Courage of a child

Two of the most popular icons in Israel, singer Shlomi Shabbat and actor Yehudah Barkan both became sick with Corona. The 66-year old singer pulled through and was released from hospital. The 75-year old actor was not so fortunate. Yehuda Barkan succumbed to Corona and his death brought a wave of national mourning. 

Yet the uniqueness of Israel is that mourning the famous is no more important than the death of a Shoah survivor.

Like any Shoah survivor’s testimony, Ben Zion Hadar’s is also remarkable. He sprung to the limelight with the publication of the best-seller Hebrew book, “The Cigarette Sellers from the Three Crosses Square,” which is the nickname for a group of Jewish young children, who following the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, escaped to the Gentile side of the city which was swarming with German soldiers. With dare, courage, solidarity and quick-thinking, Ben Zion who at only 6-years old was the youngest in the group, survived through to the end of the war. 

When Jews were forced into the ghetto in 1940, at the age of four Ben Zion crawled through holes in the wall with one of his sisters to smuggle bread back for their parents. Starvation and disease were rampant among the half a million Jews crammed into an area of just 2.5 square miles. The children were both blessed with the looks of a Pole, and both knew Polish and Yiddish from home. On the “Aryan” side of Warsaw they had the presence of mind to stand in the courtyard of the high-rises of the city and sing Polish songs. People would through crusts of bread to the “Polish” children. After singing to live, they then would hide out on a roof top all night and just before dawn, while the world was still asleep, would sneak back unnoticed to the ghetto with some food. 

Among the hundreds of thousands of Warsaw’s Jews sent to be gassed in July 1942, were Ben Zion’s parents and two of his three sisters. Taking his chance, one day the six-year old mingled among adult forced laborers cited for work. In doing so, he escaped the ghetto and never returned. In the Polish side of Warsaw, he met a group of Jewish children who had also fled. To earn a crust of bread he sung on the trams, and with the other Jewish children, went on to sell cigarettes at the Three Crosses Square, a busy street and intersection in Poland’s capital city, and the inspiration for the title of the book. To hide their Jewish identity, these very young children had the presence of mind not to speak Yiddish among themselves and through an intuition and a resourcefulness that is befitting to adults, they reasoned that they stood more chance of surviving if they behaved as if they had nothing to hide. Thus, they chose their “business” location with care: right outside the Gestapo office. Not that anyone in their right mind would ever claim that cigarettes are good for the health, but in the case of Hadar Ben Zion, cigarettes played a part in saving his life. 

Ben Zion devoted the rest of his long life to education, speaking to thousands about his experience in the Shoah. Yet although he has passed away, his courage and initiative live on in the heart of his people Israel.