Throughout the early 80s, at the Saturday evening vigil Mass, an older couple always sat in the front pew on the right side of the aisle. Each week they watched as, across the way, a young mother brought her preschool son to Mass, teaching him the ways of the faith and showing him the love of God. Having no grandchildren of their own, the couple started sitting on the other side of the aisle, next to the woman and her son and they gradually got to know each other. In a couple of years, a daughter joined the family, and this couple graciously “adopted” her as well. Soon, the children were calling them Grandma and Grandpa.
Both of them have been gone for years, but I still remember my church grandparents fondly. I received a rosary from them on the occasion of my First Communion, one they had blessed by then-Pope John XXIII on a trip to Italy. As we celebrated his feast earlier this week, I was drawn into memories of this lovely couple who were so formative to my early years. Though we never knew their whole story while they were with us, and probably never will, advanced research and documentation by the Arolsen Archives have recently added extra details to their already amazing story of faith and love.
My church grandparents were Holocaust survivors. My mom still remembers the tattooed numbers on their forearms. They didn’t talk much about that time, and we never pried. What little we do know, we can now see in scanned documents online. Both Polish, she was born in 1917 in Warsaw, he in 1915 in the tiny town of Hel. Raised Catholic, they met shortly before the war, probably while he was finishing his medical doctor studies. Records show that in 1939 he was taken prisoner in Warsaw, then sent to forced labor camps in Germany until their liberation in 1945.
Officially known as a “displaced person” after the war, he was under the care of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, formed towards the end of the war to provide economic assistance to European nations as well as to assist the refugees in the newly Allied-occupied territories. When they found out my Grandpa was a medical doctor, he was sent by the administration to a medical office to begin work. When he walked into that Bavarian office, the receptionist behind the desk was none other than his long-lost love whom he hadn’t seen in nearly 7 years!
Reunited, they began their life together in southern Germany. Without an opportunity to return to their homeland freely with the threat of Communism looming, in 1949 they endured a 4 week long journey by ship to Australia, settling there for seven years before immigrating to the U.S.
Upon landing in San Francisco in 1956, they journeyed south to the Long Beach area, becoming naturalized US citizens in 1961 and my church grandparents in the 1980s. Grandma passed when I was in my early teens, but Grandpa lived until he was 94. During Grandpa’s later years, as his health grew frail and he could no longer drive himself to Mass, my brother served as a Special Minister of the Eucharist and would bring him Jesus each week and visit with him after Mass.
On weeks like this, as we celebrated the feast of St. John XXII and I held the rosary given to me as a child, I remember my grandparents fondly. And I was reminded of the words of Pope Francis this past July for the first world day for grandparents and the elderly:
It makes no difference how old you are, whether you still work or not, whether you are alone or have a family, whether you became a grandmother or grandfather at a young age or later, whether you are still independent or need assistance. Because there is no retirement age from the work of proclaiming the Gospel and handing down traditions.
My Church grandparents certainly lived out this message. Starting over more than once after their lives were disrupted by war, moving to new countries and cultures, never having children or grandchildren of their own, they still made an impact in our community. He served as a local doctor and they were active in our parish council over the years. It was abundantly apparent their faith sustained them through the tragedies and triumphs of their lives, and their encouragement to pray via the gift of that rosary as well as their faithful Mass attendance and love they shared with my family are all things I will continue to treasure as I journey on my own path of faith.
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