Testimony of Henri Pokrzywa

I was born in Poland in the city of Lodz. My parents were religious, as were most of the Jews of Eastern Europe, whom, alas! Hitler exterminated in the gas chambers and crematoria. Poland being a Roman Catholic country, my opinions about the Founder of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, were influenced by what I had seen there, and by what I had suffered at the hands of those who claimed to be His. For us Jews, they had only hate and contempt, which drove them into pogroms. Such an attitude could not dispose anyone in favour of Jesus. We held Him responsible for all our misfortunes, and we hated Him.

My dear parents died when I was only ten, leaving three children. I was looked after by an aunt. She apprenticed me to a tailor. I experienced hardships. I soon forgot all I had learned concerning religion. My faith in God was engulfed in the miseries of my condition as an orphan. About the age of nineteen I got the idea of leaving Poland. Accompanied by a young friend, we set out at random without passports, which the Poles would not have given to us. The young who had not done their military service were forbidden to leave the country. We went in the direction of Germany. What a journey! We crossed the frontier at night on foot, trembling with fear that we should be arrested by the frontier police, or fall into a river, or meet some other obstacle.

I see now that although at that time I had no thought of Him, God was watching over me. This resolve of two young men to leave the country, even though it entailed such grave risks, was it not a proof of the unhappiness of the Jews in Poland. And we were certainly not the only ones wishing to leave secretly this country where anti-semitism reigned. After ten days we arrived at last in Berlin, happy, and proud of our exploit. But the day after our arrival, the police, coming to arrest a fugitive from justice who was staying at the same place as we, caught us. We were expelled from Germany. But where should we go? Return to Lodz?. There was no question of that. I decided to try again. I wanted to reach Belgium, and from there go on to France.

This time I succeeded, in spite of enormous difficulties. I found myself at last in Paris where I met friends I, had known since childhood. Soon after, I found work at my trade, which made me happy. Alas! my happiness was of short duration. Even before I had had the time to regularise my status as an immigrant at the prefecture, I was sent for by the police. I was given eight days in which to leave France, this country of liberty, which even in such a short time I had learnt to love. What should I do? It was at that time that I took the decision to join the Foreign Legion for five years, and in this way to acquire French nationality, and so later be able to live in the country. A few days later, having signed, I found myself at Sidi-Bel-Abbes in Algeria, a soldier of the First Regiment of the Foreign Legion.

I shall not describe the surroundings in which I had to spend five years of my young manhood. I was forced to realise that it was God Who had led me thus far, for it was in that North African town, where I set up in business after my liberation that I was to find God, the God of my fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was there that I discovered the Bible, the most unique treasure in the world, and Him of Whom it tells, Jesus, our Messiah and Saviour.

I turn to the second part of my story now, and ask you to follow me with patience, because it was after many eventful circumstances that I eventually made this great discovery. After my liberation, I desired to set up home with a wife whom I could love, and who would fill the empty space in my life. It was about that time that I got to know a young lady who belonged, as did her mother, to a community of evangelical Christians. She was very nice, and after a while we found ourselves in love. She invited me to accompany her to the Hall where the believers met several times a week. I agreed, but I resolved in my heart to have nothing to do with this religion which could not be for me, a Jew. Meantime, we decided to get married.

My wife agreed to leave the question of religion outside our married life. In our bliss I was something like Joseph in Egypt, who, after much suffering, at last had rest in a happy home with a good wife, so that he named his firstborn “Manasseh” (which means “forgetting”), for he said “God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.” I also, happy with my faithful wife, forgot my trials and my family at Lodz. Two children were born: a daughter and a son. Everything seemed to be going as we would like. Nevertheless, “The Lord looked down from heaven . . . to see if there were any that . . . did seek God. They are all gone aside” (Psalm 14:2,3). God was looking at us also, and was seeking us.

And so, one day, a man came to visit us in our home, whose name was Rene Block. The name alone was enough to indicate that he was a Jew, like me. But he was an evangelical pastor. Although I was wary of this person who had “changed his religion,” I received him graciously. In the course of conversation, he questioned me much about my family at Lodz, and on what kind of a childhood I had had. As a result the past was awakened for me, and the family ties which I had thought forgotten. Tears came to my eyes. Mr. Block then turned the conversation to the Bible, the history of the Jews, with its predictions of what should happen (and which did happen in due time). All this was new to me, and I desired to know more about this marvellous book which was our heritage.

Mr. Bloch continued to visit me from time to time, and each time the Bible became the centre of our conversation. He spoke to me of the Messianic prophecies, showing me in the Bible that the Messiah had to suffer and die to atone for the sins of the Jewish people. He maintained that these prophecies had been fulfilled, because Jesus of Nazareth was this Man of sorrow and suffering. He had been crucified for our sins. My visitor became even bolder, and urged me to accept this Jesus as Messiah and His sufferings as the sacrifice for my sins.

I revolted at that and said to him: “How can a Jew admit that Jesus is the Messiah since He is responsible for so much suffering to our people, sufferings inflicted on us by those who have followed Him, that is to say, Christians. What did I not suffer at their hands in Poland in my younger days?! No, I cannot admit that you, Mr. Bloch, a Jew who has denied his race by becoming a Christian, should demand the same thing of me. I wish you to leave me alone, and never to return to speak to me of this.” My visitor remained calm and did not appear to be offended by my outburst. I was relieved when he went away at last. To my astonishment, a few weeks later, Mr. Bloch reappeared. He continued to show me that it was according to a plan carefully prepared by God Himself, that the Messiah was to come the first time to die for the sins of the world, and that by that death, followed by resurrection on the third day, men of every race could obtain remission of their sins, and become beings as God planned, created in His Image, for it was written: “So God created man (Adam) in His own Image.” But when Adam and Eve disobeyed, their sin drove them away from their Creator. They and their descendants became the slaves of sin and of the devil. None but the Son of God could ever deliver man from his sad state. I could not help listening. In the depths of my heart I knew that I was a sinner. My whole life had been nothing but an uninterrupted succession of transgressions of the holy commandment of God. But I had never bothered too much about that. Mr. Bloch got me thinking about it. As a result, my attitude towards him relented, and he came to see me more and more frequently.

One day I said to him, more to get rid of him than anything else, “Well, then, what do you want me to do about it?” He replied, “Accept Jesus as your Saviour.” “All right,” I said, “I accept Him.” To my great surprise this good man fell on his knees and thanked God for having shown me the way of salvation trough faith in His Son, Jesus the Messiah. He got up and took his departure very happy indeed. As for me, I remained ashamed because I did not really believe in all that. At the same time my reply to him had surprised even me, and I foresaw certain consequences, as if God might take me at my word. Later a Bible was presented to me, as well as a New Testament in Yiddish which I had set myself to read, curious to know what Jesus had really said.

The Sermon on the Mount left me thoughtful. i It was the quintessence of Jewish ethics. Alas! I was far from such purity of life. Further on in the Gospel of Matthew it is written that Jesus, when He sent out His twelve Apostles, charged them not to go to any but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. That meant that He had come for us, Jews! The more I read this book, the more I discovered that Jesus was not anything like what I had imagined Him to be, and even less like what the Roman Catholics in Poland had represented Him to be. He was gentle, humble, and patient with the most wretched, and with the most worthless. The Jesus of the New Testament was full of love and compassion for the people, for the evildoers, the prostitutes, the tax gatherers (who were despised as being in the hire of the hated oppressors), and the ignorant or uninstructed who were kept at arm’s length by the erudite religious leaders. All these rejects of society found in this Teacher of Galilee a friend full of wisdom and truth. His teaching went straight to the heart.

He stirred the conscience, whilst at the same time comforting, and opening the way of return to God. He healed the sick who were numerous at that time (lepers, paralytics, demoniacs, etc.). All, without exception, could approach Him, and were received with Compassion He put His hands on them, even touching the lepers, and healed them. These persons, in the joy of their deliverance, leapt and praised God. They told what God had done for them through this marvellous Teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. The whole land of Israel was moved. From everywhere the people flocked to see Him, to hear Him, or to be healed. He was the most marvellous Man who had ever appeared in Israel. All the same, for me, many mysteries surrounded His Person and His teaching.

I did not yet understand. If He was the Messiah why did He not drive out the Romans from the country, and establish the Kingdom of Israel? Why did He insist on the Kingdom of God, whereas the Romans only understood the language of armed force? Why did He refer to His death at the hands of His adversaries? This Book interested me more and more. But I could not see in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah whom we were waiting for. I could not understand how a man could be the Son of God. How could His death on the cross remove the sins from my conscience? I often accompanied my wife to the meetings. There we sang beautiful hymns which pleased me very much. But each time the name “Jesus” recurred in them I did not pronounce it. This went on for about two years during which I did not stop reading the New Testament or indeed to study the whole Bible. One day when reading? J the Book of the Prophet Isaiah I found this: “I gave My back to the smiters, and My cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not My face from shame and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).

My mind went back to the story in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin. After having condemned Him to death, we read that they spat in His face, and slapped Him, and struck Him with their fists. The Roman soldiers, in their turn, when Jesus was delivered into their hands to be tortured, stripped Him of His clothes, plaited a crown of thorns and put it on His head, put a reed in His right hand, spat at Him, and, taking the reed, struck Him on the head. After all that, they took Him out and crucified Him.

I compared these passages of the New Testament with those of the Prophet Isaiah, who wrote again in chapter 53: “Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed.” I understood then that Jesus must be the Messiah Who suffered because of our sins. I prayed: “Lord, take away doubt from my heart, remove the veil which still hides You from my eyes.” I felt pain take hold of me at the thought of the sufferings of Him Who was so pure and innocent.

And from my very heart I said: “Yes, Lord, it was for my sins that You suffered on the cross. I praise You and thank You. I want now to be Yours, Lord.” Some time after, Mr. Bloch suggested that I should go with him to Morges, in Switzerland, where a Convention of Evangelical Christians was to be held. I agreed joyfully. It was during this Convention that the veil was finally lifted from my eyes, and I saw clearly that Jesus is our King and Messiah, the Saviour of the World. The Christians there reflected this in their lives. They were real witnesses. It was through them, and the Bible expositions given by the preachers, that I finally took Jesus as my Saviour and Lord. My heart overflowed with love and adoration for my heavenly Redeemer. I returned home a new man. A complete change had taken place in me. All my past life, with its sins and passions had disappeared. An absolute certainty filled my heart: Jesus is the Son of God, Who died on the cross to save me from eternal perdition! A sweet and peaceful joy took possession of me. Words fail me to describe the feeling of happiness at having found the Messiah, of Whom Moses, and the prophets had spoken. I understood then that it was these Christians who had entered into Jewish blessings, and not me who had become a non-Jew.

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