Chapter Six, The Last Jew in Vinnitsa

I read this morning – March 6, 2022 – that the Russians have completely destroyed the Vinnytsia [Vinnitsa] Regional Airport in Ukraine.  Whenever I hear the name of the town – Vinnitsa – I think of this photo.  It has been many years since I first discovered this photo.  Five years ago, I wrote this post.  I have quoted Holocaust survivor and the late Elie Wiesel many times.  I am compelled to do it again… Continue reading Chapter Six, The Last Jew in Vinnitsa

Elie Wiesel Dies Today

Nobel Prize
Elie Wiesel

A spokesman for Yad Vashem reported today that Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel who cheated death in Auschwitz died today.  He was 87 years old.  I invite you to read my May 2014 post “Night” and “The Hamsa.”  I share in the world’s loss and I mourn the passing of another great peace hero.  May his memory and the things he taught us endure forever.

Why I Tell Stories

I recently finished reading The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum.  The book is sub-titled “Storytelling and the Search for Meaning.”  It is a powerful book that is capable of opening the heart and mind of anyone who reads it.

In their chapter on gratitude, the authors write, “Stories speak the language of the heart, giving us the means to express our gratitude.  Among the greatest of modern spiritual storytellers is Elie Wiesel.  A survivor of the Holocaust, Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize (1986) …”  In his acceptance speech, Mr. Wiesel said

“And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.  We must always take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Kurtz and Ketchum conclude, “And that is why we tell stories.”

One year ago, immersed in research for Gaspar, Another Tale of the Christ, I read Five Biblical Portraits by Mr. Wiesel (1981).  I had discovered a little known connection between the ancient Hebrew prophet Jeremiah and ancient Ireland.  I call him Ollam Folla

Nobel Prize
Elie Wiesel

in the book, and Mr. Wiesel’s chapter on Jeremiah helped me understand the prophet far better than I could have by ruminating over the Bible.  Here is what Elie Wiesel writes

“When kings cling to powerful protectors, it is always at the expense of their attachment to God.  True, the Temple exists and is open for services, … but the holy sanctuary seems something of a club.  People go there to meet one another and discuss politics …  Prayers are too bothersome.  A few well-chosen offerings and all problems are solved … The image Jeremiah likes to use is that of a prostitute.  He is not against her taking money for her services, he is not even against prostitutes; he is against rulers acting as prostitutes, repeating the same words to different people, thus leaving them devoid of any meaning, forgetting the words of God – and worse:  forgetting that they have forgotten … To forget means to deny the relevance of the past.”

“To forget means to deny the relevance of the past.”  Therefore, remembering is essential, and THAT is why I tell stories.

I am never comfortable with the title ‘author,’ and feel much more at ease when I think of myself as a storyteller.  Stories can speak to us of things past, present and future.  Stories carry meaning and whether they are true stories or fiction stories, by their telling, they beg to be remembered.

If you glean and remember one thing from my stories – from my books or my posts – that clarifies one unclear thing in your life, then time spent telling them is priceless.

That said, I invite you to read a story told to me by my friend JD.  It is posted in two parts on another website I help out with.  JD’s story of falling down and getting back up is something you will remember and something that can change your life or the life of someone you love.  This is why we tell stories!

Part I: Into the Heart of Darkness

Part II: Where There is Despair, Let Me Sow Hope

“Night” and “The Hamsa”

Elie WieselI just concluded reading Night by 1986 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.  I read it in preparation of May’s ‘Seeds of the Word’ monthly book club discussion at the Redemptorist Renewal Center at Picture Rocks, Arizona. Having written a ‘Holocaust’ novel, The Hamsa several years ago, some readers are curious that I have never read Mr. Wiesel’s powerful account of his years in the Nazi concentration camp system.  The fact is – until this afternoon – I have not.  My interest in the Holocaust began one rainy afternoon at the Berkshire County Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  I loved the library and frequented it daily between school and basketball practice.  On this particular afternoon, I came across Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  I will never forget that day or that book.

Berkshire County
The Berkshire County Athenaeum, Pittsfeld, Massachusetts

As I prepare for May’s discussion, I have reviewed several reading guides.  One question in particular stays with me.  I do not intend to discuss it at the meeting, but I have to answer it here.  The Hill and Wang Teacher’s Guide asks

“Does the genre of historical fiction ultimately help or harm the nightmarish actuality of the Holocaust?”


The Last Jew in Vinnitsa

In 2007, I first saw the photo commonly referred to as “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.”  It still haunts me.  I continue to stare at the expression of the ‘victim.’  His face exudes faith and confidence … he is not afraid.  When I look at the expression of the executioner, I see doubt and guilt … his eyes are filled with fear. Shortly after viewing that picture, I discovered the “Report by Witold Pilecki” who volunteered to go into Auschwitz and who successfully escaped three years later. The photo and the report evolved into The Hamsa, which incidentally is about neither. Back to the question:  “Does the genre of historical fiction ultimately help or harm the nightmarish actuality of the Holocaust?” When I first began writing The Hamsa, I lived in a small town in the heart of Missouri wine country,The Hamsa Defiance, Missouri about 50 miles west of downtown St. Louis.  St. Louis is blessed with an excellent Holocaust Museum and Learning Center (HMLC).  As I researched my manuscript, I made an appointment with the director and visited the museum.  Included in its exhibition – at least in 2008 – is a large image of “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.” My conversation with the director ended rather abruptly.  When I explained to him what I was doing, he emphatically stated, “There is no room whatsoever for the Holocaust in historical fiction.”  As his case in point, he referred to the recently released film “Defiance” starring Daniel Craig that recounted the activity Daniel Craigof the Bielski brothers who saved over 1,200 Jews by hiding them in the forests of Poland.  “That film is not accurate,” he adamantly stressed and repeated, “There is no place for the Holocaust in historical fiction.” I listened patiently and respectfully.  His statement rang in my ears for the 40-minute drive back to my home in Defiance.  I made a point of seeing the film “Defiance.”  It was a good film.  More importantly, it occurred to me that if only 2 million people saw the film [the actual box office is reported at $56 million], then 2 million more people have some idea of what the Jewish communities in Poland faced during WWII.  Thanks to the Bielski partisans, there were 1,200 fewer people in Hitler’s concentration camps. With that thought in mind, I committed myself to The Hamsa. Do I exercise ‘artistic license?’  Absolutely.  One reviewer, Paul Knott referred to a technique I implied throughout the narrative

“If there is any ‘trick’ to the narrative, it might be Bronek’s meeting such historical figures as Franklin Roosevelt, Sonia Henie, and Heinrich Himmler, a la Forest Gump, but these meetings are plausible and serve the story line.”

The final 80 pages of The Hamsa are specific to the protagonist’s — Bronislaw Czech (Bronek) — experience at Auschwitz.  I was committed to historical accuracy, and I stand firm that those pages accurately reflect what happened in that hell on earth.  I am not a Holocaust survivor and do not pretend to know what it was like.  Elie Wiesel did survive, and I hope that what I have written in The Hamsa does justice to those like his friends and father who did not survive. I believe that those thousands who have read The Hamsa have a better understanding of the era and errors of the times.


In September 2013, I joined several other avid readers and we initiated a book club at the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Picture Rocks, Arizona.  We call it “Seeds of the Word, a Book Club for the Soul.”  Our first book was Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas; our most recent discussion in April 2014 was Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.  I love books.  As one of my spiritual mentors Fra Alexei is known to say, “When we talk about books, we talk about ourselves.”  So true …

Elie WieselIn May 2014, we will discuss Night by 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.  The book is a mere 120 pages.  First published in 1958, it gained little notoriety.  By 1997, the book was selling 300,000 copies each year and had been published in 30 languages.

I’ve lost track on how many books Mr. Wiesel has written, but I am certain it exceeds 40.  With forty books to his credit, here is how Mr. Wiesel presents his latest edition, translated by his wife Marion Wiesel in 2006.  The very first sentence reads — and this by a man who has written more than 40 books …

“If in my lifetime I was to write only one book, this would be the one ….”

If you’ve not read Night by Elie Wiesel, I think it is time.