Hy was stationed in Naples shortly after the Nazis had been forced into Northern Italy. He was a T-5 medical technician who worked out of a bombed-out building that had been transformed into a hospital. There were several hundred soldiers and only four medical workers. The hallways were filled with broken bottles and bricks and other detritus of war. There were no dogs or cats because the starving Italians had eaten them, so the rat and mice population had grown exponentially. Hy and the other technicians did their best to keep the conditions sanitary, but the space was often overrun with the rodents who would occasionally feast on the injured men laying in every available nook and cranny of the makeshift hospital.
One of Hy’s best friends in Naples was a Catholic man named Frank Palleto. Frank’s father was sick and Frank wanted to go to the Vatican to pray for his father and hopefully see the Pope. Even though Hy was Jewish he agreed to accompany Frank on the journey north to Vatican City.
The next day they hitched a ride on a cargo plane headed to Rome. Even though most of the Germans had been driven north of Rome, there were still pockets of Nazis capable of blasting the plane from the sky, and Hy and Frank had to pay $1 for parachutes in case the plane was shot down.
The men were overcome with the beauty of Vatican City. Massive Tuscan colonnades, four columns deep, wrapped around the swarms of worshippers like a mother’s arms wrap around her children. The red Egyptian obelisk in the middle of St. Peter’s square seemed to point directly at the hot sun overhead.
“Over there.” Frank said, pointing at a large domed building in the distance. “Maybe the Pope is in there.”
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica brilliant rays of sunshine beamed through the high stained glass windows and sliced into the belly of the dimly lit church. There were a few dozen people milling about when a door on the other side of the church opened and a man wearing a long white robe and a blood-red stole announced that he would serve everyone communion.
“Well it ain’t the pope, but it’ll have to do.” Frank said as he nudged Hy in the ribs and started walking towards the robed man.
“Wait.” Hy said, grabbing Frank’s elbow. “What’s communion?”
“Nothin’ really.” Frank said. “They put a cracker on your tongue, c’mon.”
Hy followed Frank to the line of people waiting for communion.
When Hy arrived at the robed man, he commanded Hy to stick out his tongue.
“Who are you?” Hy asked.
“I’m one of the Vatican Priests.”
“I won’t stick out my tongue for you.”
The Vatican Priest tilted his head. “Why not?”
“I’m of the Jewish faith.” Hy said. “I’m only here because my friend wanted to see the Pope.”
“I see.” The Priest nodded his head slowly. “Regardless of your faith, we are brothers and sisters of God.”
“Brothers and sisters of God.” Hy repeated under his breath. “Tell me, how many Jews have you given communion to?”
The Priest hesitated.
“Don't answer.” Hy said as he started to walk away.
“Stop.” The Priest said. “You are in a war with guns and bombs. In a war where people are getting killed every day. It’s dangerous. This is no time to turn your back on God.”
Hy turned around and walked back to the Priest.
“Stick out your tongue.” The Priest said.
Hy stuck out his tongue and the Priest placed the wafer on his tongue.
“Pray to who you want. It’s not my right to condemn you because you're not Catholic. We all have different ways of praying to God but remember that we are all praying to the same God. We are all one.”
Hy closed his eyes and felt the wafer dissolve on his tongue.
As the war progressed Hy’s division followed the battle line north. Hy saw the war at its worst – even witnessing Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci being hung upside down outside the Piazzale Loreto in Milan. Many soldiers on the front line never made it back, but Hy did. He attributed his survival to a divine protector that looked after him throughout the war.
Hy never forgot what the Vatican Priest had taught him that day: we may all have different faiths, and we may all praise God differently, but we are all worshipping the same God and we are all brothers and sisters of one humanity.
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