Peggy Keener: A boy finds his voice

Published 6:09 pm Friday, April 1, 2022

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Bavaria in 1934 was not only a bad place, but it was also a bad time. This was especially true if you were Jewish as peril was around every corner. In the small village of Furth, Hitler’s gangs of young thugs ruled the streets. Anyone who was a Jew—or even looked like one—was their target.

Heinz was a Jew which made put him in their bull’s-eye. He was only eleven years old.

No doubt about it, Europe was living in the blackest of black days. Yet ironically from that place of creeping horror, a terrified Heinz learned an indelible lesson. Moreover, decades later he would take that stupefying experience and use it to bring light into the world.

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Heinz’s father was a school teacher, as was his father before him. Conscientiously, both men handed down the precepts of Judaism from one generation to the next. And because of the menacing threats that were all around them, they drilled these lessons even more fervently into Heinz’s education.

In every respect, the two men taught him that they were living in a time fraught with danger; a time when even the slightest turn of the head could spell disaster. Manifestly, it was right then and there that the old lessons were more important than ever. Knowing this, Heinz’s parents earnestly taught him all the ancient Jewish traditions. Above all, the most important lesson was that of self-control. Never should Heinz forget it. At all times it was imperative to use restraint because a sudden impulse could be perilous.

Life up until then had been anything but dangerous for the anxious Heinz. His young years were lived in serenity as he was securely swaddled in the cozy cocoon of a loving family. Like many boys, he vastly preferred playing soccer to studying. And he was also a master of mischievousness, dipping pigtails into ink wells whenever he could get away with it. No, Heinz was not a notable student. But, paradoxically, he liked nothing more than to show off when he did know the answers to the teachers’ questions. With the flourish of a polished orator, he would expound his knowledge at great length.

And then one fateful day his world suddenly began to change. Without warning, his father lost his teaching job. There were fewer and fewer soccer games. Heinz was abruptly expelled from school and forced to enroll in an all Jewish institution. Thus, day by day, the once exuberant boy became inexorably vigilant as the streets turned from playgrounds into battlegrounds.

Heinz’s greatest threat were the Hitler Youth gangs that roamed throughout the village. Knowing they spelled danger, Heinz remembered what his father had taught him. Use self control! A sudden impulse could spell disaster. When he would see in the distance a squad of bullies approaching him, he’d cross over to the other side of the street. That is, he crossed over when he was lucky enough to pull it off.

To be sure, he knew full well to never start a fight and equally as important, to never speak up. In spite of this, beatings were usually unavoidable

Then one day in 1934, eleven-year-old Heinz broke his silence. It happened when a particularly mean Hitler bully viciously confronted him. For the first time Heinz talked back. When it was all over, he couldn’t remember what he’d said or how he’d said it, but he did know that he had somehow talked his way out of the predicament. That was when it dawned on him. His words were important. His words had changed everything.

Of course he didn’t know it then, but the boy who on that morning negotiated his way out of a beating learned something that would one day be valuable to all of us.

Fortunately, Heinz’s family escaped from Bavaria just in time and made their way to America. Notwithstanding, even there Heinz was so preconditioned to expect violence that he would cross the street when a group of boys came his way.

He did, however, never forget the day when he had uttered words that smoothed over a near calamity. Even though his teachers had told him that the pen was mightier than the sword, he realized at that moment that the most powerful thing of all was neither the pen nor the sword, but the spoken word. From that time on, he never failed to speak up when necessary.

Fortunately for us, on that fateful day when young Heinz confronted the bully by single handedly negotiating his first peace settlement with words and not fists, he learned the power of his speech. Fortunately for us, he eventually went on to use his voice to help make the world a more peaceful place.

You may be interested in knowing that upon their arrival in New York, Heinz’s family Americanized their Bavarian names. Heinz became Henry Alfred. His last name became Kissinger.