Eleven kilometers above earth, flying between Bologna, Italy and Wroclaw, Poland, I had an encounter with a flying Father that I can only say lifted my spirits even higher than the airplane.
Father Ludwik Myeielski is an 82-year-old Benedictine Monk. He has been serving God in this role for 61 years. The Order of St. Benedictine is an ancient order of Catholic Monks originating around the year 500 CE. We sat side by side, in the very back row of the Ryan Air Flight. If you have ever flown on Ryan air, you know how cramped it is. I was in the window seat and Father Ludwik was in the middle seat.
I settled into my small space and planned to enjoy the next hour and half reading Why, Explaining the Holocaust, by Peter Hayes (one of the finest books I have read on the Holocaust – I highly recommend it). I noticed that the man next to me was wearing priestly clothing, but I was not sure what sect. I noticed that as soon as the plane lifted, he crossed himself and then began soundlessly reading a small, well-worn book with very small print. Within a few minutes, he noticed the title of my book and told me that many members of his family were murdered in Auschwitz. Not sure that I wanted to engage in conversation, I simply said:
“I am so sorry to hear that. The war was a terrible time.” And went back to reading.
He did not give up.
“Do you have relatives in Poland?” he asked.
“Yes, I do, actually.” I responded, thinking of Marta and Idul (Yusif) Lis.
Then my extrovert endorphins kicked in and my desire to engage in conversation with this friendly Monk took over.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
“This is the Gospels,” he replied. “I read it in ancient Greek.”
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“One hundred kilometers outside of Wroclaw,” he responded. “In a Benedictine Monastery.”
“My name is Karen. May I ask your name?” I said.
He told me his name, but there was no way I could spell it, so I asked him to write it down for me. He wrote: “Ludwik Mycielski, OSB.”
“What does OSB stand for?” I asked ignorantly.
“Oder of Saint Benedict,” he responded.
“Why were your relatives murdered in Auschwitz?” I asked next.
Father Ludwik explained that when the war began in 1939 he was a young boy of 5. He may have been young, but he remembers everything. The Germans killed and imprisoned many Poles. Many were sent to Auschwitz where they were imprisoned and later killed. His father had a cousin, named Wlodzimierz Szembek, a priest of the Order of Salezjanin. He was arrested and held in the special barrack at Auschwitz for Polish clergy. His mother used to send this cousin packages at Auschwitz – until they heard in 1942 that he had been murdered. Today, if you go to this clergy barrack at Auschwitz, you can see Father Szemberk’s picture on the wall – it is the first one upon entering the barrack, on the left side.
Then he explained that his father was a wealthy land owner in Poland. He owned 17,000 Hectares (compare to Zelig of Bagatele who owned 25 Hectares and that was considered a large farm). Because of his wealth, he was pursued by the Nazis and their family was forced to move from city to city to evade capture.
I remarked that his English is very good and asked how many languages does he know. He responded, if I recall correctly, five.
“Wow,” I said. “I only know two – English and Hebrew.”
“I wish I knew Hebrew better,” he lamented.
He then sat up very straight and began to recite the beginning versus of Genesis:
“Bereishit Bara Elohim Et Hashamayim V’et Haaretz. V’Haarets Haita Tohu Vovohu, V’Choshech Al Pnai Tehom.” (“In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. And the land was Tohu V’avohu and there was darkness on the face of Tehom.”)
I could not resist, I joined in – and together we intoned:
“V’ruach Elohim merachefet al pnai hamayim.” (“And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water.”)
We smiled at each other and nodded. I did not verbalize it at the time, but I was thinking, “Yes, this we share – our humanity. We are all created in the image of God and hold a spark of the divine within us.”
The plane landed safely in Wroclaw. When we exited the plane, I introduced Father Ludwik to my daughter, Esther, who was sitting in a different row. We parted ways, but agreed to stay in touch.
Friendships born in heaven are sure to last.