Too often in life, extraordinary people pass away and leave a legacy behind worthy of the world’s notice but never receive it. They lived lives that many of us could only dream of, lives that are so rich in history and experience that they are what good books is made of. Pain, sorrow, anguish all mixed together with joy and happiness—that is what makes for an extraordinary life.
Mr. Alex Kiss was this kind of man. He died over the weekend in White House, Tennessee—a tiny little town nestled among beautiful hills that serve as footnotes of time and mystery. He was just a boy in Hungary when the dawn of World War II threatened to change his life forever. When Hitler rounded up young men to serve in the Nazi Youth, Mr. Kiss and his best friend were among them. Thus began his legacy…
I cannot imagine being swept into a movement anything like the Nazi Youth. When I was a child, life was more carefree than what should have been allowed. But to be forced to learn to hate and fight in the way that the Nazis did…is unthinkable. Mr. Kiss and his best friend were handed a gun and a uniform. They were sent out on patrols that I imagine started out innocent enough. The grown men probably offered them their first cigarette on a blistery dark night as they stood nervously clinging to their guns. They would have learned how to use swear words correctly in the rough and tumble military world they were falling into. The hate was all around them. The Jews were bad. They were the root of all evil, the cause of all the world’s problems. They must be held at bay. They must be killed.
I cannot imagine…
Alex Kiss saw hate in its raw form: unadulterated, unleashed, unrestrained and ugly. Eventually, the thin veil fell away and revealed the true intent of what the Nazi Youth was being trained to do. They were to kill—murder their fellow citizens.
Alex was only a boy when he witnessed what the heart of man was capable of. Being drug from their homes, Jewish men were stripped of their clothes in the town square for all to see. In the frigid temperatures, buckets of water were poured over their heads. Some passerby’s mocked the men and ridiculed them. Others tried not to hear the blood-chilling cries of the wife who begged the Nazis to stop only to be silenced by the slap of a hand or crushed by the butt of a rifle. Children cowered, much like Alex Kiss did—confused and afraid of what was happening before their eyes. The nightmare was only finished when the poor Jewish man froze to death, naked, exposed and left lying in the town square.
“Sich in Reih und Glied aufstellen!”
I cannot imagine what must have raced through Alex’s mind as he and his best friend held innocent Jews by gunpoint. His heart must have raced, afraid of what would happen next as Jewish men, women, and even children were lined up along a river. I am sure he stared into the eyes of a boy just like him—eyes wide with fear—heart pounding like mad.
When the shots were fired, he flinched. The echo shook the earth and birds exploded from the trees. The world slowed and spun around him as the bodies fell lifeless into the water. Rich, velvety blood was caught up in the rushing ripples that washed over the dead. Tears hung from his lashes as Alex’s breath caught in his throat. What kind of world had he been born into?
It was during the night that he and his best friend decided that they had to escape. They would not become monsters. They refused to kill innocent men and women. They could not watch another child be killed ever again. But it was risky. Anyone caught fleeing would be shot on sight.
“We’ll run.” His friend’s voice was hushed, his eyes serious. “We’ll run and never stop…never look back. Do you hear me?” Alex barely nodded. “If we hear gunshots, we won’t stop. No matter what, Alex, don’t stop!”
It was a dark night with pristine snow casting an eerie look over the land. The men were on patrol when Alex and his friend slipped away. Taking a deep breath, they stared ahead, looked one last time in each other’s eyes where a silent pact shone…
…And then they ran.
The German shouts only made Alex’s legs pump harder, his heart racing. “Keep running!” His friend commanded…
…And then the shots rang out.
Alex flinched, heard a hollow thud in the snow behind him, but he never stopped running. Silent tears slid down his cheeks. His best friend, his co-conspirator in boyhood mischief…was gone.
Over the last many years, Mr. Alex Kiss was just an old Hungarian man to most people in White House, Tennessee. He was a nice man that made friends easily. A member of the White House Methodist Church, he would often visit the church office during the week. This was where he waited for his wife to pick him up for Chemo treatments. He was dying of cancer, but no one would have known it by the life that radiated from him.
He came to the church office to sit a while and talk about nothing in particular with the pretty lady that worked there. She happens to be my Aunt. If you knew her, you would understand why it was the place Alex would want to be before the dreaded Chemo. My Aunt is vivacious, to say the least. She’s easy to talk to, and when you spend time with her, the world doesn’t seem so serious.
On one of these visits, my Aunt’s eight-year-old son happened to notice a strange tattoo on Mr. Kiss’s arm—a faded line of numbers. Like most nosey young boys, Corey asked why he had such a funny tattoo. Alex’s answer came in the form of a story; a story about his best friend and how Alex was captured and imprisoned in a concentration camp. He told him about his days in the Nazi Youth…and the evil that one man sowed in an entire generation of young boys.
Perhaps they were stories that some may deem inappropriate to tell to an eight-year-old boy, but Corey looked at Mr. Alex like one would look at a superhero. Even though Mr. Alex told his stories with tears pouring down his cheeks, to Corey, Mr. Alex was a hero.
Some people die and the world never knows. Though Mr. Alex’s stories may never be read in a thrilling novel, be seen on the silver screen, or grace the headlines of the media—they will forever be hidden in the heart of my cousin Corey. Alex Kiss was his superhero with a legacy that will forever haunt his boyish heart.
May there be more men that live and breathe lives worthy of such boyish praise.