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Becoming A Jew: Learning You’re Jewish Later in Life

Becoming A Jew: Learning You’re Jewish Later in Life

Mazel Kaplan Karlick
June 22, 2013

Do you define yourself or do people define you? People at my school assume that everyone is Christian because almost everyone is Christian. When they find out that I am Jewish, they are shocked and surprised. And, when the topic comes up again, Pause they say “Oh yeah, I forgot”. They don’t treat me differently, and the fact they forget makes it clear that it does not have a lasting impact on them. Also, it does not feel like it affects the way they treat me.

The idea that people at my school don’t realize I am Jewish made me begin to think about people who themselves don’t know until later in their lives they are Jewish, or who had to hide their Jewish identity. They are called Hidden Jews. This Bat Mitzvah paper is a way to explain what being a Hidden Jew is, and what it means to me. This paper, furthered my journey to understand my own Jewish identity, and I hope I can help others who feel “hidden”.

The first International Hidden Child Gathering was a meeting of 1,600 people who in 1991 met for two days in New York City and talked about being hidden during the Holocaust. The gathering was the idea of Myriam Abramowitz. She brought her idea to Abraham Foxman, Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), who himself had been a hidden child in Poland. Maybe because he had been hidden, he agreed to sponsor the gathering. The conference brought former hidden children together to meet each other, learn about each other’s experiences, and to help them realize that they are not alone in dealing with any unresolved issues. For many it was the first time that they had ever spoken about their experiences. As a result of the 1991 Hidden Child Gathering, the Hidden Child Foundation of the Anti-Defamation League was created and continues working to identify and locate everyone who was hidden as a child during the Holocaust. The Foundation wants to gather and preserve stories and create a place where adults can share their memories. They also want to help commemorate these events, as yet another way to help ensure that the atrocities of the Holocaust will not be repeated. They believe that educating people about the consequences of hatred and prejudice will ensure that no one will have to experience the horror and injustice of the Holocaust again.

My research about Hidden Children of the Holocaust taught me that Jews did whatever was necessary to keep their children safe including hiding them with non-Jews. The non-Jews would raise these children as their own. Some children did not know they were Jewish until after the Holocaust. Some did not learn about their Jewish roots until many years later. Many still do not know they are actually Jewish.

I read about a German couple who took in a young Jewish girl named Alice Sondike and they didn’t even know she was Jewish. She was very young, about 3 years old. They raised her as their own and when her mother came back to get her after the war, the couple did not want to give her up. They wanted to adopt her. The couple hid the girl in a closet, hoping that her mother would leave without her. When they were told that the girl was Jewish, they were horrified and literally threw the little girl out the door, which shocked her. The young girl was returned to her parents, but she had a very difficult time adjusting. First, she was extremely shocked that the family that had been raising her completely rejected her. Alice had lived with a number of couples while in hiding, and when she returned to her real “parents”, she viewed them as just two more strangers she had to live with. She did not remember them at all. She was too young to understand anything about the terrible experiences her parents had endured and now says “ I treated them badly”. Her mother was in awful emotional and physical shape. She did not even have any teeth. Alice remembers that she could not stand being around her mother. She just treated her parents like all the other adults she had lived with during the war. She couldn’t reclaim her Jewish identity, or her place in her original family.

Abe Foxman, the Director of the Anti-Defamation League, was hidden with his Catholic nanny in Poland when he was a baby. Five years later, when his parents came back to reclaim him, the nanny did not want to give him back. There was a custody trial and his parents won. Mr. Foxman said that his parents only won because he was too young to choose where he wanted to live. If he had been older and had been asked to choose, he would have chosen his nanny. She was the one he viewed as his parent, and he had learned to believe in Catholicism because of her. When he returned to his parents, he slowly began to learn about Judaism. His father allowed him to continue to practice his Catholicism and slowly acclimate to Jewish rituals. He eventually learned to enjoy being Jewish. If his parents had died and never came to claim him, he believes he would have become a priest.

Mr. Foxman said “I’m convinced there are thousands of Jews who do not know they are Jewish, especially in Poland. Every day we lose potential Jewish souls there because their foster parents die without telling them they had Jewish parents.” The Anti Defamation League makes many trips to Poland to find Christian rescuers and honor them, as a way to find more people who may not even know they are Jewish. The ADL hopes that more rescuers will then come forward and let their children know that they were hidden as children and are actually Jewish.

The day after Holocaust Remembrance Day, I went to the Museum of Jewish Heritage and met with Holocaust survivors. One person I met, Judith Steel, had been a Hidden Jew in France. When she was a baby her family were 4 out of 936 German Jews trying to escape the Nazis on the S.S. St. Louis voyage to Cuba. Cuba did not let anyone in, so they tried many different countries and everyone turned them down. The ship returned to Europe. Some Jewish organizations paid England, France, Holland and Belgium to accept some of the people. Judith’s family was lucky enough to go to France and rented an apartment there.

Judith befriended her landlord’s daughter Suzy who was four years older and they played a lot together. Judith loved going to Suzy’s house because she adored her mother. She called her “Mama Suzy” which she thought meant Suzy’s mom. It started to become less safe for the Jews. The Germans came for Judith and her family and they took them to a concentration camp. The night they got there her dad took her outside the camp and brought her to a small room filled with a few other children. The next morning Mama Suzy took her home. After that, Mama Suzy told Judith that she was going to be brought up just like her other children. Now Judith called her Mama, and Suzy’s father Papa. She also ate pork, went to church, she sang hymns, and made the sign of the cross.

However, she said that she always knew that she was Jewish and was able to maintain her identity. She went to kindergarten and Suzy told everyone that they were sisters. Many people in the town knew her before so she had to be extra careful. Whenever the Germans were there she didn’t say anything because she had a German accent. One day she overheard Mama and Papa say that her father was dead. She kept asking them when her mom was going to come back for her. After the war was over Mama took her to Paris so that she could get papers to go to live with her aunt and uncle. She did not want to leave Mama. It was very hard for her to adjust to living with her aunt and uncle because she only wanted to be with Mama. Later she got used to her new family and felt at home there. For many, many years she was not in contact with Mama.

After she attended the International Conference for Hidden Jews in New York she decided to go visit Mama. She spent a week with her in France. She asked her why she hid children. “It was the thing to do” she said. Now they phone each other every few weeks. She wanted her Mama to be honored as a righteous Christian and was able to make this happen. In June of 1993 Mama received an award and medal from Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem for saving the lives of six people.

“My Australia” is a movie, directed by Ami Drozd. It is a true story of Mr. Drozd’s hidden Jewish identity. It is an Israeli movie that was showing in New York City that I was lucky enough to see with my mentor Ilana, and my mother. When the movie begins, a mother and two sons are living in Poland in the 1950’s. One son named Tadek and his older brother are in an anti-Jewish gang in Poland. They were caught and arrested by the police for using metal poles to beat up Jewish students. The boys’ mother gets them released from jail but is distraught by their beating Jews, and the swastika on the older brother’s belt buckle. She tells the older boy that she is a Holocaust survivor and they are Jewish. She had pretended to be Catholic because at the time there was so much anti-Semitism in Poland.

She thought she was protecting her sons by raising them as Christians. Their mother decides she must move the family to Israel. However, she lies and tells Tadek that they are moving to Australia, a country that Tadek always dreamed about because he believed he had family there who had sent them gifts. That aunt and uncle it turns out actually live in Israel. The mother does not tell Tadek that they are going to Israel until the night before the boat docks in Israel, after he began to question some things he saw on the ship. He is very upset when he learns that they are going to Israel instead of Australia.

When they arrive in Israel the boys go live on a kibbutz because their mother does not have enough money to support them. The difficulties in adapting to their new identity are highlighted in how differently each brother adjusts to being on the kibbutz. Tadek makes friends with his peers and embraces Judaism. He wants to fit in so much that he asks and is allowed to be circumcised. This is very different from the older brother who cannot adapt to his new environment and identity, and does not even try to be accepted. During the movie Tadek’s identity drastically changes. But his older brother cannot change.
I was really glad to see the movie, which so perfectly fit in with my major paper topic. Seeing the movie made me realize that your identity can be based on the attitudes typical of where you live and how you are brought up. It also made me realize that a person’s identity can change based on their experiences, and their environment.

Another hidden Jew I learned about was former US Secretary of State, Madeline Albright. Ms. Albright did not know she was Jewish and a Holocaust survivor until she was 59 years old. When she found out she was Jewish, she was embarrassed to not have known her family better. Ms. Albright did research based on her earliest memories of fleeing from Czechoslovakia where she had lived with her family and her cousin Dásâ. Ms. Albright wrote a memoir about these early memories called “Prague Winter.” The memories were of a brick building where her family and her cousin Dásâ lived. Her family fled their home in Czechoslovakia to escape the Nazis. Dásâ was rescued from Czechoslovakia through a humanitarian program run by a British stockbroker named Nicholas Winton.

In my research to find out how Nicholas Winton rescued people, I learned that he was still alive. I emailed him to find out how he felt about rescuing Hidden Jews. I received a response back from his daughter saying that he could not write, as “he is 103 and not well”. His daughter said, “He set out to rescue endangered children whatever their race or religion. It happened that most were Jewish but there were some who were other religions or persecuted because their parents were communists or anti-Hitler”. Dásâ’s rescue caused her to be separated from her parents and sister, which was very tragic. They were among those who were sent off to prison camp in Terezin. None of them survived. Ms. Albright said that the most difficult part of doing research for her memoir was learning about the atrocities inflicted in Terezin. She thought it was grotesque that people believed they were going somewhere like a spa but in reality they were going to a death camp. She said it was very hard having to imagine her family going through this.
Albright also questioned her parent’s decision to keep her Jewish ancestry a secret from her. One of Ms. Albright’s theories is that her parents welcomed the sense of reassurance and safety that hiding their Judaism could offer to their family. Ms. Albright thinks that the decision was influenced by the belief that their children would have an easier life as Christians.

Madeleine Albright first learned of her Jewish roots in 1997 at age 59. During a recent interview now at age 75, she said, “I am a firm admirer of the Jewish Tradition but could not at the age of 59 feel myself fully a part of it. “ She says she is ” an American” who is made up of many parts. She is a mother and a grandmother who was born in Czechoslovakia, a Democrat, has been a Catholic and an Episcopalian and learned she was Jewish. She celebrates Chanukah and Christmas with her children and grandchildren.

I went on a school trip to Washington D.C. in the spring, which included a visit to the US Holocaust museum. An exhibit I saw was “Life in the Shadows, Hidden Children of the Holocaust.” The fact that the museum is having an exhibit on this topic makes me think that this topic is one that a lot of people are thinking about right now. It seems like many people are finding out that family members were hidden Jews and they want to learn more about their heritage.
Peter and Isabel I will add a sentence after I see this exhibit in early May.

Even before the Holocaust, Jews in many places had to hide that they were Jewish. In my research I learned the term Crypto-Jews. Crypto-Jews are Jews with mostly Spanish ancestry referred to as Marranos. In the late 1400s in Spain, Jews and others were persecuted during the Inquisition. If the Jews didn’t convert to Christianity they would be expelled from Spain. If the authorities learned that a Jew was secretly practicing Judaism, they would kill them and their family. Many Jews converted to Christianity and ate pork, went to church, and did not circumcise their children. They celebrated Jewish traditions behind closed doors and hid the fact they were Jewish from their families and friends. They found some ways to keep practicing their funeral rituals, which are to bury the dead as soon as possible and cover the mirrors at home. They even found a way to have a Mezuzah. A Mezuzah is a small box with a piece of parchment inside with a Biblical text and the letter “Shin” which stands for the name of God on the cover that is hung on the doorpost of a house. Many Christians had a statue of the Virgin Mary at home. The Crypto-Jews would carve out the bottom of the Virgin Mary statue and put the Mezuzah inside. Then every time they went inside they would kiss the Virgin Mary’s feet, but they were actually kissing the Mezuzah. Successive generations of Jews continued to publically practice Catholicism but secretly they continued to practice some Jewish traditions

My first exposure to the idea of Crypto-Jews was at the City Congregation Kidschool. During one class we created a scene where one person played a Crypto-Jew, one student played a Christian accusing their neighbor of being Jewish, and the third played a judge. We had a mock trial. The trial was about the Crypto-Jew practicing Judaism in secret while on the outside pretending to be Catholic. The crime she was charged with was being Jewish, as her neighbor saw that on Shabbat there was no smoke coming from her chimney. I think that if this trial actually happened in the 1400’s in Spain at that time, the Crypto-Jew would have been killed. What I learned from this is that it was very difficult for the Crypto-Jews because they had to hide their identities, under threat of death.

I also read an article from the National Geographic Society called Hidden History which talked about a Rabbi named Josef Garcia who was 32 years old when he discovered he was Jewish. He was raised in Panama in a religious Christian home. He had been an altar boy growing up. One day his great uncle told him that his family members were actually Crypto-Jews. He felt very confused. He didn’t know any Jews or anything about the history or culture of the Jews. He started to research everything about Jews, and eight years later he became a Rabbi. In 2004 he co-founded The Association of Crypto-Jews of the Americas. He wanted to help Crypto-Jews learn about their history and culture. He hoped they would form a Jewish community and live full Jewish lives. Rabbi Garcia says the biggest groups of Crypto-Jews in the Americas are in Brazil and Mexico. There are many in Arizona, Texas, California and New Mexico. Rabbi Garcia remembers when he was young that every Friday night his grandmother would light candles and say words he did not understand. He came to realize she was actually saying a Hebrew prayer.

When I began the research for this paper I did not know what I would find. I thought I would not find much information on this topic. I was pleasantly surprised to find so much in books, magazines and online about Hidden Jews and the Holocaust. I found information about the Anti Defamation League and their Hidden Jew organization as well as the gatherings they create for Hidden Jews.

I found many books about Hidden Jews. I even read a novel called “The Upstairs Room” written by Johanna Reiss, about her experience being hidden by a family on a farm with her sister when she was a young child. This story was interesting because I could see that the family who hid her really, really cared for her and her sister. At the end of the book, the author tells about taking her own two girls to meet the family. She showed her kids where she used to hide in a closet with a false back when the Nazis came to the farm. Her children asked her if she could still fit. She went over to the closet got on the floor and started crying. I think she started crying because it reminded her of when she was actually in danger.

I was very interested when I learned about Crypto-Jews. I also learned some things about the Inquisition. Learning about it all makes me appreciate that I do not have to hide my own Jewish identity. I appreciate that I am safe. It makes me realize the horrible results that would have happened had Hitler succeeded. I now have a greater understanding and gratitude for the bravery of the generations of Jews who had to hide their Judaism, practicing in secret, which helped keep the religion alive. Their bravery was remarkable. And but for their bravery, their would be far fewer Jews. The research also made me realize that there are similarities between religions. I hope the similarities will help build bandages between people so that no one again will have to hide their religious identity or practice their religion secretly.