A Christmas Story and Message for Our Time

Many years ago, in a country and a city destroyed by the brutality of World War II, there lived on the streets a young, nameless boy. No one knew his age or to whom he was born. After the death of a woman he had lived with and to whom he did not know if he was related, he was on his own.

He spent his days among the rubble with other children of similar circumstances. The search for food was a daily and never-ending occupation, whether begging from the locals, or from foreign soldiers stationed nearby, or rummaging through the garbage cans outside military mess halls. 

At night, the least destroyed of the nearby buildings with a remnant of a roof overhead served as a shelter from the elements. But no one could escape the constant stench of death and destruction hanging in the air. The smell permeated the very fiber of one's being and would remain embedded in the young boy's DNA for the rest of his life.

One day while wandering about the streets, this boy heard the screams of a woman being attacked. He ran to the scene and saw a soldier tearing at the clothing of a teenage girl. Instinctively he picked up some broken bricks and began throwing them at the attacker. The man released the girl, turned, and aimed a pistol at the boy. The boy turned to run and felt a sharp pain in his side. After falling forward from the impact, he got up and ran some distance before finally passing out.

When the boy awoke, he was in a military hospital being treated for a gunshot wound and malnutrition. For the first time that he could remember, he slept in a bed and was fed three meals a day. After recuperating, he was placed on a train and taken on a long journey to an orphanage near Bremen, Germany.

Some time thereafter, this befuddled boy was taken to the harbor. He stood dumbstruck, staring up at the enormous black hull of a ship destined for the United States. Walking alone up the gangplank, he had no luggage, passport, or papers -- just a yellow tag pinned to his coat. 

The winter voyage was excruciating. The ocean was in a constant state of turmoil, and seasickness plagued nearly everyone on board. Finally, on the seventh day, as dawn broke, the young boy stood at the railing and watched the image of the Statue of Liberty slowly emerge from the mist, framed majestically by the skyline of New York in the distance, the peaks of its skyscrapers reflecting the morning sun.

As the boy met the German-American foster parents that had agreed to take him in, he knew not what the future would bring in this strange land that spoke a different language from the ones he knew -- a mixture of German and Polish. He was at last given a first name. He began yet another trip, this time to a quiet, quasi-southern town to settle down on a farm. It didn't seem possible, but life there was even more miserable than the one he had known in Europe. 

Subject to constant beatings and never-ending work on the farm, the boy often ran away to find solace in the woods surrounding the fields. His only friends were the animals on the farm and in the forest. Soon a neighboring farmer began to notice what was happening on the adjoining property. He called the police, and child protection agencies took the child away from the foster family.

After recovering from another bout of malnutrition, the young boy was placed in a home with other orphans. There was no one there he could communicate with or relate to. Despair began to set in. Unbeknown to him, he was slated to be sent to an orphanage somewhere in New York State, as he was unadoptable due to a lack of papers. He could not be placed in foster care, as he had yet to be "housebroken."

One day, a man dressed in a black suit came to see the boy. He was the pastor of the local Catholic parish. The Monsignor took the boy to the rectory for lunch, and then next-door to the church building. The child had never been in a church before. The small and intimate space was decorated for Christmas. It was the most astounding sight the boy had ever seen. The lights, the colors, and the atmosphere spoke to him of something he had never experienced: peace and tranquility. But what caught his attention was a group of statues and a spotlight shining on a baby in a manger.

The frail boy, the inner spirit that had seen him through so much now depleted, stood before the statues of holy family. He gazed at the serene face of the woman dressed in a blue robe looking lovingly at the baby. Was this the image of a mother? A mother he had never known?  Staring into the eyes of the infant in the manger, the boy felt a presence, as if an unseen hand was touching the very core of the his soul. With a tear rolling down his cheek, the boy whispered, "Hilf mir" (help me).

The time came for the boy to return to the shelter and await his fate. At the door of the church, the boy turned and looked one last time at the nativity scene. A glow seemed to surround the statues, and he was overwhelmed by a sense of hope and optimism.

At Midnight Mass on Christmas Day, the priest related the story of a young war-orphan brought to the United States, his hardship and misfortune while in this country, and his lack of any identity, making it nearly impossible for him to be adopted. The Monsignor asked, as the boy had never experienced Christmas, if anyone who spoke German could take the child for a few days during the Christmas season before he left for an orphanage.

During the offertory, with the Ave Maria being sung in the background, a woman in the congregation felt a surge of warmth and heard a voice telling her she must adopt this young boy. Turning to her husband she said, "We have to adopt the boy the Monsignor was talking about."  He replied they could not, as they did not speak his language, they could not afford to raise a child, and they could never shoulder the expense of pursuing an adoption even if it were possible. The woman emphatically stated that God has told me to, we must, and we will.

After mass, the woman relayed her experience to the priest. When their eyes met, and before she said anything, the priest announced to her: "You are here about adopting the boy." He told her that during the Ave Maria, he too heard a message from God, and they would make the adoption happen together. Soon an elderly woman from Germany whose husband owned a local car dealership came into the sacristy offering to take the boy for an extended period. Then two other families came to make a similar proposal.  

The adoption process was long and drawn-out, involving the courts and the federal government, but the woman and the priest, who paid the legal bills, persevered. The boy stayed at the homes of those who had offered to help. He gradually learned a smattering of English and how to be part of a family structure.  

Around Easter of that year, the boy went to live with his future parents. A birth certificate was created, and in October, the adoption became final. 

Thanks to a baby lying in a manger, the young boy from the streets of a war-torn city somewhere in central Europe, whose odyssey had taken him through so many trials and tribulations, had a name and a permanent home.

For the rest of his life, this boy would continue to fight with the demons of his youth. He won some battles, but he lost many others. Nonetheless, he always knew he had someone on his side when life was at its worst.

Today on Christmas, many people in the United States and Europe have turned their backs on God and do not care if He is on their side. Some do not even acknowledge His existence. The pursuit of lives of relative ease and wealth allows these agnostics to become more concerned with material possessions and physical pleasure. In order to succeed at this quest, the basic rules of human behavior as espoused by Judaism and Christianity must be ignored and supplanted with no guidelines whatsoever. 

The moral fiber of a country, and the religious basis upon which the United States and European nations have developed, has been replaced by faith in people and government. But neither is worthy of such trust. The men and women we choose to govern us are subject to the frailties of human nature. Many are in government because of their desire to acquire dominion over others, for self-aggrandizement, or for personal wealth.

The end result of the people's reliance on their fellow man is to allow the ruling class to foster policies detrimental to the long-term interests of their citizenry. The guiding principle that emphasizes respect for the uniqueness and inalienable rights of all human beings is often discarded. In the twentieth century, the nations of Europe learned this lesson in the loss of millions of lives in two wars and the emergence of communism.

Will we find ourselves staring into another abyss of our own making? Will the unbridled pursuit of individual materialism and pleasure coupled with the unrestrained power of government spell the ultimate destruction of our societies?

The day may well come when the United States and the countries of Europe are relegated to secondary status, dominated by those whose only interest is to make us all subservient to their power, influence, and ideology.

There is an urgent need for the citizens and the leaders of our nations to go back to a lifestyle based on a belief and trust in God and Judeo-Christian teachings.

As to those who question whether there is a God...fifty-eight years ago, I stood in front of a nativity scene in a small Catholic Church and appealed for help. The hand of God reached out to me in my most desperate hour of need. God is there for each of us and our respective countries. All we have to do is ask.