Abraham H. Foxman, new head of B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League, lived a lifetime by the time he was 10.

Foxman, who succeeded the late Nathan Perlmutter as national director of the ADL, was born in Baranovich, Poland, in 1940, the year after German panzer divisions swept into Warsaw. Baranovich is now a part of the Soviet Union.

His parents, who had been married in Warsaw the year before, "had the financial ability, the sense and the foresight to stay one step ahead of the Nazis," at least for a while, he said in an interview at ADL headquarters here.

But in Vilna in the Lithuanian republic of the Soviet Union, the Holocaust caught up with them. When the roundup of Jews was ordered, his parents made the anguished decision to turn over their infant son to his Roman Catholic nursemaid.

"She told my parents, 'I'll take care of him,' " Foxman said. She passed him off as her own illegitimate son, taking him to be baptized and rearing him in her Catholic faith.

Foxman's father was shunted from one concentration camp to another. His mother, luckier, managed to escape from the Vilna ghetto and secure false identity papers certifying her as a non-Jew. She maintained a discreet contact with the nursemaid and her son, providing a major part of their support.

"As far as I knew" during this time, "she was my aunt," said Foxman.

When the war ended his parents, reunited, asked for their son back. The nursemaid refused to give him up. "My nanny said, 'I saved him. He belongs to me and to the Catholic Church,' " Foxman recalled.

The parents were well aware that the nursemaid had saved not only their son's life but also their own lives, because all three undoubtedly would have perished if they had stayed together as a family. Torn between their debt to the woman and their love for their son, they offered a compromise.

"My parents offered her a home with us. 'Wherever we go you will go,' " he said. She refused.

Foxman, who says the custody battle between his two "mothers" is "blocked out of my memory because it was so painful," interrupts the tale to defend the woman.

"She risked her life. Every single day she risked her life. If she had been discovered {protecting a Jewish child} the second bullet, after me, would have been for her."

What she did next was even more desperate, but Foxman insists, "She did it out of love."

She went to the Soviet authorities in Vilna, saying that Foxman's father had survived the concentration camp because he had collaborated with the Nazis -- a common but deadly accusation. An investigation proved the charges false.

She later falsely accused the father of stealing from the factory where he worked. The third time she brought false charges, the Soviets ordered the Foxmans to settle their dispute in court.

"And all this time we lived together -- there was no housing after the war; she lived with us," said Foxman.

Even the court decree in favor of the Foxmans failed to settle the matter. The family moved to Lodz, Poland. "She had me kidnaped" and his parents had to arrange to kidnap him back, he said.

But it was the depredations of the Holocaust -- "I lost 16 members of my family, aunts and uncles" -- that persuaded Foxman's parents to leave the nursemaid behind, and in 1950, to take their 10-year-old son to the United States to start life anew.

Foxman by that time "was a devout Catholic. I wore a crucifix, I " . . . I tell my story. I'm proud of it."

-- Abraham H. Foxman

had a patron saint. Walking down the street with my father, if we met a priest I would stop and kiss his hand."

Once, he remembers, while they were still living in Vilna, "I came home crying, 'The kids called me a dirty name. They called me a Jew. I'm not Jewish!' " he protested to his parents.

Yet Foxman remembers no traumatic reconversion to the Orthodox Judaism of his parents, which he follows today. When he was reunited with his parents, "I prayed every night in Latin," like any good Catholic child of that day.

"My father taught me the Hebrew shema. Not to be flippant, but Latin, Hebrew -- they were both Greek to me."

His father quietly replaced the crucifix he wore around his neck with a talit, a traditional Jewish undergarment. "As long as it was something religious, I was satisfied," Foxman said.

His identity was reinforced in the Jewish neighborhood of New York's Lower East Side and later Brooklyn, where the family settled, and in the Jewish schools that prepared him for college and eventually a New York University law degree.

Like so many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, Foxman has asked the unanswerable question: Why did I survive while so many did not?

He hesitates to make grandiose, heroic statements, but maybe, he muses, "Maybe I have a role to be a witness."

In the ADL, where he went to work straight out of law school, "I am given the opportunity to be a witness and to do something about it," to battle the hatred and prejudice that, unchecked, could end in a Holocaust.

Celebration of the ADL's 75th anniversary has prompted introspection. "For 75 years we've been fighting prejudice . . . bigotry and we're still in business?" he mused. "But there's progress," he insists.

"Anti-Semitism is here. It exists . . . its manifestation comes in spurts. But I take the optimistic viewpoint that it is latent. As long as the leaders in our institutions regard anti-Semitism as immoral, there is hope."

In the last three or four years, overt acts of anti-Semitism, which the ADL tries to track nationwide, have been "on the decline." He credits the improvement on legislation in 18 states outlawing such acts, as well as a continuing educational process.

As a nation, "we're dealing with cancer. We're dealing with AIDS. I think this is in the same category."

The early events of his life, painful as they were, stand out as a symbol of hope to him. Despite the bitterness of the custody battle, "the woman represents the good in a crazy world . . . .

"I deal with prejudice . . . . It helps when you are fighting the irrational to have a sense of perspective that there is courage in the world. I tell my story. I'm proud of it."

The ADL was one of several Jewish organizations that publicly protested Pope John Paul II's decision to receive Austrian President Kurt Waldheim at the Vatican. Waldheim is accused of lying about his involvement in Nazi crimes during World War II.

"We were saddened" by the pope's reception of Waldheim, and more particularly by the pontiff's "total silence" on Waldheim's Nazi ties, said Foxman. "But we respected his morality.

"His Holiness has moved in so many beautiful directions, which made {the Waldheim audience} even worse."

As a result of the Waldheim incident, Jewish organizations have threatened to boycott a planned Miami meeting with the pope at the outset of his U.S. tour in September.

"We are waiting for some sort of gesture {by the pope}, some reaching out, something to indicate he understands the anguish that meeting caused, some sign he recognizes our pain."

Foxman remains hopeful that such a gesture will be forthcoming "because dialogue is too precious to give Mr. Waldheim that victory."

There is, he said with characteristic optimism, "still time. And in September, it's not that difficult to get a reservation to Miami."