When Ram Oren, the Israeli author likened by much of his country to John Grisham, learned of Michael Stolowitzky’s story, he was faced with a choice: He could turn the tale into a work of fiction, like 17 of his previous 20 books, or treat it as history.
But Oren found the choice surprisingly easy.
“The Oath,” published earlier this summer in Hebrew, and now on the best-seller list in Israel, “is a non-fiction book,” he says from his home in Tel Aviv. “It’s based just on facts — and nothing but facts — and I didn’t have to use my imagination.”
Moreover, once he was finished with the writing, Oren found he had written about a portion of history “that reads like suspense,” the same form that most of his other books have taken. The tale “is so fantastic that it reads easily like a novel.”
The story at the heart of the book is one that Stolowitzky, now 70 and a resident of the Upper East Side, has repeated many times, including his appearances this summer on radio and TV talk shows in Israel.
But telling the story once more, between bites of pasta at a New York diner, he fills in the details with as much gusto as he must have summoned the first time around.
The story for Stolowitzky begins in 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland and the young Michael was only 3. His family was one of the richest in Poland, he said, adding that some called his father “the Rockefeller of Eastern Europe.” They lived in a huge Warsaw mansion, a castle-like structure that now serves as Poland’s Ministry of Agriculture, supported by his father’s businesses: flour mills and the manufacture of railroad ties.
But none of that shielded the family as the Germans took control, Stolowitzky recalled. While on a business trip to France, his father was trapped there and ultimately rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. His mother, meanwhile, fled to Vilna, with Michael, an only child, and the family’s Polish governess, Gertrude Babilinska.
But Stolowitzky’s mother soon suffered a massive stroke from which she knew she would never recover. Fearing for her son’s future, she turned to the governess, pleading with Babilinska not only to save her son but to bring him to Palestine — a mission to which the governess, a devout Catholic, agreed.
“That’s the reason the book is called ‘The Oath’” — or, in Hebrew, “HaShvu’ah” — Stolowitzky explained. “She promised. She said she’s swearing.” And with that vow, he noted, the governess put herself in as much danger as the child she agreed to save. Anyone caught hiding a Jew by the Nazis was subject to immediate execution, as signs at the time warned.
The vow also set into motion a lifelong relationship between the child and his new guardian, who had Michael baptized at a local church and made into an altar boy to hide his background, Stolowitzky said. At the same time, he added quickly, she constantly reminded him of his Jewish identity, making him aware of each Jewish holiday as it was being observed.
To this day, Stolowitzky chuckles at the memory of sprinkling “holy water” on German officers visiting the church, saying, “If only they knew who was spraying them.” His only friends during the war years were, of course, Christian, he said. All the Jewish friends he might have ended up “in the [city’s Jewish] ghetto.”
After the war, the pair spent two years at a displaced-persons camp in Germany — a period that ended in 1947, when members of the Haganah placed both on the Exodus, the ship whose ill-fated voyage to Palestine has entered the annals of history. Originally, Stolowitzky said, the Haganah balked when it came to putting Babilinska on the ship, saying they wanted to reserve every bit of space for Jews. But the governess threatened to inform the press, and the Haganah’s members “changed their minds. She was a very forceful lady, as you can imagine.”
Once aboard the Exodus, Michael, then 11, witnessed the behavior of British authorities, who, at the time, were still enforcing tight restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine. As the ship traveled through the Mediterranean, six British destroyers escorted the boat and British soldiers eventually tried to board it, but many of the 4,500 passengers fought them off.
Ultimately, the British opened fire, killing three Jews and wounding 100 — a battle broadcast throughout the world by the ship’s crew. The crew surrendered only after the British threatened to sink the Exodus, which was finally sent back to Germany, where club-wielding British troops forced the displaced persons off the ship.
Looking back, Stolowitzky said he remembers both the conditions of the voyage — “it felt like a sardine can,” he recalled — and the fighting between passengers and British soldiers. He and Babilinska even took part in the fighting, he said, adding that they threw “cans, potatoes and bottles” at the troops.
Stolowitzky also remembers opening “my blue eyes” as the Exodus stood within sight of Haifa, where residents expressed their solidarity by waving white sheets from their balconies and singing “Hatikvah.” “I never cried during the Holocaust,” he said, but “I cried here, seeing the Promised Land.”
Within a year, shortly before Israel declared its independence in May 1948, the two were back on a boat with 1,000 other Jewish passengers, all posing as American tourists, Stolowitzky said. Wearing “a Hawaiian shirt, white shoes, red pants,” he disembarked in Haifa with other passengers, including Babilinska, but never returned to the ship.
Stolowitzky and Babilinska eventually moved to Jaffa, where Michael grew up. The young man served in the Israel Defense Forces, participating in the Suez campaign in 1957, the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in1973. He moved to the United States in 1977 after landing a job with a large Israeli travel company and winning an assignment in this country.
Since then, Stolowitzky has co-owned one company that organized pilgrimages to the Holy Land for Christian churches; opened another firm that planned tours of the Mediterranean region, including Israel; and developed tours of the Middle East for American Express, which hired him in 1986 and brought him to New York.
Stolowitzky retired in 2002, but he remains a travel consultant for American Express and heads the American Tourism Society, a nonprofit marketing agency. He is also married to a woman he met more than 20 years ago, and has an adult son, from a brief first marriage, who lives in Israel.
Babilinska — the woman he still calls his mother — remained in Israel and died there in 1995, Stolowitzky said. But her spirit lives on in such places as Yad Vashem, which named her a “Righteous Gentile,” and in “Rescuers: Stories of Courage,” a trilogy of films produced for Showtime 10 years ago by Barbra Steisand. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, the film featured Elizabeth Perkins as Babilinska.
Oren’s book also pays tribute to Babilinska, said the author, who sees the relationship between her and the child as “the most gripping part of the story. She was Catholic — she wasn’t Jewish — and she risked her life for him every day,” Oren said.
Despite his childhood ordeal, Stolowitzky is an energetic, upbeat man, described in the book’s introduction as warm and full of life.
“When you experience a childhood like mine, you have to make a decision,” he said. “Are you going to live in the past, or are you going to use the past to strengthen your future?” It’s clear which route Stolowitzky chose, especially when he says that he enjoys life “to the fullest” and loves people.
Although not strictly religious, he prays every day and is certain that Babilinska — “my mother” — is also his “guardian angel.” His sense is that Babilinska based her actions on her devout Catholicism, believing “that that was why she was put on earth,” Stolowitzky said. “The question facing everybody is whether we, being in her shoes, would do the same thing.”