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A priceless gift finds its way back home

The gift is sent across generations and across cultures. It is given by the hand of one of the most persecuted of history's peoples, and received by the hand of another of history's victims. It is more than artifact, it is a symbol. It is a testament to hope, to faith, to the notion that good can triumph.

Sol Sloan never learned to hate. Through the years in a concentration camp. Through the starvation and suffering. Even after the Nazis gassed his wife and 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. He never learned to hate.

Some survived the camps in body only. Their spirits were broken, their nerves were jangled beyond repair, the light went out in their eyes. Not Sol Sloan. Body and soul survived.

His road led from Auschwitz to Buffalo, from victim to neighborhood beacon. He opened Sloan's Antique and Modern Furniture on William Street a half-century ago, back when the neighborhood burst with life.

The neighborhood changed around him. Nearly everybody from back then left. Sloan stayed -- a human landmark sitting outside the shop door, a living piece of history with a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm.

The warehouse-sized store is a glorified flea market, crammed with everything from WWII bomber jackets to beds. Max Sloan, who took the place over from his father, calls himself an "urban archaeologist." He came across the artifact years ago, at an estate sale.

It is the directory from the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, the key site on Buffalo's Underground Railroad. Missing for decades, the signature plaque announcing services was the centerpiece outside the historic church.

It was one of the relics that Sol and Max Sloan never would sell.

"We got many offers for it," said Max, his gray hair swirling under a Red Sox cap. "We wanted it to go back to the church."

Now, three months after Sol's death at 91, it will. It is part of the church's restoration, to be officially presented Feb. 23 during Black History Month.

It is about more than returning a relic to its rightful owners.

"My father knew what it meant to be persecuted," said Max Sloan, a rumpled suit of a man with blazing eyes. "So do African-Americans. We recognize connections. We know this is part of the Underground Railroad. Ultimately, it is about people helping people."

Escaping slaves found helping hands -- some black, but many white -- on the journey. Sol Sloan found unlikely hands to lift him. He was put on a railway car to freedom by a sympathetic Nazi officer. A young Nazi guard once took his place digging a latrine, placing his rifle next to the weary Sloan. Even in the garden of horror, there were blooms of humanity. Sol Sloan never forgot that.

The two peoples historically persecuted have not always had the best of relations. Witness the anti-Jewish rhetoric from radicals like Louis Farrakhan.

"There are extremists in every group," said Max Sloan, waving it off. "Dad always saw the good in people."

Over the years, neighbors and customers changed from white to black. Sol Sloan's hunting buddies changed from white to black.

"My father knew what it was like to have nothing," said Max. "You come in, you only have money for a bed, but you need a bed and a dresser, OK, you get the dresser. We work it out."

Sol Sloan is gone. What he believed in, what his son believes in, lives on. The gift to the historic church is part of it.

"We received this artifact, and we'd never heard of [the Sloans]," said Peggy Brooks-Bertram, activist and African-American historian. "It was so beautiful of them to hang onto it. It has brought two cultures together. You don't often see that."

When you refuse to hate, it can happen.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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