An insight emerged for me in writing Unstoppable, the biography of Holocaust survivor Siggi Wilzig: sometimes we travel very far to find the greatest treasures, which were always close to home. Siggi, like many who came out of that dark time, traveled far from his roots in prewar Europe. In America he found a way, through hard work and dedication to Judaism, to help restore what had been lost: the treasure that had been the Jewish community.
Here is a story that underlines that message. Most storytelling traditions have a version of “The Treasure.” My favorite is the children’s book version written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz, born in 1935 in Warsaw, Poland. During the bombing of Warsaw in 1939, he and his family fled to Paris and then moved to Israel, where in 1956 Shulevitz joined the Israeli Army. In 1959, he relocated to New York City, began his artistic career, and became a four-time recipient of the Caldecott Medal, the equivalent of the Pulitzer for children’s books. Here is this ubiquitous tale, retold by me, and inspired by Shulevitz’s version first published in 1978.
There once was a man named Isaac, who lived in the small Polish town of Brody. He was so poor that he usually went hungry, but he was a good man and always shared what little he had with others in need. One night he had a dream. A voice told Isaac to go the capital city and look for a treasure under the bridge by the royal palace. On waking, he told himself, “It was only a dream,” and he paid no attention to it.
But the dream returned a second time, then a third. Finally, he thought, “Maybe it’s true.” He packed a small cloth bundle with whatever scraps of bread he found in his larder, doused the flames in his rusty stove, and set out. Sometimes he got a ride in a farmer’s wagon, but most of the time he walked, through forests and across mountains, and at last he reached the capital city.
When he came to the bridge by the royal palace, he had no idea what to do. He saw the bridge was guarded day and night, so he did not dare draw attention by searching, but still he returned every day and wandered back and forth across the bridge until dark.
One day the guard stopped Isaac and asked, “Old man, what are you doing?”
“I come from Brody,” Isaac explained, “and I had a dream, many times, that if I came here I’d find a treasure.” The captain slapped his knees and laughed loudly.
“What a dunce you are,” he scolded, “chasing after dreams. I’ve had dreams, but I’m not so foolish as you. If I believed my dreams, I’d be on my way to your town. Yes! That was my stupid dream. And I’d be digging for a treasure under the stove in the house of a fellow named Isaac. Can you imagine? Why waste my time?”
The guard laughed again at the folly of a dreamer like Isaac.
Isaac smiled, bowed to the guard, and started for home. He crossed mountains and forests and at last reached Brody. He took a shovel from its place by his empty larder, pushed aside his rusty stove, and dug. There, beneath the stove, he found a box. In the box was an enormous treasure of jewels and gold.
In thanks, Isaac built a house of prayer, and in one corner he put an inscription: Sometimes one must travel far to discover what is near.
Isaac sent the captain of the guards a precious ruby. And for the rest of his days, Isaac lived in contentment and was as generous in wealth as he had been in poverty.
Joshua M. Greene earned his degrees in religious studies from Hofstra University. His book Unstoppable: Siggi B. Wilzig’s Astonishing Journey from Auschwitz Survivor and Penniless Immigrant to Wall Street Legend will be distributed in April by Simon & Schuster.