“Abba (father), is that you?”

“Yes, Shlomo. Did I wake you? Were you sleeping?”

“Abba, I had the strangest dream . . . Something about one of our relatives . . . His life was saved by a bunch of baked goods… What a strange dream . . .”

“You know, Shlomo, there was such a story. I wouldn’t have thought to tell you, but now that you mention it, I’m remembering. Funny, it also took place close to Rosh Hashanah, about this time of year.”

“It’s probably not what you called for, but do you have time to tell me the story?”

Suddenly Papa Yosef Chayim heard a sharp knock on the door“Sure. Are you awake enough to hear it?”

“I’m listening.”

“So, like I said, it was Thursday night, the week before Rosh Hashanah. The weather had turned early in Galicia that year, and already snow had dusted the ground. My grandfather, Yosef Chayim, the father of my father Shlomo, for whom you are named, was up late learning Torah. His candle was burning low, and the house was filled with the sweet smells of his wife Devorah’s hard work. Challahs and yeast cakes, stew, chicken and fish, and of course the aroma of her potato kugel filled the home, and apparently wafted out the windows as well.

“Suddenly Papa Yosef Chayim heard a sharp knock on the door. Curious who would be visiting at such an hour, he got up and opened the door. To his shock, he found a burly robber pointing a pistol directly in his face. Over and over he repeated in a shrill, startled voice the words of the foundational prayer of the Shema, Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad! Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad!’ (‘Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is One!’)

“Finally the robber screamed at him, ‘Silence! Enough of your babbling! Bring me food!’ Reb Yosef Chaim was brought back from the intensity of his devotions.

“‘Food?’ he asked? ‘Yes, and quickly!’ the robber replied.

“You know, Shlomo, it’s a shame that you never met my grandfather. Besides being learned and well respected, he was a kind and discerning man. He looked into the robber’s eyes, and saw that the man was not inherently violent, but was filled with fear and desperation. Like our Creator, my zeide (grandfather) fulfilled the verse v’rachamav al kol ma’asav, “His mercies are on all that is created”—for his mercy was for all of G‑d’s creations. He quickly got a basket and packed into it all of his wife’s delicacies. He then looked up at the man and went to the closet, where he retrieved a warm winter coat, a pair of boots and a blanket. He wrapped them up in a bundle, adding in a few pieces of firewood from next to the oven. By this time the robber’s face had softened, and he arranged under his arms the various packages that Reb Yosef Chayim handed to him, and ran off into the night.

Zeide was grateful that his life had been spared“Zeide was grateful that his life had been spared, and that he had been given the opportunity to sanctify G‑d’s name and provide help to a man who sorely needed it. While I can’t say for sure, I’d like to think that their neighbors pitched in and helped them with all that they needed for Shabbat that week. As is the nature of time, the incident was soon forgotten, as routine continued in their home.

“Many years later, in the same season, Zeide was preparing to travel to Reb Yehoshua, son of the Sar Shalom of Belz, for Rosh Hashanah. While there were other Belzer chassidim traveling from Krakovitz, where they lived and where my father was born, those who for various reasons could not travel brought their letters and requests to Zeide to carry to the rebbe. While there were still a couple of days until Yom Tov, Reb Yosef Chayim was excited to see the rebbe, and it was with joy and animation that he finished packing up the carriage and taking leave of his family.

“Normally it was a bit more than a day’s travel, but Zeide thought he could shorten it a bit by taking a side road through the forest. He was absorbed in his mental and spiritual preparations for Rosh Hashanah, and by the time he realized that he was surrounded by a band of robbers, he had no chance of escape. He was pulled off the carriage at gunpoint, and tied with harsh ropes to a nearby tree. His horse was also tethered, and the robbers assured him, laughing, that they would be back, as they headed off into the woods with his money and belongings.

“Those hours, Zeide told me, were the most powerful accounting of his soul that he ever experienced. When the robbers returned a few hours later with their leader and his son, he was prepared to meet his Maker. The head robber turned to his son and told him, ‘Today is your birthday; you are thirteen years old. It’s time for you to kill your first Jew,’ and handed him the pistol. Reb Yosef Chayim cried out in his piercing voice, ‘Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad! Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad!’ again and again.

“Sudddenly the robber stepped up close to him and asked him, ‘Do you know who I am?’ Zeide opened his eyes, and looked deeply into the eyes of the man standing before him. Without allowing Zeide to answer, the man turned to his son and told him, ‘Thirteen years ago, you were born on a snowy, dark night. Our home was empty. Without heat and food, we feared for your life. This man gave us enough tasty food for a week, as well as a blanket, coat and other supplies. This man saved your life.’

This man saved your life“Within minutes, Zeide had been untied, and all of his property was returned to him. The head robber even insisted on sending two escorts to accompany him, to see to it that he would arrive safely in Belz.”

“Wow, Abba, what a story!”

“Yeah, I don’t know why I never thought to tell it to you before . . .”

“But Abba, what did you call for?”

“Oh, that’s a good question . . . I’m not remembering at the moment.”

“Okay, so you’ll call back when you do. But if you hadn’t called right now, I might never have heard this story.”

“Then I guess that’s what I called you for, my dear son. Sleep well.”

Editor’s Note: Yosef Chayim was the author’s father’s paternal grandfather. Her father was a young survivor of the Holocaust. Shlomo, who answered the phone in the story, is her brother. The history of this story spans three continents and over a hundred years.