Friday, June 21, 2013

When Harry Met Gabby

There are some people you meet in life that you will never forget.  A word they said and where you met will always hold a treasured place in your memory.  I knew such a person.  This is his story.

Situated on the central coast of Italy, an hour west of Rome sits a small coastal town that in the latter l970's was a transiting center for Russian Jewish emigrants.  They were legally leaving the Soviet Union and either beginning a new life in the homeland of their heritage, Israel, or temporarily living outside of Rome, awaiting sponsorship from the multitudes of organizations helping Russian Jewish families at that time.  Australia, Canada, and America were destinations opening their doors to the "tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free".

Here on a warm spring day I met Harry.  I am Gabby.  Actually it is "Debby", but for some reason the Russians had a bit of a difficult time saying the "De", so hence, I became "Gabby".  Not a problem, as long as it sounded like it came from an exotic shortened version of Gabriela and not that I had a problem with a running mouth.  Of which I do, but that is beside the point.

Harry was a short, gentle, white-haired grandfatherly man from Odessa, whose name was actually Evgeny.  They all want to "Americanize" their names, so he chose Harry.  Okay for HRH Prince of England, but I would have gone with something different for Evgeny.  Nevertheless, that is what he chose.  He was the kind of old soul you immediately wanted to take home and keep. The grandfather you wanted to take care of and protect from harm.  His wife, on the other hand, looked like a commandant from Siberia.  No smile, untrusting and not at all happy I had come into their lives.  Never mind that I was a full head taller than he and at least 40 years younger.

We met by word-of-mouth advertising for English classes.  Our team was living and serving the local Russian population by teaching English as a second language, preparing them for life in their new land and introducing them to their heritage. We held Bible studies for those who were interested.  But these were a people who, though Jewish, had for the last 70 years been denied knowledge of their background.  We often were met with blank stares when asking them, "Do know who Abraham or Moses are?"  Turn around and ask them about God and the look was one of "you can't be serious?"   We loved these people and decided from day one, to serve them and help in any way we could to prepare them for life ahead.  As far as introducing them to a relationship with Christ, it was a process of acquainting them first with Genesis one and beyond....the very existence of a Creator was foreign to them.  

I met with Harry three times a week, teaching him conversational English, often in his room.  Three to four families would share one apartment, each family occupying one room, with a common kitchen and bath.  Crowded, but they were used to it from their life in Russia.  Trips to the supermarket, clothing and shoe stores, and many a dinner in our home were also the backdrops of our time together.  An older man on Italian streets, not knowing the language, being jostled in the hustle and bustle of Italian life, was a learning experience in itself, not to mention the stress.  But Harry flowed with the best of them and was exuberant and anticipating what lay ahead for his new life.  He was a sponge soaking in everything He could to make it easy for his wife when they arrived in America.  

The day came after about three months, when Harry got word they had a sponsor and were accepted to go to America.  The anxious packing, saying good-bye to their roommates and friends occupied the last days.  A good-bye dinner at our apartment on their final evening in Italy wrapped up these weeks of waiting in Italy for him and his wife.  Over spaghetti, salad and garlic bread, the atmosphere was bittersweet.  Thrilled and nervous as they were heading to their new life, sadness of our time together coming to an end. 

As we said our farewells at the door, his wife hugging me tightly with tears in her eyes, my heart again melted at God's goodness in loving others.  Loving and serving without any expectation.  She had accepted me.  Harry was another emotional scene altogether.  This is the moment I have remembered so vividly the last 34 years since I said good-bye.  Overcome with emotion, he lifted his head and said, "Thank you for being so kind to us.  No one has ever been so kind.  In Russia, we were treated with disrespect because we were Jewish.  We didn't know why.  But you, Americans, treated us like we had one has ever done that.  Thank you."  

As we struggled with our own tears, we replied, "No, it is not because we are Americans."  There were actually Canadians and Australians on our team.  "It is because of God's love.  He sent us here to help you because He loves you.  He goes with you to America.  Remember He loves you."  

They said "Thank you", walked off into the night and flew to New York the next day.  Sadly, I lost track of them after a few years  But Harry is still in my heart.  I have never forgotten him and I know that God watched over Him, revealing His love to Him each day, in the hopes he would recognize that love and respond.


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