A Day After "Playing for Time"

by Kilian McGowan, C. P.

In late September of 1980 I watched with a priest friend a made-for-TV movie called "Playing for Time." It told the story of Fania Fenelon, a Jewish cabaret singer from Paris, and what happened to her in that horrible concentration camp called Auschwitz.

As you surely know, Auschwitz was one of the worst of the various concentration camps during World War II. Over four million Jews perished there. More than a million and a half were children.

Vanessa Redgrave played the role of Fenelon. She was a controversial choice for some Jewish groups because of statements she had made in the past about the Jewish people. But she gave a splendid performance.

In Auschwitz, Fenelon was a member of a prisoner orchestra that played music for the German officers stationed at the infamous camp. As long as the Germans enjoyed the music and the playing, they were saved from the gas chambers. Hence the title, "Playing for Time."

From their rehearsal room, the orchestra members had seen thousands march to their deaths. These unfortunate victims were gassed to death and then consumed in the furnaces. On rare occasions, some were executed by a firing squad.

One day, while they were discussing the cruelty of some of the prison's soldiers, a prisoner shouted: "They're monsters! They're not human!"

Fenelon answered: "But they are human. Just like you. Just like me. That's the problem. Here we have learned something about human nature and it's not very good news."

Yes, they did learn something about human nature. And it was not very good news. As Christians, we are taught that we are all children of God. We're taught to love our neighbor as ourselves. That peacemakers are blessed. That the Lord says: whatever you do to anyone, you do to me. Yet, in this story, we witness a merciless attempt to eliminate an entire people!

At the end of this long movie we two priests felt thoroughly emotionally drained. The story itself was intensely dramatic, held our attention from beginning to end, and the actors were excellent.

The Next Day

The following morning I had to go to the utility company to pay a bill. At that time, we were a group of five Passionists just having rented a vacated convent in West New York, NJ, a few miles from our great Monastery in Union City which had recently been sold.

At 8 AM in the Utility Office is where the story really begins:

The various clerks were settling down to their respective desks. I headed to one smiling lady to my left. Middle-aged, she had an unusual accent. (Most of the other workers seemed to be Hispanic.) As this lady drew up our utility account on her computer, I asked if her accent were German. Indirectly, she replied that she knew several Mid-European languages.

Suddenly, I asked,

Q: "You were in a concentration camp during the war, weren't you?"

A: "How did you know that?"

Q: "By your arm. I noticed the numbers stamped there when your sleeve lifted up. By any chance, were you in Auschwitz?"

A: "Yes, I was."

Q: "And did you see the movie `Playing for Time' last evening?"

A: "Yes, I did."

Q: "Did you know Fania Fenelon?"

A: " Yes, I did."

Q: "Was the story basically true?"

A: (hesitation) "It's really impossible to reproduce the horror, the suffering, the cruelty of the camps. But the story was essentially true."

Q: "What about the little old man in the movie who played the part of being crazy, and yet managed to go around giving bits of food and other necessities to the prisoners? He also interchanged messages."

A: To the effect: He was an authentic person and played that part.

Q: "What about the young lovers -- did they escape?" (A young German soldier had fallen in love with a prisoner and escaped with her to the camp's rejoicing. The movie had them captured, returned to camp and hanged.)

A: "That was not correct. The girl prisoner was hanged. Her body was taken away in a wheel-barrow by the old man. German soldiers were never hanged. This soldier was executed by a firing squad."

Special Question

At this point, that unusual lady in the Utility Office asked me a question:

"Father, I have never told this to anyone since I came to the United States. I wonder if there is something I should be doing?

"One day I was working on a road with pick and shovel when the guards passed by with two men (I discovered later they were Polish priests). They were being taken to a place of execution where they were shot.

"One of the priests threw a little box at my feet along with a small cloth of purple. I grabbed them both and tried to hide them in my scraggly clothes.

"The priest said, 'Give it to whoever asks for it.' I hoped there might be a little food in the box."

My question to her: "What was the size of the little box?" She showed me a circular scotch-tape holder on her desk.

The lady continued, "That night, eight or nine people came up to me and asked for that box. I saw it was filled with what looked like little white pills. It changed the recipients and they walked away in a kind of a daze.

"At first I thought it was some kind of dope that made them happy. More people came the following night. And this continued to the day of liberation. Those who received the 'little pills' thought them to be something very holy.

I asked her a series of questions:

Q: "How long did you have the little box?"

A: "Until the day we were liberated. About a year."

Q: "How many came to you to receive from it?"

A: "Oh, I didn't keep count. Hundreds? Easily. And much more."

Q: "Did you ever run out of the 'little white pills'?"

A: "Never."

Q: "Didn't you think it unusual that the 'white pills,' as you called them, never ran out? The box couldn't have held more than fifty when the priest originally gave it to you." (I explained to her that Catholics believe the "white pills" were what we call the Blessed Sacrament, containing Jesus Christ -- that we would call this a miracle.)

A: "I don't think I believe in miracles. I'm not sure I even believe in God. After the sufferings I have seen in the camp, it's very difficult to believe in a loving, wise God. When I think of all the children who died in those awful ovens, how can I believe that He loves each and every one of us -- especially the children?"

Soldier Incident

I was overwhelmed by her story. Were there any other incidents? She told me this:

One day, the door to her barracks was banging in the wind. She went to close the door, standing there for some moments (an action punishable by death) looking at the prison yard.

A passing soldier saw her and came rushing over. He beat her with his bayonet, leaving wounds on her face, hands, feet and side (she showed me one of her face scars). He then tied her to the door, crosswise, with rope, and left her hanging there.

Then he turned around, -- his face filled with horror and fear. He came back, untied her, and asked the other prisoners to care for her.

"Three days later," the lady told me, "this same soldier came to me at night and asked my forgiveness. He told me he was a Catholic and that he would like to receive from the box I had been given. I gave him one of the 'pills.' In the following weeks, he treated me with unusual kindness and even managed to sneak extra food to me.

"I became quite attached to that 'little box' and worried about losing it. I spoke to the Catholic Bishop of Prague, also in prison there. I told him of my experience with the box and asked what I should do.

"He said, 'My child, keep it. Do what the priest told you and give it to whoever asks for it.'

"But," she demanded, "what's the meaning of all this?" The Bishop's answer was, "Some day you'll understand."

Back to the Present Moment

"Am I all right? Is there something I should be doing?" the lady asked me.

I told her not to worry. Frequently, survivors of some tragedy in life wonder why they are spared. God had spared her life even as she saw thousands of others perish.

I told her of how one of my brothers in World War II had missed being killed by an enemy shell when he traveled by foot over a road under fire to go to Mass. When he returned to his tent he discovered that a shell had landed there, killing the other two G.I.'s inside.

The lady continued her story:

"I was supposed to have been sterilized during medical experiments at the camp. Yet, here I am in the United States, married to a fine man, with two beautiful children. Before we were married, I told him that I was incapable of having children. He said that he loved me and wanted to be married to me anyway. It's almost too good to believe."

By this time, a line was beginning to form at the desk of this Public Utility clerical worker. So I hastened to whisper to her a few quick final words:

"Whether you know or believe in God or not, He loves you and has protected you through all these sufferings and dangers. He selected you for a most unusual mission at Auschwitz. He has been with you at all times. He will continue to lead you step by step.

"You were imprisoned and almost put to death. Now, you are free in a new land, with a loving husband and two fine children. You are happy and you are safe. Just pray for faith. Thank God, as you know Him for His goodness to you. He will show you the way."

(Some days later, I sent her a little book on the Eucharist along with another book I had written, "The Good News is Jesus." When I returned to that Public Service Office some weeks later, I discovered she had been transferred to another city.)

I never heard from her again.

But I'll never forget her story.

Kilian McGowan, C.P. was founding editor of the Passionists Compassion and edited the magazine until his death in July, 1998.

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