How Papa Fred Came to Be Born—and Electing Upstanders
As my three oldest grandchildren, you know I’ve told you many stories before, and read lots of books snuggled up with you at bedtime when you were little. But I had to wait until you were a bit older to tell you what is probably the most important story I will ever share with you. It’s the story of how your Papa Fred came to be born.
You’re probably wondering why this is such an important story for you to know. Well, read on. You’re about to find out.
As you already know, Papa Fred was adopted by a loving family in 1949, when he was just a baby. It wasn’t until 2013, after searching for his biological family for several years, that he finally found that he had a biological brother and two sisters. From them, he soon learned the unbelievable story of how he came to be born.
Papa Fred’s biological mother, Anna, was a 19-year-old girl Jewish girl living in Berlin, Germany in the early 1940s with her mother and step-father. The Nazis had come to power a few years earlier, and World War II was already underway. I know you have studied the Holocaust in school, so you know that the Nazis — under the terrible German dictator Adolph Hitler — wanted to rid Eastern Europe (and beyond) of all Jewish life. The racist policies of the Nazis even extended beyond the Jews to include homosexuals, Roma (sometimes called “gypsies”), dissidents, and more. In other words, people who were “other” than white Aryans or those who defied Nazi edicts were targeted for extermination by the Nazis.
Anna — like other Jewish children in Berlin — was expelled from public schools in 1938 because she was Jewish. Her family doctor, Mohamed Helmy, was an Arab Muslim Egyptian national who was fired from his job at the Robert Koch Hospital in Berlin because he was considered a “Hamite” (a member of an ancient Egyptian group believed to be descended from Ham, the son of Noah.) In other words, Dr. Helmy may have been a brilliant doctor, but he had to be fired because was not white.
What do you think of that?
In 1942, the Nazis began rounding up the Jews of Berlin. At that time, Anna was working part time as a medical assistant for Dr. Helmy in his Berlin medical office, where he opened a private practice after being fired from the hospital. Dr. Helmy knew that Anna was in immediate danger of being deported to a concentration camp, along with her mother, stepfather and grandparents. So he devised a bold and brave plan.
First, Dr. Helmy contacted Frieda Szturmann, a non-Jewish acquaintance, who agreed to hide Anna’s parents and grandparents in her home. Then, he whisked Anna to a cabin that he and his white fiancé, Emmy Ernst, owned in Buch — a suburb of Berlin. (Dr. Helmy was not allowed to marry Emmy under Nazi rule because a non-white was not permitted to marry a white German.) Dr. Helmy hid Anna in the home’s backyard “laube”, which is a garden shed.
But the plan was fraught with danger. The Nazis began to question Dr. Helmy, believing he was hiding Jews. They knew he had a cabin outside of Berlin, and Dr. Helmy feared that if the Nazis went to Buch to search the home and yard, they would discover Anna in the laube. Dr. Helmy had to think quickly. He devised another idea.
By creating false papers and forging official-looking documents, Dr. Helmy produced a new Muslim identity for Anna. He gave her the name “Nadia” and printed a false certificate of marriage that showed she was married to a man named “Mohammed.” The papers were very well crafted and looked authentic.
Then he and Anna had to do something unimaginable — and extremely dangerous.
With her new identity and false identification papers, Anna began to accompany Dr. Helmy on his medical rounds in Nazi-occupied Berlin during the times when it was unsafe for her to remain in Buch. They even went into the SS headquarters (the Nazi paramilitary squad) because they were asked to provide medical care to Nazis.
Can you imagine how frightened they both must have been walking into Nazi headquarters?
For two years, Dr. Helmy risked his life everyday to keep Anna safe from the Nazis. Several times, he was interrogated by Nazi officers who became suspicious that Anna’s Muslim “marriage” was not valid. They also questioned him about Anna’s whereabouts when she did not accompany Dr. Helmy on his medical rounds. During those times, Dr. Helmy would tell them a story about where Anna was…saying she was visiting her Egyptian relatives in the south.
As you now know, my sweethearts, Anna survived the war due to the courage and heroism of Dr. Helmy. Had Anna not survived, Papa Fred would have never been born. And had Papa Fred never been born, then it’s fairly certain that the many, many people whose lives Papa Fred saved during his amazing career as a pulmonologist may have had much sadder outcomes.
I tell you this story because as your Bubbie, I want you to see in the most powerful way possible how bigotry and racism can grow into something so evil, and so destructive that it threatens the lives of good people.
I want you to know that an Arab Muslim risked his life daily to save a Jew and her family when there was no expectation for him to do so; but that his conscience, his sense of justice and reverence for all human life compelled him to act. If Hitler deported Arab Egyptian Muslims too, then Papa Fred might have never been born.
I want you to understand that it’s important to be an upstander in all aspects of your lives — even when it might not be the easiest or most popular thing to do.
But perhaps most importantly, I want you to be aware that despite the lessons we should have learned about what happened in Nazi Germany, racist governments and regimes still exist throughout the world. In fact, America’s President living in the White House right now is a racist. He does not like Black Americans, Muslims, LatinX and others who are not white like him. He speaks repulsive, hateful words about them and tries to enact policies that harm them.
That’s why it is SO important for America to elect an upstander like Dr. Helmy in next year’s presidential election. There is a man who grew up in South Bend, Indiana — not far from where I grew up in Gary, Indiana — who is the most remarkable upstander I have ever come to know. His name is Pete Buttigieg, he is actually the Mayor of South Bend, and I hope he will be America’s next president. I have decided to dedicate most of my free time over the next many months working to making Pete our president.
There a Pete hashtag that’s being used a lot around the internet: #BeLikePete. (Yeah, your Bubbie knows what a hashtag is.) Every time I see the hashtag, it reminds me to think about why I want to be like Pete and support him for president. For one, Pete lives morally. That means he always tries to do right thing in every situation. He believes in the values of justice, equality, right and humanity; and he shows us all the time what it means to be an upstander. He stood up and spoke out in protest of Trump’s ban on Muslims in 2017. He marched in defense of women’s rights in his hometown. He got on his feet to plead for the release of migrant children detained in terrible conditions along America’s southern border. And he said this to South Bend’s Muslim community after a mosque was targeted by a racist gunman in New Zealand earlier this year: “This entire City has its arms around you, in love and peace. We support you as you practice your faith here in this community, our community, this home we share.” These are the upstanding things that Dr. Helmy would have said and done too.
The changes Pete thinks about for our country are on his mind for one reason: Because he believes they’ll make life better for all Americans. He is a true upstander. Even when people say unkind things about him, Pete just shrugs it off and says, “I don’t care.” That’s because he’s way too busy being an upstander and doing the right things. He doesn’t have time to let bullies get in his way.
I hope that Pete — who served as a Navy Lieutenant in the war in Afghanistan — will never be tested in the way that Dr. Helmy was tested, but if he ever is, I am 100% certain that he would rise to save every life he could, regardless of the consequences to himself. That’s the kind of leader America needs. That’s the kind of man Dr. Helmy was.
I hope you are proud and honored to know that your Papa Fred came to be born because of a brave act of humanity by a beautiful human who stood up — frightened — but determined to save a precious human life.
I love you more than words can ever say,
(CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE VIDEO OF “ANNA’S STORY”)
In October, 2013, Dr. Mohamed Helmy was awarded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” — an honorific by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. He is the first Arab ever to be awarded the state’s most prestigious award.