In Honor of An Act of Kindness

I first met Papa Hirst in the 1960s, during an opera intermission. He was 90 then. And he was known in certain Chicago circles for his newly established enterprise. He had founded a business for the 70-and-older set.

Chatting while they worked, his employees made fancy bows that were in high demand during gift-giving seasons. Before long, Papa Hirst became a family friend. There were outings together, exchanges of dinners, and always conversation at opera intermissions.

One Saturday evening, Papa Hirst looked particularly dapper in honor of a Wagnerian offering. His shirt was starched to board stiffness, his hair was wispy and white, and a star sapphire glowed on his finger. When the ring caused comment, Papa Hirst smiled. He had kept it as a momento, he said, lest he forget. Then, prompted by listeners, he recounted this story - a random act of kindness from his past.

It was the late 1930s in Berlin. Like other Jews in Nazi Germany, Papa Hirst wore the yellow Star of David on his lapel, sat on yellow benches in the park, and had witnessed the smashing of shop and synagogue windows on the Kristallnacht.

A few of his friends had bought their way to freedom. But the Hirsts had no such funds.

One bleak afternoon, Papa Hirst was riding home on a bus. A German woman, blonde and pale, the prototype of Hitler's mythical race, sat down beside him.

As they traveled in silence, the woman's hand reached into Papa Hirst's overcoat pocket. He didn't complain or even cringe.

Instead, he stared straight ahead. After all, he was a Jew. She was a German. Protest was pointless; he had learned that. He was simply grateful that he carried only a handkerchief in his overcoat pocket, so there was little to steal.

When the woman rose to leave, she whispered in his ear, her exact words long lost to the years, but their message still true and intact: ``My husband is a jeweler. We know what's happening to your people. And we don't know what to do. So I ride the buses. I seek you out. You and others. Take our gift and leave.''

With that, she was gone.

At home, Papa Hirst dared to empty his pocket. It held a cache of jewels, some in settings, some not. With this treasure, he and his family bought their way out of Germany, eventually settling in Chicago.

Papa Hirst ended his tale with an explanation. The sapphire, he said, seemed a fitting momento: It cradled a star.

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