still riddled with anti-Semitism despite being virtually judenrein – became intolerable. With a handful of illegal passports, he gathered up his wife and two daughters and slipped out of the country quietly, taking the train to Paris. From there, a harrowing ten-day sea passage brought them to the shores of New York. It was 1962 when they caught their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.
Some years later, a mutual acquaintance from the old days paid a visit on Karl, who was living in Italy at the time. “Do you remember Max?” the friend asked.
“Of course I remember Moszek!” responded Karl. “How is my old friend?”
* * *
Yesterday we buried Max in the red soil of Birmingham, Alabama, his home for most of the forty-eight years since his arrival in the States. He had lived to see his family grow, resurgent in his new homeland… and to see a granddaughter’s wedding.
Not incidentally, he had lived to see Poland, his old home, throw off the yoke of Communism. The events of 1989 had to have been soul-stirring for him, even at a remove of several thousand miles… not least because his old friend Karl had been instrumental in providing the spiritual impetus that enabled the Solidarity movement to rise up and win in that historic peaceful revolution.
As a Jew, I don’t necessarily subscribe to the popular view of a Heaven amidst the clouds, with Pearly Gates, wings, and harps. I believe that there is a World to Come, details about which are necessarily vague… but that there is a portion there for all righteous people. (There’s no monopoly on salvation.)
And who knows, but that Max is now reunited with his old soccer-playing buddy, who arrived in that World to Come not quite five years ago amidst quite a bit of earthly fanfare. For Karl, you see, was none other than Karol Józef Wojtyła, who became very successful indeed in his work, rising to the top of his profession… and taking the name Pope John Paul II.