AN UNKNOWN HERO

Danielle had never been to a graveyard at sunrise before, but this morning was different. She had arrived at dawn and was prepared to wait all day if necessary, in order to finally catch a glimpse of the mysterious person who had been putting flowers on her mother’s grave for the last twenty-two years.

Her mother had passed away on this date in 1997 at the age of eighty-two, and each year since, without explanation, a beautiful floral arrangement had appeared. Now, after more than two decades, Danielle, and the rest of her family were intensely curious about why an unknown person was thoughtfully continuing to remember a woman who had quietly led an undistinguished life.

Danielle’s mother, whose first name was Rachel, grew up in poverty. Denied the opportunity to receive an education, she was illiterate. That circumstance coupled with the fact that she had been in a horrific car accident that broke her back and left her with a profound physical disability had made Danielle extremely sensitive to anyone who disrespected her momma.

Unfortunately, there were individuals who looked down on Rachel because she couldn’t read a newspaper or write her name, and some even ridiculed the way her twisted spine made her limp in discomfort as she struggled to walk unsteadily with a cane in each hand. 

But now as Danielle stood looking at Rachel’s grave, she was glad that growing up she’d had the courage to defend her against the taunts and verbal attacks. Although it had not been easy having a parent that was considered to be so different, there was just something about the woman that was remarkable.

Rachel had a place in her heart for anyone who was suffering. She lifted up those who were hurting and in need. Even without an education or financial resources, she managed to make a positive difference in life for those who were lost and cast aside. She had, in short, been the perfect role model of how a person could affect the world around them. When her father passed away in 1991, Danielle moved her mother in with her so she could be cared for by family.

But that was all in the past, and she pushed those thoughts from her mind. Right now, Danielle was focused on finding out the identity of the person who had been so kind and considerate over the last twenty plus years. She assumed it was one of her mother’s good friends. There were actually several different ladies who could be responsible, however, the elaborate flower arrangements were so expensive that she suspected the women pooled their money together, and then one of them brought it to the grave each year.

Danielle’s entire family was eager to find out who the mysterious person was and since they would all be getting together in a couple of weeks for a reunion, she was hoping she could finally give them the answer they were all looking for.

Because she had parked quite a distance away, Danielle looked around for some cover. She quickly decided to move into a large group of trees where she could wait unobserved but that provided her with a perfect view of her mother’s grave. As it turned out, she didn’t have to wait long.

 

***************

 

The sun had just cleared the horizon when a small car pulled into the cemetery and slowly followed the curving road down to her mother’s resting place. Danielle watched as the vehicle came to a stop and the driver’s door opened. Expecting one of her mother’s old girlfriends to step out, she was surprised to see that it was a man she’d never seen before. He opened the trunk and carefully gathered up the huge array of flowers.

He appeared to be an older gentleman, relatively close to her in age. Carefully he carried the large floral display to the grave and neatly arranged it in the same position as always. Then she watched in amazement as he knelt and began to pray. After several minutes, he stood, moved to her mother’s headstone, leaned down and gently kissed it.

A wave of emotion swept over Danielle. Who was this person? Why was he doing this? The man stood motionless for a few more seconds and then he started to head back to his car. Danielle knew she had to act fast. Quickly she stepped into view and called out to him. “Excuse me, Sir.”

The sound of her voice startled him, and he quickly turned to see who was speaking to him.

Danielle walked towards him. “Please, sir, if I could just have a minute of your time.” She had no idea whether he would speak to her or not, but she had to try.

The man did not seem to mind the intrusion. He waited until she got closer and then he smiled broadly. “Good morning, ma’am. You caught me by surprise. There has never been anyone here this early before. How can I help you?”

Danielle was struck by a natural kindness the man projected. If first impressions mattered, he seemed approachable, and that made her feel immediately comfortable with him. “Yes, I’m sorry to intrude……” 

She wasn’t exactly sure how to bring up a subject that was obviously personal for both of them – but there was no guarantee she would ever have another chance to get an answer to the question she had wondered about for so many years.

Cautiously she asked, “I hope you don’t mind me asking you about something that would ordinarily be none of my business – but – how do you happen to know the person who is buried in this particular grave?”

The man did not seem offended, but he was equally curious about this woman who had suddenly appeared and was now asking such a question.

Very gently he responded. “I would be happy to answer you – if you would be willing to tell me why you are asking.”

Instantly Danielle realized how bizarre this must seem from his perspective. “Yes, of course.” She paused and took a deep breath. “My name is Danielle Baldwin, and you just placed flowers on my mother’s grave, something I suspect you have been doing for years. And while you are certainly under no obligation to tell me, I just can’t help but wonder why you continue to perform such a loving act on the date of her death.”

Although all of this seemed surreal, there was no way she could have anticipated the man’s reaction. He simply put his head down as tears began to stream down his face.

Danielle found his emotion unsettling. How could this man, a complete stranger, have such deep feelings for someone who had been deceased for more than twenty years. She decided to wait silently and let him regain his composure.

She watched as the man pulled out a handkerchief and dried his eyes. He lifted his head and looked directly at her. “I’m sorry. Please forgive my tears.”

Danielle frowned. “I did not mean to upset you.”

The man stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket and managed a slight smile. He put out his right hand and said, “My name is Levi Dobrowolski, and it is an honor to meet you, Mrs. Baldwin.”

As they shook hands, Danielle ran his name through her mind but nothing about it seemed familiar. That plus his statement about being honored to meet her made everything even less clear.

Levi could sense her uncertainty. “One of the reasons I’ve always come to the cemetery so early is because I never wanted to intrude on your family’s life. But there was just no way I could not show my appreciation and utmost respect for your mother. I have been compelled to come back year after year because it is the very least I can do.”

Danielle could wait no longer. She had to ask the question her family desperately wanted answered. “Mr. Dobrowolski, exactly how did you know my mother?”

Levi looked at her quizzically. “You don’t know Rachel’s story? You were never told about what she did?”

“Told about what story? Is it something that the two of you shared?”

A solemn look of reverence came over Levi’s face. “I once met your beautiful mother, but I have no recollection of it because I was too young.”

Feeling more bewildered all the time, Danielle kept trying to understand. “If you don’t remember meeting momma than how do you know her story?”

Levi smiled. “It was told to me by other people, especially my sisters who were a couple of years older than me.”

Still feeling hopelessly confused, Danielle asked, “So you and your sisters had some kind of connection with my mother?”

Levi nodded. “Yes, that’s right. But since I had just turned three at the time, I can’t say for sure if I really remember her or if it is just what I’ve reconstructed in my mind from what I was told.”

There was a long silence as Danielle tried to make sense of what this man was saying. Finally, she asked, “Would I be imposing on you to tell me the story of you and your sisters? Do you have the time? Do you have someplace you need to go?”

Levi smiled again. “There is no place on earth I’d rather be on this date than right here with you and your dear mother. It would be my pleasure to tell you our story. But I must admit that I am shocked that Rachel kept it a secret from you for all those years – but I guess that was just the kind of person she was.”

Danielle looked at him curiously. “My mother was a quiet self-effacing woman, and although she was very giving and considerate, I never imagined she did anything in life that would cause someone to put beautiful flowers on her grave for more than two decades.”

“Perhaps that was the Rachel that you knew, but the woman I’m talking about was living in another time and place. At that point in history, we were all trapped in such a nightmare reality that some people can scarcely believe it really happened. But it did happen. And we must always remember – so that it never happens again.”

“I’m sorry, but none of this makes sense to me.”

Levi could understand her confusion. “Why don’t you tell me what you know about your mother’s past, and we can go from there.”

Although she felt uncomfortable talking about her family with someone she did not know, Danielle’s desire to learn everything she could about Rachel made her willing to open up. “Okay……Momma was born in 1915 in Wisconsin to immigrant parents who could not speak English. Consequently, throughout her life, she could only speak broken English with a heavy accent. Sadly, she grew up quite poor and did not receive an education. She never learned to read or write.

“When she was in her twenties, she was a passenger in a terrible car wreck that broke her back and left her with a physical disability that she struggled with for the rest of her life. After she recovered from the accident, she met my father and they married. Two years later I was born. I’m the oldest of three daughters.

“From that point on, their lives were unremarkable and they enjoyed forty-six years together. After my father passed away, I moved momma in with me and my husband, and she lived contentedly until she passed away in 1997 after a brief illness.”

Levi studied her face and wondered why her mother had chosen to construct a series of lies to hide the truth about her life. It made him wonder if he had the right to betray Rachel by revealing her secret. Perhaps, he thought, he should keep her story to himself. After thinking for a few seconds, he decided the right thing to do would be to let Danielle decide.

Carefully choosing his words, he began. “Much of what you told me about your mother is not true.”

Her reaction clearly showed she did not like hearing that.

“But I want you to decide whether or not I should share her story. But please remember, it is a story that, for whatever reason, she chose not to reveal to you.” 

Danielle realized he was right. If what he was going to tell her was “the truth”, it meant her mother had gone to great lengths to ensure that her children never found out her secret. Perhaps it was something embarrassing or even something she was ashamed of.

She thought for a few more moments about whether she should intrude on the past. Finally, she decided that nothing he could tell her would change the love she had for her mother. No matter how bad it was, it would not change the fact that her momma had done everything in her power to give her daughters the life they deserved.

She looked at Levi and in an even tone of voice said. “Please tell me everything you know about my mother.”

“Alright.”  With a soothing calmness, he said, “Your mother was not born in Wisconsin.” He watched Danielle’s expression change. “In fact, she was not born in America. She was born in the same country as me and my sisters, Marion and Moriah.”

Danielle did not know whether to believe him or not. Why would her mother deceive her about something as basic as where she was born? But Danielle knew that her grandparents had immigrated from Europe, so she thought it was at least a possibility.

Levi continued. “I know that what I’m about to tell you will be confusing, difficult to understand, and maybe even impossible to believe – but I give you my word that I will not say one thing that isn’t true. I have no earthly reason to alter the truth.”

For reasons she couldn’t explain, Danielle felt compelled to trust him. She tried to steel herself for what she was about to hear. “Please, go ahead.”

Levi took one more look at the grave and began. “Rachel was born in Poland in 1915. My sisters are twins. They were born in 1938, and I was born in 1940. Your mother was raised as a Catholic – we are Jews.”

Danielle’s heart began to pound in her chest. How could she have not known this about the most important person in her life?

Levi looked at her with admiration. “Your mother was a saint. What she did for me and my sisters can never be repaid. Placing flowers on her grave once a year cannot even begin to convey how I feel about her.

“At the time Rachel entered our lives, her last name was Stanek. I can only say that her incredible compassion was matched by her tremendous courage. You might have known her as a quiet soft-spoken person who led an unassuming life, but that was most likely because, after everything she endured, she wanted you to be spared from the horrors she experienced.”

Danielle was stunned by what was happening this morning. She had come to the cemetery just hoping to see the person that decorated her mother’s grave each year, and now she was discovering that her momma was not the person she’d believed her to be.

“My family met Rachel in the spring of 1943. She came to our small home in the village where we lived to talk to my parents. She had heard that the Nazis would soon be there to round up every Jew and take them away – forever. 

“My parents had heard the stories of the death camps but because we lived in a less populated area, it was hard for them to believe it was real. But your mother explained that there was one particular place that was so efficient at killing that it was difficult to comprehend. She said the place was called Auschwitz and that if they did not accept her offer of help it would soon become the fate of their children.”

As Levi choked back the emotion he always struggled with, he said in almost whisper, “In 1943, Auschwitz was murdering human beings at an unimaginable rate. The ovens could only burn 4000 corpses a day so the rest were set on fire in open pits. Eventually, my mother and father became two of its victims.”

Danielle put her hand to her mouth in shock.

Levi looked at her with tenderness. “You were so fortunate to grow up with your parents. Losing our mother and father to the gas chamber changed our lives forever.

“My sisters told me about the day a tiny woman, a total stranger, spent hours trying to convince my parents to give up their children, knowing that they would most likely never see them again.”

He paused for a moment and then said, “I have four children. Three sons and a daughter. I cannot imagine being put into a position where I had to choose to lose them in order to save them……Do you have children?”

“Yes. I have a son and a daughter. And you are right. If I lost them it would be the end of my world.”

Levi had difficulty controlling his voice. “It was a decision that thousands of families were forced to make. Of course, Marion and Moriah were terrified to be taken away from their parents. They often spoke about the last time they hugged my mother. And they said it was the only time in their lives they saw my father cry. Although they were young, they somehow knew that nothing would ever be the same.

“But, tragically, there were other families who refused such help because they were desperate to stay together. Eventually, they realized too late that their decision was a death ticket to Auschwitz.”

Danielle’s mind was racing. “This is all too much to comprehend. I mean, you are actually telling me that my mother saved someone’s life during the Holocaust?”

“Yes. She saved all three of our lives – and, as we later learned after the war, my twin sisters could have easily been selected by Josef Mengele for his gruesome experiments. Because of your beautiful mother, they were spared a fate even worse than death.

“Rachel was such a petite woman, scarcely over five-foot-tall and barely weighing one hundred pounds – but she was fearless in her efforts to thwart the SS and their efforts to kill Jewish children.

“Although it wasn’t easy, Rachel hid the three of us for a time and then miraculously moved us undetected to a convent where we stayed for the rest of the war.

“But I must tell you that we were not the only ones she rescued. There were other children; many other children. I don’t know the exact number – but I do know for certain that we were the last she was able to save.”

Once again, Danielle did not understand. “How do you know that for sure?”

Levi could not hide the remorse that filled his soul. “Because saving the three of us is what led to her capture by the Nazis. Someone chose to betray her, and they told the Germans that she was hiding Jewish children. Although we were safe, the SS captured Rachel a few days later.”

Reeling in shock, Danielle struggled to accept what Levi was telling her. 

Softly he said, “You said earlier that Rachel was injured in a car wreck.”

“Yes. It left her with a severe physical disability.”

With great sensitivity, Levi said, “Your dear mother was never in a car wreck. Her back was broken when the Nazis tortured her.”

He watched as the blood drained from Danielle’s face. He realized it must be so strange to discover that someone you loved with all your heart was not the person you thought they were.

Levi asked, “Can you ever remember a single time when your mother complained about the pain in her back and legs?”

Danielle thought for a second and realized she could not recall a single instance when her mother complained about anything. It just wasn’t in her nature.

“Did she ever offer any details about the supposed car accident?”

“No. It just seemed to be something that happened to her in the distant past that she did not want to dwell on.”

Although it was difficult for Levi to talk about, he knew it was important that Danielle understood what her mother had been through. “What the Nazis did to Rachel was brutal and inhuman. The torture went on for days – but no matter what they did to her, no matter how vicious and cruel they were, she refused to give them the names of me and my sisters.” 

Once again, Levi was forced to pull out his handkerchief and dab his eyes. “It cannot be denied that dear Rachel actually saved our lives two times. Once when she hid us and got us safely to the convent and a second time when she withstood the torture and refused to give up our identities. I can’t say which required the most courage because I can’t begin to understand the kind of humanity that inspires you to risk your life for people you don’t even know.

“Eventually, the Nazis realized she was near death and was not going to give them any information. Rather than waste a bullet, the SS drug her to one of the open pits and threw her body in with the corpses that would soon be burned. But one of the prisoners who was forced to work on the grave detail saw her hand move slightly, and he waited for his opportunity.

“As soon as the guards were out of sight, he risked certain death when he lifted your mother out of the pit and hid her until she could be concealed in a wagon that was leaving the camp. The next day she was found by the Zegota, a part of the Polish Resistance. They cared for her and gave her shelter from the Germans until the end of the war.

Danielle stared intently at Levi unaware that tears were also streaming down her face.

He smiled at her and said, “Rachel was your mother. The one who gave you life. And to me and my sisters, she was our second mother because she also gave us life.”

Danielle shook her head. “I don’t know what to say about any of this. I mean, I do believe you, but I can’t understand why she kept her past a secret. She should have been so proud of what she did.”

“Rachel was like so many others who helped the Jewish people. They took enormous risks and yet many of them are unknown to us today. They simply did something that was unbelievably courageous and then after the war, they quietly went back to their lives. Just like your mother, they did not need attention or seek admiration. They just did what they knew was right and then they moved on.”

Danielle hesitated for a moment and then asked, “If you don’t mind me asking, are your sisters still alive?”

A weary sadness filled Levi’s eyes. “Moriah is still living, but we lost Marion six months ago.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Thankfully, your mother gave my sister the most valuable gift there is; the gift of time. Marion enjoyed seventy-five years of life that she would not have otherwise had. And to her dying day, she was so grateful for the sacrifice Rachel made on our behalf.”

Danielle said, “Saving three children is difficult to imagine – but you said there were more.”

“Yes, that’s right. But we will never know for sure how many there were…… But think of it this way. Rachel saved the three of us as which allowed my four children to be born as well as my nieces and nephews. And now I have been blessed with grandchildren. Without exception, all of those lives are the direct result of your mother’s brave actions.

“But her influence doesn’t stop there. For example, my daughter is a surgeon who has saved many men, women, and children in her career. So, when your mother rescued me and my sisters, she not only saved the generations to come, to this day she continues to play a direct role in all of the good those individuals accomplish. Rachel’s beautiful legacy will never end.”

Without realizing it, Danielle’s feelings for her mother were growing more intense as she learned of Rachel’s efforts to save lives. “I loved and respected momma because of the kind of person she was. I knew her injury made her life difficult, and I always admired the way she dealt with it – but I could never have imagined she led the kind of life you’ve described.”

Levi could appreciate how she felt. “I don’t believe this morning turned out the way either one of us thought it would.”

They stood in silence for a moment and then Danielle surprised him by asking, “Mr. Dobrowolski, do you live in this area?”

“Yes, about a half-hour away.”

“What about your sister?”

“Yes, we live near each other. Why do you ask?”

Danielle had an idea, but she didn’t know what he would think of it. “I would like to extend an invitation to you. Each year we have a large family reunion. Almost everyone attends. It just so happens that in a few weeks I am hosting it at a facility near my home across town. It would be wonderful if you and your sister would attend as my guests so you can share your amazing story with all of those who loved my mother.”

Her thoughtful invitation touched Levi. “I’ve spent the last twenty years trying not to interfere in your family, and now you actually want me to speak with them?”

“Absolutely. It would mean so much to me, and I’m sure they will be just as surprised and moved as I have been to hear the truth about my mother’s life and to actually get to meet two of the children she saved.”  

Levi hesitated for only a heartbeat. “It would be a great honor for me and Moriah to recognize the contributions Rachel made in the fight against the Holocaust. We owe her our lives, and it would be a tremendous pleasure to meet her family. Thank you for your gracious invitation.”

Over the next few minutes they exchanged contact information, and when they were done, Danielle took just a moment to study the man in front of her. Although he was small in stature, he seemed bigger than life. Most importantly, he was a direct connection with a part of her mother’s past that she would have otherwise never known about.

“Mr. Dobrowolski, I am so happy and thankful that my mother had the courage to risk everything to save your lives. I hope that from this moment forward you will always be a part of my life. Through her actions, we share a connection with a special person that most will never fully understand or appreciate.”

Danielle stepped forward and gently hugged the man who an hour before did not exist in her world. Then she said, “Your story is living proof that good overcomes evil and that having the courage to do what is right has a direct effect on generations to come and can change the course of history.”

Levi smiled warmly at her and softly said, “It is impossible to know how much good can come from a single act of compassion.”

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