Thomas F. O'Neill
A Labor Of Love
In 1908 in a small village in Poland a child was born. How the child entered the world was no different than any other child’s arrival. He grew older but showed no exceptional gifts or qualities. He was simply a normal boy who enjoyed playing games with other children. But in his Mother’s eye he was exceptional and special.
She wasted no time in letting her son know just how special he was to her. In her mind and heart he was not like other children. “You are destined for something, something great,” she would tell her son.
When her son was born he was given the nickname ‘Staush’ by his Father and the name stuck with him throughout his life. It was an affectionate name that reminded him of the love his parents had for him.
On Christmas morning when he was seven year's old his mother gave him a painting. It was a painting of a beautiful female Angel with deep blue eyes and a gentle angelic face. “This is the Angel that is watching over you,” his Mother told him, “the Angel is watching over you because you have a special mission in life. You only have to believe in your Angel and everything will be alright.” He believed his mother because he had no reason to doubt her.
He also had fond memories of his Father taking him fishing.
“You catch more fish than me,” his father said to him, “why is that?”
“Don’t know,” he replied.
“The fish must like you,” his father said. His father always returned the fish he caught to the water.
“Why do you put the fish back,” he asked his father.
“Because I like the Fish,” came the reply.
He often told the story of how his world changed when he was nine years old. It changed tragically for him and his Mother. It was due to his father’s unexpected death. “His heart,” said the Doctor in Polish to his distraught Mother as she wept and sobbed, “no one knew about his heart,” the doctor said to her once again.
His father was laid out in their living room and he can remember the villagers coming to their home with food. “He was a good man,” said the Priest as he placed his hand on the dead man’s head. The Priest’s tone of voice lacked the sincerity that was needed to console his Mother’s grief.
He never forgot his Father’s burial and the amount of people that came to the cemetery because they too loved his father. His Mother’s brother stood next to them as his Father’s casket was lowered into the ground. His Uncle stayed with them for a few months. He helped his sister convert the front part of their home into a bakery shop.
“I wish my Father was here to see what we did to the house,” he told his uncle, “why did he have to die?”
“His heart had so much love that it put a strain on his physical heart,” his uncle told him, “he loved immensely and that love is always with you. Your Father will always be with you - in spirit. When you talk to him he will hear you.” As a young child he accepted his uncle’s explanation; after all the doctor told them it was his father's heart that stopped beating.
His mother baked and sold various pastries and bread to the villagers. His uncle attracted people to the shop by playing a small mandolin and singing songs. Staush was fascinated by his uncle’s talent and beautiful voice. His uncle eventually taught him the same songs and how to play the mandolin.
One night his Uncle came to him letting him know that he had to return to his own home. “I will be back to visit my favorite Nephew,” he told him. Before his uncle left he placed the mandolin on their kitchen table.
“Did he leave it for me,” Staush asked his Mother excitedly.
“I suppose so,” said his Mother, “he must love you very much because you know how your uncle loves that mandolin.”
The bakery shop paid off, sustaining them financially. As his Mother baked throughout the day she listened to her son play the Mandolin to his heart’s content. He also sang the songs his uncle had taught him.
He took his time as a child learning the Baker’s trade and the art of entertaining customers. This period in their life was short lived though, because when he was eleven years old a flu epidemic hit Poland. He watched his Mother lying in bed pale and weak.
“Don’t die, momma,” he said to her in polish, “I don’t want to be left here alone.”
“You are never alone, Staush.”
“Please don’t go,” he said with tears rolling down his face.
“There is an angel watching over you,” she told him once again in a weak frail voice, “you are a great person destined for great things. You just have to believe in your angel and everything will be all right.”
“I don’t want to be here alone,” he repeated.
“Trust and believe what I tell you,” she told him slowly, “great things will become of you." She held his hand, “You will never be alone,” she said in a slow whisper, “Your Angel and I will always watch over you.”
He laid his head down on his Mother’s chest as he wept. He felt the life within slowly leave her body. He cried until he could cry no more. The pain of his Mother’s passing consumed him. He was now an orphan and he was sent where orphans are sent.
The orphanage was very large and old and the building housed approximately four hundred children. It was located on a large hill approximately a mile from where he once lived with his parents. There was a section for boys and a section for girls and they slept in large dormitories. The only time the boys and girls commingled was during their meals in three large eating areas on the ground floor. During the day they went to school on the second floor where they learned to read and write. The girls stayed with the girls and the boys stayed with the boys.
The orphans were also assigned chores and Staush was assigned to the kitchen. “What are you doing?” the cook asked him as he smacked him in the back of the head.
“I am spicing up the food,” he said, “it tastes like dry wood.”
“So you are a food critic,” the cook asked, “I cook for over four hundred people, little people, with no homes, no families. This is no restaurant and I am no chef.”
“Well, that doesn’t mean you can’t spice the food up a bit.”
“What do you know about spices and cooking? You homeless child,” the cook asked.
“I wasn’t always homeless, my Mother and I owned a bakery, before she died.”
“Well then show me how you can cook for four hundred people and still find the time to spice up the food.”
So each day Staush went to work and the food never tasted better. In the evening he played his mandolin and sang songs. The girls heard his voice through the dorm's open windows and many of them assumed they were listening to a phonograph record playing in one of the boy’s dorms.
The more he played his mandolin the better he got and the more he sang his songs the better his voice got. To keep his mind occupied, he wrote down some words that sounded good with his improvised mandolin chords, without realizing, he was writing new and original songs.
He also read books at night and he found that he enjoyed reading. But something was lacking in his life. He was lonely; he felt as if he was all alone and unloved. He felt forgotten by the people in his village.
At times he was picked on, and bullied by the older kids. He was just unhappy and depressed most of the time. He missed his mother and father. He missed his village where he grew up and the happy times he had working in the Bakery Shop. He kept a small black and white photograph of his parents. In the photo his Mother was holding him when he was just a baby. He kept the photo under his pillow at night to keep them close.
In his melancholy nights when he felt alone and depressed, he would be reminded by his Mother's memory that there was a special Angel watching over him guiding him along in life. The thought of that Angel gave him the strength to continue with the hope of a better future filled with love and companionship.
He was surprised one afternoon when his Uncle returned. It was shortly after he turned thirteen. “I kept your Mandolin,” he told his Uncle.
“That is your Mandolin,” his Uncle replied, “you play it much better than me.
His Uncle took his favorite nephew back home to the Bakery Shop and they made a fresh start at their business. Once again they were successful and Staush to his delight enjoyed entertaining the customers. He seemed happy most of the time but he never forgot his experiences at the orphanage.
At the age of twenty five he began to market his success and he eventually owned five other bakery shops in the surrounding villages. He hired others to run them but he visited the Shops often. He made sure that the products are baked and sold to his specifications so that the quality would never be lost.
“So what is your secret, Staush?” A female customer asked, “why is it that everything you bake tastes better than what the other shops bake? What is your secret recipe?”
“I have no secret recipes,” he said, “everything I bake is a labor of love. I put in a dash of this and a dash of that. I just whip them together as I go along. The things I bake are guided along with the ingredients. I just add the ingredients at the appropriate time.”
“Well you have to have some kind of recipe,” she said.
“I follow my gut and heart when I bake,” he said, “no secret recipes needed, and besides I never wrote anything down. I just add what needs to be added at the right time in my baking process. It is simply my labor of love. It is my way of reaching out and connecting with my customers. When my customers are happy I am happy.”
“Well I am a happy customer, Staush,” she said, “I don’t know what your secret is but I will keep coming back.”
“My secret is this,” he said, “I don’t rush the baking process. I take my good old time. I make sure what I bake is just right because it is my labor of love,” he said once again, “I give a part of myself to my customers when I bake for them.”
When he was at the age of twenty seven he looked at the abundance he had gained in life through his success as a baker. But something was still lacking in his life. He found himself thinking, more and more, about his experiences at the orphanage -- that lonely place. He was constantly being reminded about the unhappiness he felt there.
“The children,” he thought to himself, “the ones who are living at the orphanage now; perhaps I could make their lives a little better.”
He knew he could not change his past but perhaps there is a way he could make the children’s lives a little better. Baking, playing the mandolin, and singing were his ways of reaching out and connecting with others.
“I will share my gifts and talents,” he said out loud as he was making a loaf of bread for a special order, “with the children,” he said once again.
He hired more bakers’ helpers and they baked throughout the night. Very early in the morning they loaded the horse drawn carriages from his five bakeries with small loaves of bread. They then delivered the bread through the orphanage’s back kitchen entrance. They placed the small loaves of bread next to the children’s beds as they slept.
He continued this routine every night. He also would stop by the orphanage in the late afternoon or early evening and play the mandolin for them and sing them songs. The children grew to love Staush as he entertained them and baked for them.
He told them stories that reminded them of how special they are and how an Angel is watching over them. “The Angel,” he said, “is placing small loaves of bread next to your beds at night. She does this so that you never go hungry because you all have a very special mission in life.”
“An Angel,” said a supprised little girl.
“Yes,” said Staush, “a very special Angel. You are all loved and carried for. You only have to believe in your Angel and everything will be alright.”
The children looked forward to his daily visits and Staush grew more and more attached to the Children. He told them stories that made them laugh and smile. He wrote songs that corresponded with stories he told and the children loved singing along with him. Their faces would beam and light up every time he entered a room. They would then run up to him so they could be close to him. The children pulled on his heart strings and he loved them.
When Staush reached the age of thirty one, the Nazis invaded Poland and the Village where he was living became occupied by German solders. Many high ranking Nazi officers took over people's homes. Staush was forced to bake and cook for the German Solders.
In December of 1940, he learned that the Nazi Hierarchy was going to move the Children from the orphanage and take over their building. But he was unable to learn where the children were going. He did not trust the Nazis and he knew in his gut that the children would most likely be abused or killed outright and he could not let that happen.
He went door to door and talked to everyone he met. He told them about the fate of the children.
“What can I possibly do?” said an elderly gentleman, “I am a poor man with very little means to support myself, let alone a child.”
“All the child needs right now is a roof over its head,” Staush told him, “right now your decision will determine whether a child lives or dies.”
The old gentleman stared at him, “and if this child is caught in my home, what is to become of me?” he asked Staush.
“You lived your life, old man, let this child have a chance at life,” he told him.
“I suppose I could give him chores to do around the property,” he said to Staush.
He jotted down names and addresses as he spoke to various people as if taking bakery orders. “If you get caught,” his Uncle told him, “the Nazis will kill you.”
“This is something I have to do, Uncle,” Staush said, “I could never live with myself knowing I sat by and did nothing to help them.”
On Christmas Eve horse drawn Carriages from all five bakeries pulled up to the orphanage’s back kitchen entrance. They began secretly putting the children in the carriages and covered them up with canopies. They made ten trips that evening dropping children off at various homes throughout the surrounding villages. Some families took in more than one child.
He and his baker’s helpers had many close calls that night with the Nazi patrols. “Let me see your papers” said the Nazi patrol officer in German but Staush nor his helper could speak a word of German. They just routinely handed over their papers that provided the Nazis with their name, address, and occupation. Staush then handed the two German officers two small loaves of bread. He told them in Polish with a big happy smile on his face, “shove this where the sun don’t shine,” the two German solders not understanding a word of Polish graciously took the bread from his hand. They went through that routine more than once that Christmas Eve and by early Christmas morning every child had a new home and a family to watch over them.
It wasn’t long before the Nazis discovered that Staush and seven cohorts were behind the disappearance of four hundred children. They were quickly arrested and placed in a concentration camp. The only thing that saved their lives was their trade, but their baking skills were never utilized.
He soon realized that his fate was most likely to die in that camp. The winters were brutal due to the bunks being unheated. The food rations were meager, a little water and some bread in the morning and that was it. The prisoners would pull the clothes off of dead bodies to give themselves extra layers to stay warm.
It wasn’t long before Staush’s well nourished frame looked like that of the other prisoners--the skin and bones of the malnourished, the living skeletons, the walking dead.
He soon discovered that some of the male prisoners would crawl under the bunkhouses towards the women’s bunks and lay with the woman at night. They did this in order to share the warmth of their body heat. One night he followed their lead and he too crawled into a woman’s bunk bed. When the sun rose in the morning he gazed at the woman’s face and into her eyes. Her face took on the characteristics of the painting that his mother gave him when he was a child. She had the same deep blue eyes of the Angel in the painting and a gentle angelic face. Every night he laid with her, “we are going to live,” he said, “we will not die here.”
That woman gave him the will and purpose to live. “What is the purpose of all this,” she asked him.
“Sometime my Angel plays hide and seek,” he said, “when I think I am all alone in the world others come into my life. My Angel guides them, like you. She brings them into my life. We need each other now and we will live, because goodness always triumphs over evil.”
One summer he noticed a young boy coming towards his bunkhouse. He quickly realized that it was one of the boys that he helped escape from the orphanage. He learned that the young boy was taken in by a Jewish family and being mistaken for a Jew he shared his adopted family’s fate. The young boy found some comfort though when he discovered that Staush would be there with him.
“Don’t worry,” he said to the boy, “we will get through this.”
“I know,” the boy said.
He tried to find the strength and the will to help the boy by engaging him in conversation. Staush’s health was failing though; he was frail and weak. Each day more and more people would die in the camp from hunger and starvation. He was too weak to leave his bunk bed and one morning he heard the voice of the young boy speaking to him up close in his ear. “Staush,” the young boy said.
He slowly opened his eyes and saw a small piece of bread next to his bed. “An Angel placed it here because she wants you to live,” the young boy said with tears rolling down his face, “you have to complete your important mission in life,” said the boy as he handed him the piece of bread. Slowly Staush ate it and drank a little water.
He lived to see Poland liberated from the Nazis by the Russian troops. The Russians released the prisoners and he and his young friend survived. The woman who shared her body heat during those brutal winter months also survived the inhumanity. The woman with the deep blue eyes and the Angelic face soon became his wife. He adopted the young boy from the camp and gave him a home.
The Russians, after the war, took over Poland and their country became part of the Soviet Union. The soviets had a brutal side to them as well. Life at the hands of the soviets was both cruel and harsh. But Staush went on baking well into his eighties. He and his wife had four children after the war. His granddaughter is now running the Bakery Shops.
He lived to see the fall of the Soviet Union and when he was eighty two years old, an unexpected visitor came to the Bakery Shop. That unexpected visitor was Poland’s Prime Minister. He came to let Staush and his family know that their Government was converting the Old Orphanage into a School for the performing arts and the School was going to be named after ‘Staush’ the Baker.
“That is nice I can play my mandolin and sing there once again,” he told the Prime Minister, “I would like to perform there for the students and tell them about how the Angel helped me and the children during the war. My wife and my adopted son also survived the war.”
Shortly after the school opened he played his mandolin and sang a few songs for the students. While he was performing another unexpected visitor came to the school. That unexpected visitor was the Polish Pope, John Paul II. While the Pope was looking over the school one of the students had the painting that was given to Staush by his Mother. The painting of the Angel was placed on the wall in the school’s Dining area. The student also placed a picture of Staush with Poland’s Prime Minister on the wall near the school’s main entrance.
“Well,” Staush said to the young student, “we are going to have to find a place to put a picture of me with the Pope.”
“I don’t think that will be a problem,” the young student said, as the sound of camera shutters and flashing camera lights went off around them.
“I wish there was a way I could get a picture of me with my special Angel,” Staush said to the Pope.
“That would be nice,” the Pope said to him in Polish, “from what I hear you have a remarkable way with children.”
“Well, when you enjoy the company of others, others enjoy your company,” Staush said, “it’s not rocket science or theology. It is merely being completely there for them.”
“You would have made a great Priest,” the Pope said
“I think my wife would disagree,” he said, “you are a great man and a great Pope. But I am not a religious man. I have a deep spirituality and I do my best to let it guide me. My Mother when she was alive told me it is an Angel watching over me and to this day I believe her. My mission in life was helping the children and I am still being guided along on my life’s mission.”
“I wish my Priests had that same faith and certitude that you have,” the Pope said, “we would have a much stronger church.”
“I believe my life’s mission is simply to love and to be loved,” said Staush.
“I too believe that,” the Pope said to him, “and from what I see, you are truly loved.”
“Angels at times will help us along by guiding others toward us,” Staush said, “they guide others toward us because we are sharing the same path in life. We are never alone in the world; we may feel alone at times. We may feel as if we came into the world set apart from others but humanity is intimately part of us. In times of need humanity becomes our greatest resource. If we could just accept the fact that we are all here for one simple reason and that is to love and to be loved the world would be a much better place.”
“Yes it would be a better place,” the Pope said, “and from what I see here, you are helping your corner of the world become a better place.”
“I met my wife in great time of need,” he told the Pope, “without her I never would have survived the concentration camp. My adopted son came to me in great time of need as well and without him I would have died in that camp. I believe an Angel put them on my path so that we can share that path in life, so that we could be there, completely there, for each other.”
“You are a good and kind man,” the Pope said, “you are also a man of great faith. The students are blessed for being in a school that is named after you. They are especially blessed for having met you in person. I am glad I met you as well.”
He lived to be eighty nine years old and toward the end of his life, he became frail in body but he was still strong in mind and spirit. His eyesight and hearing began to fail him but he was still able to play his mandolin and sing his songs. But most of all he maintained a great love and affection for his, family, community, and the students at the school.
His Mother was correct when she told him that he was destined for great things because his destiny was rooted in his kind actions. He also overcame the obstacles in life by simply believing that a special Angel was watching over him. She guided him along so that, “I could complete my life’s mission which is to love and to be loved.”
He could not believe the attention and the affection that was shown towards him in his old age. “We all have the capacity,” he said to the students, “to do the right thing when the right thing needs to be done. Draw on what you know in your heart to be true, at that spontaneous moment in time. When the right thing is called upon, follow through with it, simply do it.”
“Why couldn’t the Nazis do that?” a young girl asked him.
“The Nazis, believe it or not,” he said, “had in their hearts compassion, love, and kindness, but they ignored their heart and soul. They suppressed their own humanity but now we can learn from their inhumanity and their atrocities. We now know what not to do and we must never allow such atrocities to occur again.”
“Why is it that you survived and so many others died?” another female student asked him, “was it an Angel? If it was, why then didn’t the Angel save the others as well?”
“I don’t have those answers,” he said, “for me I simply followed my instinct, my intuition, the small still whisper within. I was guided along on my life’s path.”
“Why you?” a male student asked, “what did you have that caused you to overcome and survive?”
“Why there wasn’t more survivors,” he said, “I do not know, and that has bothered me for many years. Perhaps it was the Angel my Mother spoke of in my childhood that helped me. But for those of you who do not believe in angels, the capacity for kindness, compassion, and love is an integral part of our humanity.”
“A lot of good and caring people died,” a young female student said.
“Yes I know,” he said, “perhaps, I survived because I reached out to others and others reached out to me. In the end the inhumanity surrendered to our humanity.”
“Do you believe in survival of the fittest?” a female student asked.
“Yes of course I do,” he said, “we see it in nature and we see it around us. But the Nazis took that theory to an extreme. We must always come to an understanding that our humanity is an intimate part of who we are as human beings. Throughout history there have been madness and insane regimes that terrorized good and innocent people. But in the end our humanity and goodness triumphs over evil. Perhaps that knowledge and understanding helped me overcome the nightmare.”
“So you were more fit psychologically,” the young female student asked.
“Well, let me put it this way,” he said to the students, “I knew the Nazi regime would soon come to an end. It had to come to an end, because throughout history the tyrants are destroyed. They are destroyed because they are tyrants. They are internally weak, unstable, and they crumble in the end. Our capacity to love, care, and our ability to reach out to those of the least influence is what keeps humanity strong. That is why I believe in survival of the fittest. My wife and adopted son who I met in the concentration camp also gave me the will to survive. I had something to hope for but most of all to live for.”
“You are a great man,” said a young girl.
“We are all great in our own way,” he told her, “you just have to believe in your greatness and live up to what you know in your heart to be true.”
“Play your Mandolin,” said a little girl as she placed her arms on his lap.
The music filled the room as the students smiled and sang along with him. Every Wednesday up to his eighty ninth year he met with the students to play his mandolin, sing his songs, and tell his stories. He enjoyed their company and in turn they looked forward to his company.
He cherished the attention and affection that the students, his family, and the community had shown towards him. He returned that affection in greater fold. The reason being as he eloquently told the Pope, “my mission in life is simply to love and to be loved.”
Thomas F. O’Neill
Other articles, short stories, and commentaries by Thomas F. O'Neill can be found at the links below.
Click on author's byline for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.