The first time I saw the actor, Robert Rietti in person, I was enchanted by his gentle manner, mellifluous speaking voice – and how he quoted one of my favourite Biblical passages by rote.
But when I heard him recite it again some years later, I realised that King David’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan in battle is also among his favourite ‘party pieces’.
No wonder. Rietti is a deeply pious Jew of Anglo-Italian stock who boasts Queen Victoria’s Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli among his distant forebears and another ancestor who was physician to a pope.
Continuing the family tradition, Rietti has himself enjoyed a distinguished career straddling film, theatre and radio. He is also a writer whose works include translations of famous Italian works into English and two endearingly sweet books of true stories and homilies.
The first, Look Up and Dream, is a collection of miscellaneous tales of general Jewish interest but in the second, A Rose for Reuben, the tales are specifically about the Holocaust or relate to it.
This short book is suffused with stories of courage and self-sacrifice on almost every page while many more are about survival against amazing odds. All are acceptable as pious homilies but some are so fantastical as to strain credibility to breaking-point.
There are also some which under normal circumstances would be laugh-out-loud funny, like that which could have inspired the British 1960s movie, Whistle Down The Wind.
Older readers will recall that the film starred the child actress Hayley Mills while the screenplay was adapted by the journalist Keith Waterhouse from a story by Mills’s mother, Mary Hayley Bell.
A Film4 review I found of the movie could well do for Rietti’s The Lord’s Visit as the plots bear an uncanny similarity:
“It’s neither a character study nor a coming-of-age tale. Rather it’s a sort of parable about the power and limits of religious faith … The story centres on three rural Lancashire kids who find a mysterious stranger (Alan Bates) asleep in their barn.
“The eldest (Hayley Mills), asks him who he is. His first words to her – “Jesus Christ!” – are misunderstood and Mills becomes convinced that the man, a murderer on the run from the police, is the Messiah. Slowly she weaves an entire mythology around him until all he says and does is loaded with religious significance …”
So it is with the Rietti’s possibly true Holocaust tale where a 16-year-old Lithuanian, Zvi Michalowsky escapes being murdered by the Nazis by feigning death during a shooting rampage. Later, naked and bleeding, he manages to crawl to the home of an old Christian peasant woman whom he had helped before the war and begs for shelter. At first she refuses but he says:
“’I am the Lord, Jesus Christ. Your saviour. I have come down from the cross. Look at me – the blood, the suffering of the innocent, the pain I suffered to offer you salvation! Don’t you recognise me?’”
The ignorant but deeply devout woman believes his story, falls to the ground and kisses his feet. Zvi then promises to bless her and her family so long as she does not reveal his visit to anyone for three days and nights. She agrees, washes, feeds and clothes him – so allowing him to disappear into the nearby forests looking like a local gentile farmer. There he meets other Jews in hiding and helps to establish the nascent partisan movement.
Thus the mighty fall and the humble rise – but simple stories like those Rietti has collected will endure because the Holocaust and similar genocides affect not only those directly involved but their descendants for a hundred subsequent generations.