Shachne Hiller was born in the Jewish ghetto of Krakow, Poland in 1940. When he was two years old, the Gestapo started liquidating the ghetto. Shachne’s parents Helen and Moses Hiller were desperate to save their only child.
With the help of the Jewish underground, Helen snuck out of the ghetto one night with Shachne and visited family friends Josefa and Bronislav Jachovitch, a childless Catholic couple.
Helen begged the Jachovitches to take Shachne and hide him from the Nazis, and the Jachovitches agreed. Helen gave the righteous couple an envelope containing all the Hillers’ valuables, and another containing letters. One letter read, “If I or my husband do not return when this madness is over, please mail this letter to America to our relatives. They will surely respond and take the child. Regardless of the fates of my husband or myself, I want my son to grow up as a Jew.”
Hiding a Jewish child was a crime punishable by death. The Jachovitches moved frequently and made sure to cover their tracks. They tried their best to comfort the little boy when he cried for his parents.
The Jachovitches loved Shachne as their own son. In 1946, they learned that Helen and Moses Hiller had died in the ovens at Auschwitz.
Josefa was a devout Catholic, and she decided to baptize Shachne. She went to the local parish priest, who was young and newly ordained.
Josefa told her story to the priest, who listened carefully to every word. When she finished the dramatic tale, the priest asked her, “And what was the parents’ wish when they entrusted their only child to you and your husband?” Josefa told the priest that Helen’s last request was that her son stay Jewish, and be returned to his people if his parents died.
The young priest told Josefa that he could not baptize the child against the wishes of his biological mother. He urged Josefa to contact the Hillers’ relatives in America, and send the boy to them to be raised as a Jew.
Josefa listened to the young priest, and despite Polish laws forbidding orphan children from leaving the country, she fought the bureaucracy for 3 years until Shachne was included in a group of European orphans taken to North America by the Canadian Jewish Congress.
As heartbroken as his mother was handing Shachne over to the Jachovitches, Josefa Jachovitch was heartbroken at putting him on an ocean liner bound for New York.
Shachne was raised in America by his relatives, the Bergers. He grew up to be a successful businessman and remained an observant Jew all his life. He stayed in touch with Josefa, sending her gifts and money, and comforting her in her old age.
In 1978, Shachne (now Stanley Berger) received a letter from Josefa Jachovitch with astonishing news. The young parish priest who’d made sure that Shachne Hiller stayed Jewish had just been elected Pope.
Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pope, significantly improved relations between Jews and the Catholic Church. He was beloved by Catholics the world over for his big heart and strong leadership. Pope John Paul II was canonized in 2014 and is now known as “Saint John Paul the Great.”
For saving a little boy’s life, we honor the Jachovitches, and for ensuring that the boy retain the faith of his fathers, we honor Saint John Paul the Great, as this week’s Thursday Heroes.
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