Funk on Faith

Sharing a meal with Holocaust survivors

David Lee Preston, left, and Tim Funk, in 2013.
David Lee Preston, left, and Tim Funk, in 2013. Ronda B. Goldfein

Sharing a meal, breaking bread, gathering at table – the world’s major religions figured out centuries ago what a bonding, even transforming, experience it can be.

One of the best examples: Passover (Pesach), which started at sundown Friday (April 3). Jewish families commemorate the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt with Seders, meals in which all the food – from the unleavened bread (matzo) to the bitter herbs (maror) – are symbols of some part of the ancient story.

The arrival of Passover got me thinking about my friend David Lee Preston. We met in journalism school at the University of Missouri. It was 1977, and going away to college had immediately broadened my long-narrow horizons.

I’d grown up in a tribal environment in the northern tip of Kentucky – white, suburban, middle class, Catholic. David was one of the first Jews I’d ever met.

We bonded, mostly over baseball, journalism and the music of Jackson Browne, and we soon ditched the school’s dorms to rent an apartment – my first.

I never attended a Seder with David. But memories of a meal a few years later, in 1980, have stayed with me ever since. I had taken a train to Wilmington, Del., where David worked for the newspaper, to visit him and his girlfriend at the time – and to meet his parents.

I don’t remember everything David’s mother, Halina, cooked, but I do recall that most of it was new to me – including the matzo ball soup.

But the image that I can still see in my mind’s eye is of the outstretched arm of David’s father, George, after I had asked him to pass me a dish.

There it was: the tattooed number he’d received at Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp.

David had told me that his parents were Holocaust survivors. But seeing his father’s number and later hearing his mother tell her story seemed to wake me from some long, deep sleep of isolation. Suddenly, the thing I most wanted in the world was to rid myself of blinders and embrace – and learn from – others whose life experiences were different from mine.

David went on to chronicle his parents’ stories in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Halina Wind Preston had been among 10 Jews in Lwow, Poland, who had survived by hiding in a sewer for 14 months. And George Preston, arrested in France in 1942, had survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald because of his training as an engineer. He was pressed into slave labor for Siemens, the German company, to make dies for German submarines. When the camp was finally liberated by U.S. soldiers, he weighed 80 pounds.

Much of David’s family, including all of his grandparents, were murdered by the Germans and their collaborators.

This week, I called David, now an editor at the Philadelphia Daily News, to talk about Passover. “The Seder was especially meaningful to my family because of my parents’ experience,” said David, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for the article on his father. “For us, it wasn’t something that happened thousands of years ago.”

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