This story is dedicated to my Grandfather, Thomas F. O’Neill, who passed away twenty-five years ago this month.
by Thomas F. O’Neill
There were significant moments in Rabbi, Shuman’s life that profoundly changed him - in ways that are beyond comprehension. They could be described as spiritual unexplained encounters that have made him highly receptive to life’s synchronicities. Those same moments have become truly meaningful for him but to fully understand Rabbi, Shuman you have to know his story.
His earliest memories were of his parents taking him to his grandmother’s home. His grandmother had an old antique music box that he would wind up. Inside the box were small figurines of a man and women sitting at a piano. He can remember listening to the music in his grandmother’s living room and the smile the music would bring to her face. Those childhood memories are always with him because those memories represent the love his grandmother had for him and in many ways that love is still with him.
It is said that we are the sum-total of all our experiences so in order to understand Albert Shuman the man you have to understand what he endured as a child. When he was a young boy his family lived in Germany and on his ninth birthday the Nazis gathered up his family and moved them into a Jewish Ghetto. The Jews were eventually packed like cattle into train boxcars and sent to various concentration camps. He still can remember the heat and stench inside the boxcar. He was only nine years old and very frightened from being separated from his family. He was too young to comprehend what was happening to him and the others.
On numerous occasions he spoke about the day he turned eleven years old. It was his second year inside that Nazi concentration camp. He was cold, hungry, and scared and he didn’t know whether his family members were alive or dead. He was living there with the walking dead, the living skeletons, the skin and bones of the malnourished. Those are just some of his recollections of that nightmarish existence at the hands of the Nazi’s, the so called master race.
Hungry, weak, and detached from all emotion he got the nerve on that particular birthday to walk over to the barbed wire fence. He witnessed many being shot on that fence and for some it was a means of suicide. “If you do not want to go on being starved, clime the fence,” he thought to himself, “let the Nazi guards shoot you.” It was at that moment when those thoughts were racing through his head that he heard the voice of a young girl.
“Do you want my apple?” she asked him in German. She quickly tossed it over the fence. He grabbed it and began eating it when the Nazi guard walked over and whacked him with the butt of his gun.
“Get away from here” the guard yelled at the young girl. Frightened, she turned and ran up a large hill to a farmhouse a mile away from the camp.
“Stay away from there!!!” the girl’s mother said to her in a stern voice.
“Mother, what did those people do?”
“It doesn’t concern us,” her mother yelled,
“Stay away from there!!!!”
“There is this young boy there,” she said to her Mother with tears in her eyes. “He looks so sad, so hungry. What could he have done to be treated that way? When I gave him my apple the solder hit him just because he took it,” she said with tears rolling down her face, “those solders are mean.”
“That doesn’t concern us,” she yelled once again at her daughter, “they are there for a reason.”
She then grabbed her daughter’s arm and said, “It doesn’t concern you.”
Everyday young Albert Shuman walked over to the fence and each day the young girl threw an apple to him. He looked at her face through the fence so that he would never forget that young girl’s kindness.
“Someday I will be free from here,” he yelled to her, “don’t worry I will be free from here you will see.” A Nazi guard whacked him with the butt of his rifle.
“Get away from the fence rodent,” the guard said to him in German. He then smacked young Albert once again with his gun.
“Get away from here if you know what is good of you” the guard yelled to the young girl.
When the young girl's mother saw her daughter returning home crying, she franticly slapped her across the face, “You stubborn, stubborn child, what do I need to do to keep you from going there?” Her mother’s primary concern was simply to keep her and her daughter safe from harm. Her husband and two sons were fighting the Russians on the eastern-front. She didn’t know whether she would ever see them again.
When Albert Shuman was thirteen the Russians moved into East Germany they moved fast and were fierce fighters. The Nazis guards did not have enough time to burn the bodies of the dead. Some of them out of fear of the Russians tried to pass themselves off as Jewish survivors but what set them apart from the others was their well nourished frame. They were quickly rounded up and Albert witnessed some of them being executed on the spot. He wasn’t pleased or shocked by the contempt the Russians had for the Nazis, “getting shot through the head seems much more merciful,” he thought to himself, “then being starved to death.”
The young Russian solders gave Albert and the other survivor’s food and when one of the solders had an apple in his hand. He saw young Albert staring at it, the solder out of compassion handed it to him. Albert unable to speak their language pointed in the direction of where he saw the young girl run each day.
The solder out of curiosity placed Albert’s frail and weak body in a Jeep and drove him to the farmhouse. When they arrived no one was there so Albert took a pen out of the solders shirt pocket and motioned for a piece of paper. Albert wrote “thank you” in German on the paper and placed it with the Apple on the young girl’s porch.
He was the only one in his immediate family that survived those insane nightmarish years. The numbers the Nazi tattooed on Albert's arm when he was a child are now a permanent reminder of what he endured.
He eventually was sent to live with distant relatives in America. It was in America that he struggled to find meaning and purpose in his life. He searched for answers as to why he was one of the survivors. The image of the young girl’s face kept retuning to his dreams at night. Her face instilled in him a determination to live so that one day he could return that kindness. If he could not return the kindness to her then perhaps to another person in need.
When he turned seventeen he enrolled in a rabbinical school and eight years later he became a Rabbi. He wanted others to understand the strength of the human spirit and how the little kind actions of a young girl gave him the strength to survive the Nazis inhumanity.
Over the years he became a scholar, a teacher, a lecturer but something was terribly lacking in his life. His intellectual pursuits to unravel the meaning and purpose of life could not be achieved by reason alone. He needed answers not just for the peace of mind but to overcome his loneliness. He continuously thought about the young girl in Germany who overcame her fear so that she could reach out to him from the other side of the barbed wire fence. He often wondered what ever became of her.
He was living in New York as a Rabbi in the summer of 1960 when he was invited to give a lecture in Baltimore, Maryland. He decided to travel by train rather then drive there alone. He has always enjoyed engaging people in conversation but mostly he enjoys meeting new people and listening to their stories. When he sat down in his seat he noticed a woman that looked so familiar to him. He could not quite place her. Something inside of him compelled him to sit down across from her on the train.
He was thrilled when he learned that she was from Germany and they conversed in their native language. He was also a bit amused that she was traveling to hear a lecture at the same symposium where he was lecturing.
“Are you Jewish?” he asked her.
“No,” she said in a melancholy tone.
“Then why are you so glum?” he asked in an amusing way trying to lighten her mood.
“I am going to the symposium because one of the lecturers was in a concentration camp near the farmhouse I lived in as a little girl,” she said to him.
She began to tell him her story of what she witnessed just a mile from where she lived. She then told him about the face of the young Jewish boy in the Nazi concentration camp. “I wish I knew what happened to him,” she said as a tear rolled down her face.
“He is fine,” he said while emotionally moved. It was then that the tears welled up in his eyes.
“How could you possibly know that?” she asked.
“Don’t you remember?” he said to her, “I told you I will live. When I got rescued by the Russians I put an apple on your porch.”
She looked at him astonished by his words. “When the Russians came,” she said, “we fled our farmhouse because we didn’t know what was going to happen. My father and two brothers were killed at the eastern-front fighting the Russians”
She then looked into his eyes, “You put an apple on my porch,” she asked.
“I wanted to let you know that I was alright,” he said.
“I thought about you all the time,” she said as she wiped the tears from her face.
“And I you,” he said.
“I never learned your name,” she said.
“Albert,” came the reply.
“Anna,” she said, “my name is Anna.”
After the lecture he knocked on her hotel room door and when she opened it he handed her an Apple, “I don’t want to lose you again, Anna” he said with deep sincerity that could melt the heart of any woman. He learned that she came to America as an exchange student and remained in America. She became a teacher of history at a high school just a few miles from where he was living.
They soon married but their story doesn’t end here. In 1968 when Albert’s wife received a letter from her Mother in Germany stating that Anna’s Grandmother’s-sister is living in a small town in Pennsylvania.
“I would like to go to Pennsylvania and see my Great-Aunt in person, Albert,” she said to him.
“Can’t you just pick up the phone and call her,” Albert asked her.
“Let’s surprise her,” she said
“I don’t even know her,” he replied
Anna got her way and they drove three hours from New York to that small town in Pennsylvania. When they arrived at the address that was given to Anna by her mother no one was there.
“No one lived in that house in 20 years,” a man said to them from across the street.
Albert then told Anna, “if we leave now we cold get back to New York for a late dinner.”
When Albert and Anna were heading back home they stopped at a red light on the Main Street in that small Pennsylvania town. Anna then noticed a small antique store.
“Let’s stop in there,” she said.
When they were looking around the shop Anna noticed an old music box. Albert in another part of the store was looking at an antique pocket watch. Anna then wound up the music box and they both heard the music. Albert at that moment walked over to Anna and he noticed the small figurines inside the music box of a man and woman sitting at a piano.
“That looks like the music box my grandmother owned,” he said to Anna.
“Where did you get it” he asked the owner.
“Not sure exactly,” came the reply, “it was made in Germany though many years ago.”
“My Grandmother owned one just like this,” he told the owner.
“The bottom drawer in the music box is locked” Anna said to the shop owner, “do you have the key.”
“I don’t have the key but the lock is not that complicated,” he said to her.
The owner walked over to the counter and came back with a small lock pick and opened the bottom drawer in the music box. Inside the drawer was a letter. Anna surprised at seeing the letter began to read it,
“It is written in German” she said to Albert, “and it is dated March 16, 1939”
“My Name is Anna Shuman,” she said out loud as she began reading.
“That was my Grandmother’s Name,” Albert told his wife, “she had the same name as you.”
She then continued reading,
“My Name is Anna Shuman” she repeated, “and this is my music box it has been in my family for many, many years. If anything should happen to me I want my Grandson Albert Shuman to have it.
If by chance you should read this letter, Albert, I want you to know that I love you very much and I will always love you. Your happiness means more to me then life itself.
Albert’s face beamed with emotion and he was unable to hold back his tears, “how much do you want for the music box?” he asked the shop owner.
“Look I don’t speak German so I don’t know what that letter said,” the shop owner said to them.
Anna translated the letter to the store owner in one simple sentence, “This is his Grandmother’s music box.”
“How much do you want for it?” he repeated, “I will give you whatever you what.”
“Look just take the music box,” the owner said, “it’s yours.”
“How did you come to getting this music box in your shop?” he asked the owner once again.
“I have to go down to the basement and look at the inventory records,” the shop owner said, “it has been here for quite sometime though.”
When the owner returned a short time later he told them, “it was owned by a woman named Olga Hager. I think it was her son that sold it to me. If I recall correctly I think Mrs. Hager is in the Manner Nursing Home now.”
“She’s my Grandmother’s-sister,” Anna said to Albert, “that is who we came to see.”
They learned from Olga that her son was in the German army during the war. The Nazis confiscated most of the Jewish families’ belongings in Germany and somehow Olga’s son came in possession of Albert’s Grandmother’s music box. He gave the music box and some of the other Jewish families belongings to Olga. When the war ended, her and her son, left Germany and they brought the music box and various other items to America with them. Years later when Olga was placed in a Nursing Home her son sold the music box and some of her other belongings to the antique dealer. On hearing this from Olga - Albert then realized that the Pocket watch he was looking at in the antique shop was his Father’s watch.
On there way back to New York Anna turned to Albert who was driving and said to him. “The letter in the music box is dated March 16, 1939. We were married on March 16, in 1961.”
“In someway I believe my Grandmamma Anna was determined that I get her music box because she knew how much I loved to play with it as a child,” he then said, “it was her way of saying she never stopped loving me.”
Rabbi, Shuman has continued over the years to tell his story at lecture Hall’s and to the average person on the street. The events that occurred in his childhood are heart-wrenchingly painful and those events have become a part of who he is as a person. He and Anna have overcome the darkness and pain of the Nazi regime by becoming each others light.
Some people would say that the synchronicity within Anna and Albert’s life is nothing more then mere coincidences. Anna and Albert on the other hand find great comfort in knowing that there is a much deeper dimension to life then coincidences.
Albert stood up from his chair on March 16, 2006 at a dinner hall as his wife sat next to him. It was a very special occasion for them. He stood before a crowd of approximately two-hundred people and thanked them for being there to celebrate their forty-fifth wedding adversary. Their three daughters, two sons, and ten grandchildren, were also there to celebrate this heartwarming event.
“All of you know how Anna and I met,” Albert said to them. “You all heard the story many times before so you can relax now because I will not lecture you on our story. If you notice, however, all of you have an apple on your plate. I no, I no,” he repeated, “I wasn’t that fond of apples either but because of Anna I grew more fond of them. Don’t worry though we have plenty of other food. You won’t leave here hungry, I can promise you that” he said to them as the audience laughed.
“I hope I haven’t offended anyone with the apples it wasn’t meant as an insult,” he said. “I have been told my humor is not always politically correct. I suppose that is why I would never make a good politician. I would always be cracking jokes about the current politics,” he said as the audience laughed because they knew their local Senator was sitting in the room.
“As you already know,” he added, “I love to tell the story of how Anna came back into my life here in America - on a train. We came together again in the land of the free and the land of the brave as that popular song goes.”
He then said, “it doesn’t seem that long ago when I was forever separated from my family when I was shoved and packed into a train’s boxcar in Germany. I was sent to one of those concentration camps as a young boy – by train. Like thousands of others I was sent there. That is were I met my Anna but we to became separated and lost for a time. We were like two corks in the ocean and it seemed as if we were riding each wave as a random destiny. I soon learned though our destiny was set forth by the spirit of our love. We were bound by our soul’s desire because years later when I needed her once again she came back to me to show me how to love.” The audience was silent and they were glued to his every word.
“We came together today,” he said, “so that we could share this moment with our immediate family and with all of you as our extended family. We are all family because we all love and respect one another” he became visibly emotional and Anna who was sitting next to him reached over and held his hand. He then picked up a glass of wine and took a drink.
The room was quiet as they waited for him to continue speaking. “To some the Nazi regime is ancient history but there are still some who have witnessed the inhumanity and lived. I hope we can learn from what we witnessed so that succeeding generations can never repeat those atrocities. When I came to America before Anna came back into my life, my mind was filled with the chatter of explanations of why and how I should live my life. It wasn’t until I quieted the chatter and heard the small still whisper of the soul. It guided me and put me in synch with my soul’s desire which is to love and to be loved.”
He then said to the audience, “It has taken me many, many years to figure out that in order to find contentment in life you must first quiet your mind. The mind can become filled with the insignificant matters of life. I was ignoring my heart - never ignore your heart. The heart can put you on the right path - life without love is a wasted life. You must find the love within you first before you can share that love with others. Don’t wait for others to love you first because you cannot discover love until you begin to love. Then and only then will you find the true synchronicities of life. I have found - when you reach out and care for the welfare of others, others will reach out and care for you. We are never alone in the world. I discovered that through the small acts of kindness from a young girl who threw apples to me, every day, like clock work, over a barbed wire fence” he said with a smile.
He then looked down at Anna, “Our hearts and souls are always intertwined and synchronized with the hearts and souls of our significant others. We are here now sharing our life’s journey - a journey of discovery and wonder. We are sharing this world in order to love and to be loved.”
He then looked over at his children and grandchildren, “I hope my children and grandchildren learn to put aside the insignificant matters and let their heart and soul reveal to them the true beauty in life,” he said as tears welled up in his eyes.
“Albert let them eat now,” Anna said.
“Thank you,” he said to his family and guests while laughing, “thank you,” he repeated with a big enthusiastic smile on his face, “I am grateful for all of you for being a part of my life and may love always be a significant part of your lives.”
Thomas F. O’Neill
Other articles and commentaries by Thomas F. O'Neill can be found at the links below.