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Poetic Irony and Gifts
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Friday, December 13, 2013
Alf Cengia

Have you ever been haunted by a word? You know, like when you hear a new word, and thereafter you hear it all over the place. How about a book?

Have you ever been haunted by a book you've never actually read?

I was having my weekly breakfast with a neighbor when the conversation drifted to economics. He related how he and his wife had trouble finding a parking spot because so many people were eating out one particular night. We observed that things couldn't really be that bad after all.

Having been through WW II, my parents experienced hard times. They told us their story. I remember when, as a three-year-old in Italy, my mother confided how anxious she was about finding money to pay the rent on our one-room apartment. Dad was working in Australia to get enough money so we could all move there. My mother's admission left an indelible impression on me.

The Cengia family never went hungry, but we were poorer than our friends. My brother and I often covered holes in our shoes with cardboard stuffed in our soles, rather than tell our parents we needed new shoes. We were the last house in the street to get television; we never had clothes other than the obligatory school uniform, and our house never got painted.

However, our parents always managed to put things into perspective for us. We lived far better than my parents had ever known prior to leaving Italy.

The breakfast conversation with my neighbor moved on to talking about a book he'd been reading. It wasn't the first time I'd heard of it, or the first time he'd mentioned it. And my wife had told me about that same book at least a year or so earlier. Furthermore, our other breakfast friend had only just bought it from the second-hand bookstore across the road, and lent it to my neighbor.

It appeared that this book was haunting me. So, I finally gave it my full attention.

A Secret Gift was written by Professor Ted Gup. His mother gave him an old suitcase belonging to his grandfather. It was stuffed with - among other things - plaintive letters of desolation to a mysterious B. Virdot. This led Gup to a remarkable discovery. As an investigative journalist who worked under Bob Woodward, Gup was an ideal person to shed light on the mystery.

As it turns out, B. Virdot was Gup's grandfather.

Just before Christmas in 1933, Sam Stone - using B. Virdot as a pseudonym - placed an anonymous ad in a Canton Ohio newspaper. Virdot invited people to write to him and explain their circumstances. In return, he would send them some money. He wanted to spread a little Christmas cheer in the midst of the depression. The original intention was to give $10 to 75 families but the response was so overwhelming that he ended up giving $5 to 150 people. Gup points out that $5 then was like $100 in 2008.

The people who wrote to the anonymous B. Virdot came from all walks of life; some had even rubbed shoulders with Sam Stone. One recipient was George Monnot who went from a modest bicycle shop to a prosperous Ford Motor Car Dealership, and finally to financial ruin. Yet another was a poor married man on parole who couldn't get a job.

A common thread running through the letters is that people had swallowed their pride to ask for help, when they'd rather work. The depression was a great leveler.

Stone was familiar with the ups and downs of life. He'd once gone to a store to buy his first suit, but when he got home he found that the clerk had placed a brick in the box instead. When he went back to the store the salesmen just ignored him. Gup notes that Sam's idea of vengeance was to live large and well:

"Twenty years after being cheated, he owned a chain of clothing stores that stretched across four states and held a thousand suits."

Yet there was something else about Sam Stone that Gup uncovered, and that roused my interest. He had another, darker secret that centered on the first fifteen years of his life. It turns out that Sam Stone, alias B. Virdot, began life as a "Finkelstein" which means "shining stone". He was a Romanian Jew.

Gup writes about some of the Romanian Jewish experiences that would have shaped a young Sam Finkelstein. At one point he notes:

"For the Finkelstein family, remaining in Dorohoi was not an option. They faced what many Romanians faced - extinction." (Emphasis mine)

He notes that there was a mass exodus of Romanian Jews who fled the country. They became known as Fusgeyers or, "foot-walkers". In thousands they walked across Europe, only to be rejected by one country after another. Gup cites then U.S. Secretary of State John Hay:

"...by the cumulative effect of successive restrictions, the Jews of Romania have become reduced to a state of wretched misery. Shut out from nearly every avenue of self-support which is open to the poor of other lands, and ground down by poverty as the natural result of their discriminatory treatment, they are rendered incapable of lifting themselves from the enforced degradation they endure."

I couldn't help but recall journalist Helen Thomas once telling a reporter that Israelis should leave "Palestine" and go back home to wherever they came from; whether it was Poland, or Germany, or America. Sadly, many people will still agree with her. They assume their position doesn't derive from anti-Semitism. But it too often does.

Gup's book is eloquent, thoughtful and very touching. I would have loved to have met his grandfather. For me there was a touch of poetic irony that a much-maligned Romanian Jew was able to bring such a special Christmas blessing to so many people.

There are also some personal ironies for me associated with this story.

It was a mutual interest in Israel and prophecy that brought my wife and me together. Our union resulted in my relocation to the United States. My passion for Israel and the Jewish story was one reason that Omega Letter founder, Jack Kinsella, offered me this weekly writing opportunity.

When we were looking for a home, my wife was attracted to one particular house because of its delightful library. We bought that house and that library is now my office where I write my weekly columns. In fact, much to my wife's chagrin, I tend to spend far too much time in it.

As strange coincidence would have it my office is also Ted Gup's former library-office!

I am writing this column in the same room that Gup would likely have used to research his Jewish grandfather's story. This is also where I research my articles on the Middle East, Israel and anti-Semitism.

But this is the best part:

My family has also benefited immeasurably from the generosity of a Jew. Countless others have as well. His gift is not offered in secret, or limited to a brief period in time, or numbers of people. It is inexhaustible, it is free and it results in eternal joy.

We're coming into another Christmas. This is a time to reflect on the fact that Christ poured Himself into a man-child so that He could pay the ultimate price as the Son of God, and redeem mankind (John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

All we have to do is believe in Him.

Have a Blessed Christmas!

About Alf Cengia

Last week: A Tale of Two Conferences

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