Isaac’s Journey

Isaac’s Journey

BY: Emily Siner

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, January 13, 2013)

Author’s Note:

When I first started talking to Rabbi Neuman, I noticed his way of speaking: philosophical, well thought-out, and at times very grand. I could tell he was used to giving sermons. I didn’t use a recorder – I had decided I didn’t want to use many direct quotes – but I would write down certain words or phrases he used that really resonated with me. Then, when writing the story, I incorporated his own words into my writing, even if I didn’t put direct quotes around it. That way, it was his voice telling the story, as if he was sitting down with the reader just as he sat down with me.

-Emily Siner

Some things he wants to remember; some things he tries to forget.

Isaac Neuman remembers a pretty woman who prepared the meals for the supervisors at St. Martin’s cemetery, an early Nazi camp in Poland. She took a liking to Isaac. “Stomarek,” she called him, a reference to the “one hundred marks” he had tried to hide from his captors. When they found the money, he had received a vicious beating. “Hey, Stomarek, come here,” she said and handed the 18-year-old leftovers from the supervisors’ meal. She would do this for him over the next year and a half. When he talks about her today, his eyes light up and his face breaks into a smile.

He laughs when he recalls a man named Joel Zolna, who sat next to him on a train to one of the last camps where he was imprisoned. The train slowed down as it curved around a mountain. Isaac was too weak to jump and run, and Joel couldn’t flee with his identification numbers painted on his coat. Isaac’s coat had the numbers sewn on, so he ripped them off and switched coats with Joel, who jumped off the slowing train and escaped. After the war, Joel would take Isaac out to nightclubs and concerts.

These are things Isaac, who is 90 now, wants to remember. He wants to remember every person who did something to lessen his pain.

“Sparks of holiness,” he calls them.

They lit the world in its darkest days.

Yet some things he can’t forget. He can’t forget the death and ugliness he saw as he was shipped from camp to camp, nine times. He can’t forget the boxcars or the beatings, the stifling heat, the burning cold. He can’t forget the cruelty that people showed. He can’t forget that they killed his brother, parents, six sisters, grandmother, mentor, aunts, uncles, and countless cousins and friends. The world was full of brutality and misery and stench. But despite it all, those sparks of holiness—they never died.

“Ani ma’amin,” he says in Hebrew.

“I believe.”


At the back of his house in Champaign, with a corner window overlooking a pleasant pond, is the study where Isaac spends most of his days. It is the study of a scholar: glossy leather armchairs, a wide desk in disarray, ten columns of built-in shelves holding books with titles such as “Sermons for the Seventies” and “The Rescue of Danish Jewry.” His rabbinic diplomas line one wall. He sits on a leather couch facing a TV and a picture of his son, David, shaking President Ronald Reagan’s hand. Piers Morgan is on CNN talking about taxes and gay marriage.

Isaac, who moved to Champaign in 1974 to be the rabbi of Sinai Temple, used to have more visitors. He has stopped encouraging them to come. It’s so hard to entertain anymore, and he has enough in his house to keep busy. He has his wife, who stops in his study for short conversations and a kiss on the cheek, and a caretaker who answers the phone when he’s busy (“Neuman residence”) and pours him mineral water or wine.

But most of all, he has his books. He takes them off the shelf as if they are old friends and stacks them on a side table. Reading takes his mind off the aches of his body, more so than whatever the doctor prescribes.

Yes, his body aches. His hands shake. It’s funny, when he was 60, he thought he was going to die in his 70s. He figured a human could only endure so much trauma and pain without skimming off a few years. But even after his second coronary bypass surgery at 73, he kept going. Always another birthday. Always another reason to keep living.

He moves to the kitchen for dinner – salad, chicken, peas, rice. He pushes up his sleeves before the meal and says a short prayer over bread. There, on his left forearm, are six numbers in dark ink: 143945. A souvenir from Auschwitz.


He was born in 1922 in Zduńska Wola, a Polish town of about 8,000 Jews living alongside 12,000 Poles and ethnic Germans. For the first 17 years of his life, Itsekel, as he was called, grew up as a pious boy studying Torah, Talmud, Midrash and any other Jewish text he could get his hands on. His teacher and mentor was Rabbi Mendel, a former soldier in the German army in World War I, legendary in Zduńska Wola for his wisdom.

The rabbi taught Itsekel about Judaism and life. He once told a Talmudic story, one of a second-century rabbi who stopped in the ruins of Jerusalem to pray. Elijah, the mystical Jewish prophet, met him outside and reprimanded him for praying in ruins. The story was supposed to warn readers to stay away from ruins because they might be unsafe. But Rabbi Mendel taught Itsekel his own interpretation. If you stand at the ruins of your civilization, he said, do not dwell. Your prayer should be short. Be careful, for it is hallowed ground.

Itsekel’s family fled Zduńska Wola when the German army invaded in 1939. They were less than 35 miles away when they turned back — escaping to Russia would be too difficult with eight children, they decided. They returned to a shattered world: broken windows, burned factories, ruined homes. Rabbi Mendel had been arrested and executed for studying Torah under the new Nazi rule.


Isaac was sent to his ninth and final concentration camp of the war in Ebensee, Austria, in April 1945, one month before the Americans came. He doesn’t remember much about the liberation. He was dying from starvation and tuberculosis. He weighed about 80 pounds.

He remembers the Americans setting up hospitals for the former prisoners and putting the new prisoners – the Nazi soldiers – in charge of caring for them. Isaac was brought back to health by doctors and nurses who had worn swastikas just a few weeks earlier. It was weird. At one point, the doctors sent him to the hospital psychiatrist, a former German officer, because Isaac’s hands wouldn’t stop shaking. The officer boasted that he had been trained in psychology by a disciple of Sigmund Freud. The Nazi officer, trained by an Austrian Jew. Isaac wasn’t sure if the officer realized the irony.

Some of the nurses assured him they had never hurt a Jew during the war. Someone asked: Did you ever care for Jewish patients? Well, no, they said, the Jewish patients never were brought to them. They only did what they were told.

Twenty years later, as a rabbi in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Isaac wanted to attend Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. The board members of his synagogue tried to convince him not to go. They didn’t understand why he should risk his life for black people in the Deep South. Isaac reflected on his Biblical knowledge, his companion since the age of 3. There, in Exodus 12:49, he found words that rang deep inside him, clear as the Ten Commandments: “One law shall be given to you and the stranger who lives among you.”

Didn’t he know what it was like to be treated like a stranger in his own land? Didn’t he know what happened when fear stopped good people from speaking out? He didn’t want to be like the nurses at Ebensee, like the silent, good Germans.

He went to Selma.


Sometimes, people ask him: “Where was God?” Where was Isaac’s God between 1941 and 1945, in Junikowo, St. Martin’s, Fuerstenfelde, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Fuenfteichen, Gross-Rosen, Mauthausen, Wels, and Ebensee? What God would give Isaac dreams almost 70 years later about frantically trying to escape from guards and killers? What God would extinguish entire families, generations of memories?

People ask: “Where was God?”

Isaac believes God was in the sparks of holiness that radiated through the darkness, in the people who maintained their humanity in the brutality and misery and stench. There is good and there is evil in the world; that cannot be changed. He believes it is our job–not His–to seek the good and stop the evil.

People ask: “Where was God?”

Isaac asks: “Where was man?”


It is said that during the Holocaust, some Jewish prisoners sang this Hebrew text on the way to death camps: “Ani ma’amin, ani ma’amin b’emunah sh’leimah” — “I believe, I believe, with perfect faith.” Sitting on his leather couch, Isaac sings this song in the traditional melody, the one that his congregation at Sinai Temple sings every year on Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance for the Holocaust.

Isaac knows it is hard for those who were not there to remember it well. He knows that the best way to remember is to listen to the stories of witnesses. Yet so often people only remember the cruelty. Yes, the cruelty must be present in every story, but Isaac wants to warn people: Be careful not to dwell on it. The Holocaust is hallowed ground. It is the ruins of a civilization.

He wants the world to remember it the way he does: Despite the hunger and thirst, brutality and death, ani ma’amin — “I believe.”

In the sparks of holiness.

They light the world even in its darkest days.

Why Theresa Lalanos Became a Nun

Why Theresa Lalanos Became a Nun

By: Erin (Walsh) Gibbons

(Originally published in The Catholic Digest, October 2002)

Author’s Note:

When I interviewed Sister Miriam and the other nuns in her convent, what surprised me most was their candor. I didn’t think Sister Hannah would admit to having a hard time walking by a good-looking man, or Sister Miriam would open up about her strained relationship with her father. But I’ve since found that most people will be remarkably honest if you get outside of your own comfort zone and just ask the question.

Writing this story also taught me the power of detail. Some of it’s simply doing the legwork – being there at 4:30 a.m. for morning prayers so you can make note of the flickering candle and one of the nuns blowing her nose. But it’s also gathering enough anecdotes and color through the interview process so that – even when you can’t observe something firsthand, or it happened in the past – you have the authority to tell your subject’s story as if you were there, without having to attribute every sentence. I think that makes the difference between a straightforward newspaper article and a piece of literary journalism.

– Erin Gibbons

The houses on Robert Drive are still asleep. It’s 4:58 on a Friday morning, and the sun won’t start rising for another hour. For now, the neighborhood is dark and silent. Only a single window on the street glows with dim light. Behind the thin curtains, inside the old, plain brick house, a different kind of morning routine is already beginning.

Sister Miriam Palanos, cheeks still flushed with sleep, is the first to enter the small room that is a chapel. She takes her place on the kneeler in the back left corner and, eyes turned downward, awaits the others. Sister M. Jacinta Fecteau and Sister M. Veronica McDermott file in a few minutes after 5 a.m. and kneel quietly. Sister M. Hannah Minor, blowing her nose, is the last to arrive. Everything in the room is simple, including the women themselves. They are all dressed alike, with long gray habits and black veils hiding their hair. As the clock ticks methodically, the women face an altar covered with white cloth. On it sits a small candle, flickering wildly and sending spirals of smoke dancing toward the ceiling. Suddenly, Sister M. Jacinta speaks.

“In-the-name-of-the-Fath-er,” she says, a rhythm in her high-pitched voice that pierces the silence. “And-of-the-Son, and-of-the-Ho-ly-Spir-it,” the other three women answer in unison.

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Vice Verser

Vice Verser

By: Courtney Greve

(Winner of the 1996-97 Department of Journalism’s Brody Creative Feature Article Writing Award)

Author’s Note:

Writing this piece taught me the importance of observation. Scribble down every detail, no matter how silly or small; you never know what will be crucial to the narrative later. Since the subject was a poet, it was crucial to capture not only his passion, but the rhythmic pace of his art. Finally, I learned to list questions to ask the subject later — a lesson that stuck with me.

–  Courtney Greve

People listen when he speaks.  They might not always agree with him, but they listen.  A platform to spread the good Word can be found in any room.  At least that’s what 19-year-old Kynshasa Ward believes as he prepares to take center stage at The Red Herring’s Thursday night open mic, where the odd assortment of people in the crowd tend to be more accepting of his churchy topics than your average Joe’s.  From his table for one in the back of the room, the University of Illinois sophomore can see everybody as they weave between cliques, lighting clove cigarettes and sipping cappuccino.  Body-pierced freaks and long-haired neo-hippies dominate the scene.

Kynshasa Ward knows he doesn’t really fit in with this rag-tag gang and that he will be one of the only people performing poetry.  He doesn’t think it matters.  He waits more than an hour for his chance to speak and during this time he wonders if God will speak through him tonight and if people will hear His message.

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A Lost Vet Finds the Church

A Lost Vet Finds the Church

By: Dan Petrella

(Originally published in The St. Anthony Messenger, April 2011)

Author’s Note:

The most important lesson I learned from doing the story was not to give up too soon. I originally started interviewing a different subject. He was a younger student who ended up pulling out because he was concerned about the time commitment. I was about to move on to a different topic altogether when the folks at the Newman Center put me in touch with Marcus Slavenas. His life experiences ended up making the story so much richer than I ever could have imagined.

– Dan Petrella

ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2003, Marcus Slavenas got the phone call that changed everything. He had just finished work and saw that he had a voice mail from his dad: “Please call me back, Marcus.”

From the sound of his father’s voice, he knew someone in the family was dead.

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Sister Sarah

Sister Sarah

By: Allison Copenbarger

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, Feb. 20, 2011)

Author’s Note:

Writing my Sister Sarah story for Professor Harrington’s class
taught me how deep feature writing can be. One of our readings talked
about narrative stories being “deep and not wide”, meaning you really
focus in on a particular subject and mine for intimate details. The
class helped me to conduct more personal interviews, ask better
detail-specific questions and, most importantly, see where the real
story was among all the interesting details.

My story won 3rd place for Personality/Profile writing in the
2011 Hearst Foundation’s Journalism Awards Program ($1500) & 1st place
in the 2011 Marian and Barney Brody Creative Writing Award ($2500).

– Allison Copenbarger

As Sarah Roy walks down Sixth Street, her pale blue eyes squint slightly at the sun and her black veil gently whips behind her head. She’s among a sea of North Face jackets, Ugg boots and orange and blue sweatpants. She herself is donning her normal garb – black jumper, black tights, black veil and black mary-jane flats. It’s the same uniform she has worn nearly every day for the nine years since she became a Roman Catholic nun. Today she has added a navy hooded sweatshirt over her jumper – it’s a little chilly.

The University of Illinois campus is always busy just before noon students hurrying to class. Sarah is instead hurrying to noon mass at St. John’s Catholic Chapel at Sixth and Armory streets. She hops up the familiar concrete steps to the chapel, opens the heavy glass door above which is carved: “Teach ye all nations all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”

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Something that matters

Something that matters

By: Luiza Ilie

(Originally published in Illinois Times, June 9, 2005)


Author’s Note:

“Something that matters” was my first attempt at an in-depth story and was my chance to practice this wonder called narrative journalism that I had just discovered at the University of Illinois in Prof. Harrington’s class. The idea that journalists can use their craft to write these real life stories that dig deeper and tell readers something about the way we live was a revelation, and has since become a lifelong aim.

“Something that matters” taught me how to stick with a story for months, how to shadow my subject, ask uncomfortable questions, take detailed notes, agonize over organizing the material and understand the importance of rewriting over and over. It made me aware of my limitations, and how important it is to have an editor that truly cares, one that doesn’t give up on me or the story.

The story won the Marian Boruck Brody Award for Creative Feature Writing in 2005 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It became a cover story for alternative news weekly The Illinois Times, and won an honorable mention for feature writing at the 2005 AltWeeklies Awards.

– Luiza Ilie


Eric Anglada wakes up at 6:30 a.m., before the noise of the day starts. At this early hour, he is the only one awake.

His small room is furnished with a desk, a small dresser, a bed with navy-blue covers, and bookshelves. The only flashy thing here is the color scheme: Soon after he moved in, Eric painted each wall a different color — blue, mauve, orange, green.

Everything here is quiet; outside, the street is deserted. Eric enjoys the solitude — it won’t be long before the phones will start ringing, people will start arriving, and he’ll be hard at work.

This day, Eric will help Johnnie move out. The 60-year-old woman has lived here for the past year, and, when she needed help getting into public housing, she turned to Eric.

Around here, everybody turns to him.

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Vision, Quest

Vision, Quest

By: Tom Bryant

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, June 22, 2008)

Author’s Note:

The biggest thing I learned in writing this story is that you find some of the greatest stories in the most unlikely places. I first met Pastor Winfrey, almost by accident, at a small “graduation” ceremony from a financial seminar, in his church basement, that I was writing an “event” story on for an introductory journalism class. He and I hit it off immediately and, as I listened to him, knew he had a great story to tell. I ended up writing a short profile piece on him for the introductory class and came back to him a year and a half later for the story in in Professor Harrington’s class. The rest, as they say, is history.

– Tom Bryant

Moses had his burning bush.

Saul had his light on the road to Damascus.

Ray Winfrey had his riding lawn mower.

Cutting grass can be a mindless, butt-numbing chore for a homeowner. For Ray Winfrey, who mowed for the Champaign Parks Department, it was job security. That is, until one late spring day in 1979, when his mowing went from mindless to mind-blowing.

“It was about 2 in the afternoon on a beautiful day,” he remembers. “Suddenly the mower had stopped, and I was on the ground. It was like I was in a daze, paralyzed. Out of nowhere, the Lord gave me this vision of what he wanted out of my life. He wanted me to start a church for the outcasts, those who’d been turned away everywhere else.”

Ray, age 41 then, got back on his mower, returned to his office, quit his job and set about building a church. Neither Moses nor Saul had an easy time of it after his call from God. The same was true for Ray Winfrey.

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