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This article is reprinted with permission of Washington Jewish Week. Visit washingtonjewishweek.com.
Stanley Berger attended Jewish day school and is a past president of his Orthodox synagogue. Yet, this former Washington, D.C., resident might have been a Catholic living in Poland if not for Pope John Paul II.
In 1942, when Berger, then Shachne Hiller, was 2 years old, his mother, Helen, smuggled him out of the Krakow Ghetto and into the care of a Polish Catholic couple, Josefa and Bronislav Jachovitch. Helen Hiller rejoined her husband, Moses, in the ghetto. The two would eventually perish in Auschwitz.
But before that happened, authorities had realized that the little boy was missing from the ghetto and began a search for him. The Jachovitches, keeping their word to protect the child entrusted to them, went into hiding.
Berger's recollections of the time are only vague. The three hid in farmhouses, in silos, in a Gypsy village.
“The Jachovitches understood the fear a lot more than I did,” said Berger, noting that to a little boy, it likely was an adventure.
By war's end, the three returned to Krakow.
"We led what I thought was a normal life. I didn't know I was Jewish," he recalled in an interview on Monday, saying he went to church every Sunday. The couple became very attached to the orphaned child, and sought advice from their parish priest about adopting and baptizing little Shachne. The young priest asked if Shachne had surviving relatives. Yes, Josefa Jachovitch told him.
"Once he learned I had living relatives, he wouldn't condone" the conversion, Berger said.
That priest was Karol Wojtyla, the man who would later become Pope John Paul II and died two weeks ago.
Following that conversation, Josefa Jachovitch mailed letters that Helen Hiller had left in her care, contacting Shachne's relatives in the United States and Canada.
With strict immigration laws in place, he wasn't able to move to this country, though his mother's niece, Jennie Berger, and her husband, Harry, desperately wanted him to become part of their Washington, D.C., family. It took several years for that to happen.
He left the Jachovitches in 1947, and lived for a time with other relatives still in Poland. A convoluted route to the District took the young boy to other homes in Poland, and then to several households and an orphanage in Canada.
Meanwhile, Jennie and Harry Berger, who owned Berger's Wholesale and Retail on Georgia Avenue, were working to get special permission to bring him to the States and adopt him.
With the help of Sens. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee and Brian McMahon of Connecticut, they were able to get a private bill passed in Congress to allow him to immigrate.
After being shuffled from place to place, Little Shachne finally arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1951.
"By the time I was 10 1/2, I had lived in 10 homes, including an orphanage," Berger said. His adopted older brother, Sidney, who lives in the District, was 20 at the time. "We were all very happy," he recalled.
Shachne soon became Stanley Berger, attended the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington, Coolidge High School and the University of Maryland. His family was active in Beth Sholom, then in the District and now known as Beth Sholom and Talmud Torah in Potomac.
An accountant, Berger is the chief financial officer of a clothing manufacturing group in New York City. He moved to Connecticut in the late 1980s.
A self-described low-key man, he doesn't talk about his experiences often, but was interviewed last week by CBS News.
Asked this week what he thought of John Paul, Berger said, "He reached out to people, not only Catholic, but of various nationalities and religions." He also showed compassion, Berger added, "the same compassion he showed as a young man giving advice to the Jachovitches"--thereby helping to fulfill a mother's wish that her son remain Jewish.