Every few weeks, Mircea Cernov comes across a story from a now-familiar genre: “The one who found out he or she was Jewish.” Cernov is the CEO of Haver, whose members visit schools throughout Hungary to talk about Judaism in general and Judaism in Hungary in particular. Their work is part of the Jewish front line against the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Hungary.
“A few weeks ago, I heard a story like this,” Cernov says. “We talked about kashrut, and suddenly one child said to me, ‘We’re not Jewish, but for some reason, my grandfather and grandmother keep separate refrigerators for meat and dairy.'” Nobody told the boy why, so he chalked it up to coincidence. If one were to ask him what happened to his family during the war, he would tell a story that only approximated the truth: that the members of his family fought, or that 'they suffered like everyone else.'”
This could certainly not be described as “assimilation.” Assimilation in central Europe is not a random phenomenon or the personal story of a few, but rather an ideology that existed between the 19th century up until World War II. It has to do with the erasure of Jewish identity that occurred between the Holocaust and the Communist era, which encompassed physical destruction and cultural annihilation.
Today, many years later, that Jewish identity has begun to resurface.
It is doubtful whether this phenomenon, this return to Judaism in Europe, can be mapped. Jewish organizations are making great efforts to strengthen ties with anyone who has a Jewish or Zionist connection. But for many people in Europe who are of Jewish extraction, discovering their Jewish identity is not an ideological matter. Sometimes it is the answer to an unresolved question from their past or from their relationship with their parents. It fills in the blanks that were missing from their family history. Yet more than anything, the one element that seems to be most common among those who have rediscovered their Jewish heritage, is the seeming randomness of it all. One day, they wake up in the morning as Europeans, and then suddenly the explanation for some issue or another is that they are Jewish.
Zsuza Fritz, Budapest
Zsuza Fritz was born in Hungary in 1966. She grew up in central Budapest in an apartment that housed three generations: herself, her parents and her maternal grandparents.
Her family celebrated Christmas just like their neighbors, even if their observance was not as religious as most people during the Communist era.
One day her teacher asked Fritz and the other pupils to which religion they belonged. After one girl said she was Catholic, Fritz said she was Protestant. “That’s what I thought,” she said. “Somehow, I made a connection between the Catholic Church and crosses, and we had no crosses.” In school, there was a class about the Holocaust, and the ideological message was clear. The perpetrators were fascists who had committed mass murder against a minority population, before Communism defeated them. The fact that most of the victims of the Holocaust were Jews was mentioned in, perhaps, a single line.
But the summer of 1981, when Fritz was 15, changed everything. At the start of that summer her father was diagnosed with lung cancer and before the fall arrived he had passed away. During that period of loss, the day after her father's death, she found herself -- surprisingly -- in a Jewish cemetery full of tombstones engraved with foreign words, and no one said anything about it. "I think they thought that I must know," she said. "I'm sure if I had asked, they would have told me."
The only thing she could do was to search for clues in her past. She doesn't remember being shocked by the discovery that she was Jewish; instead it felt more like a puzzle that had been completed. Suddenly, various characters in her family's history and the roles that they played came into focus -- including the dark-haired woman who used to visit their home and collect money for some reason or another; or another woman, a devout Christian, who would visit occasionally and who, she later learned, had rescued her mother’s family during the Holocaust by smuggling them into a Carmelite convent. Suddenly Fritz understood the meaning of the German word “unsere” -- one of us -- that her grandparents sometimes used to describe someone on television. They spoke German when they did not want Zsuza to understand them.
Even before World War II, there were Hungarian Jews who had assimilated. Although Fritz's grandparents were married in Budapest’s Great Synagogue on Dohany Street, there were no festivals, Shabbat, kashrut or Jewish objects. “So what did they know about Judaism?” I asked her.
“Mostly, they knew who was a Jew,” she said.
Several weeks after Zsuza’s father died, when life returned to normal, her mother told her that her friend's daughter "went to a kiddush on Fridays at the rabbinical seminary where there were young people, and she met a young man there.” Fritz went to the kiddush as well and enjoyed herself. Together with other young people, she listened to lectures by Alexander Scheiber, a prominent Hungarian Reform rabbi. Most of the time, about 30 to 40 people would come to the seminary, stand outside the synagogue and smoke. They went in just for kiddush. There was also something a bit subversive about that at a time when the government had forbidden Judaism.
Fritz found out about her father’s life from his first wife, who told her that he had escaped the forced-labor battalions and the death camps four times. Fritz says that she sometimes imagines talking with him about those things.
She is not the only one who has made such a discovery. There are great disparities between Jewish life in Israel or the U.S. and Jewish life in Hungary, which has the largest Jewish community that survived the mass murder of the Jews in Europe. Sometimes the complexities of being a second generation Holocaust survivor is not that complex after all. Sometimes it simply involves silence and erasing all traces of one's previous identity.
Ivana Zemel, Prague
Communism undoubtedly played a major part in bringing people back to Judaism. Often, fear of the Communist authorities made people obscure their identities. Sometimes, it was belief in Communist principles that led them to do so.
Today, Ivana Zemel is a public figure in the Czech Republic. A midwife by profession, she is a leader in the fight for women’s right to give birth at home. She discovered her Jewish roots when she was 14 in a good, old-fashioned way: Some nice people had scrawled the word “Jews” on her family’s mailbox. Ironically, anti-Semitism needs Jews to survive.
Zemel’s story may well illustrate how deeply any feeling of belonging was repressed in Communist Europe. Not only did Ivana not know that she was Jewish, but she also hardly knew that Judaism existed at all. She recalls that she knew, vaguely, that the word that was scrawled on her family mailbox had negative connotations. But she had no clue as to its meaning, even though she knew that she had relatives in Israel.
Zemel’s family, fleeing the Nazis, arrived in pre-state Israel in 1939. Her father, Edgar Zemel, who grew up in a traditional, non-assimilated Jewish home, joined the British Army and fought against the Nazis -- but the fight against fascism turned him into a Communist. After the war, he decided to return to Czechoslovakia. He even went to study in Leningrad, and in 1953, his daughter was born.
When Ivana saw the graffiti on the mailbox, she asked her mother, who was not Jewish, what it meant. Her mother explained it, but her father kept silent, even after he was dismissed from his job for having opposed the Soviets when they invaded in 1968.
Evidently, something was bothering him. Ivana remembers that once, he took her to the Terezin ghetto and even for a visit to the Jewish community on one of the holidays. Several years before he died, after the Soviet bloc fell, Ivana’s father took her to the Jewish cemetery where he wished to be buried.
Zemel's eldest daughter wished to attend a Jewish school. Later on, she had a Jewish boyfriend. It was through him that she found out about the holidays. Her younger daughter, Eva, studied in Israel for a time. “It’s too bad that these things do not come to me naturally, because I didn’t grow up with them,” Ivana says. She would like to be a better Jew.
Q. Still, what do you do as a Jew?
“I feel that we should support minority groups, that we should see who is weak and persecuted in our society.”
Approximately 8,000 people are registered as members of Prague’s Jewish community. I asked Ivana how many of the city's residents she believes have Jewish ancestry. “I estimate that the number is at least ten times as much,” she said.
Jelena Djurovic, Belgrade
For Jelena Djurovic, a Serbian writer and politician, the subject of Judaism popped up in a book. It was a special book -- "The Bridge on the Drina" -- whose author, Ivo Andric, won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
During his youth, Andric lived in the town of Visegrad in present-day Bosnia. He knew a Jewish woman there, an immigrant from Poland, who ran a hotel. When he was short of funds, she would often invite him to the hotel for meals. In "The Bridge on the Drina," Andric heaps praise on a generous, intellectual woman, one who showed great sensitivity toward others.
When that Jewish woman was young, she married a Jewish doctor who died at a young age. One of her nieces, Serafina, had an affair with a prominent author, and another niece, also named Serafina, was grandmother to Svetlana, Jelena’s mother, who is with us when we meet at her home in Belgrade. A personal letter from Andric to the family is framed on the wall. “[He was] an extremely haughty man,” Svetlana said.
When Jelena was 8 or 9 years old, she was told that the character in the book was a member of the family. But only when she was about to read the book for a high school class did her mother reveal something to her. In the book, it turns out that those people, who were her relatives, were Jews. Her mother told her this, adding, “Grandmother doesn’t want us to know anything of this.”
Books were Djurovic’s world, and she began to look for any book that had a connection to Judaism. She found the Talmud and books about kabbalah that had been translated into Serbian. She even integrated several kabbalistic concepts into her first book, which deals with the Balkan Wars. But her search for Judaism, which was completely private, took place in books. She has never visited Israel or tried to become a part of a Jewish community. The first time she heard the sound of Yom Kippur prayers, she was more than 30 years old.
Why did Djurovic’s mother not disclose her Jewish ancestry earlier? Jelena’s grandmother, Helena Zellermeier, who survived the war in the village of Pancevo outside Belgrade, had oncealed her Jewish identity and even made her living sewing gloves for Luftwaffe pilots. An unusually strong woman, she forbade her daughter, Jelena’s mother, from ever mentioning Judaism in their home.
“When my mother tried to talk about Judaism, my grandmother would get hysterical,” Djurovic says. “She asked my mother to have mercy on the children. It wasn’t a rational thing. After all, the family wasn’t particularly poor in Tito’s time. A friend of the family, Moshe Pjade, was one of Tito's major ideologues and his close adviser. Even when my mother married my father, who was a lawyer from Montenegro, his family welcomed the fact that she was of Jewish origin. My father sometimes spoke positively about Judaism, but only when she was not in the house.”
Q. When your grandmother saw you studying Judaism, didn’t that change her view?
“She admired any effort to learn. But on that particular matter, she never budged.”
However, there is one small thing that Djurovic has trouble explaining. Her grandmother always kept papers from Poland that proved the family’s Jewish background.
Since the interview, Djurovic’s party was defeated in the elections. Liberal ideas are not too popular in contemporary Serbia. As a writer, Djurovic finds a certain symbolism in the fact that she became conscious of her family’s Jewish identity thanks to a literary work. Even if the non-religious Jewish intelligentsia was annihilated, the place of Jews among the most beautiful parts of European culture and heritage can never be destroyed.
Communism is now a thing of the past. Many young people who have never lived under a Communist regime have been taught a more or less accurate version of the Holocaust in school. Unlike Hungary or Serbia, Prague is the capital of a relatively thriving democracy. And somehow, that is irrelevant.
Tomas, 24, a PhD student in computer science, does not remember exactly when he learned that he was Jewish. It happened sometime during high school, when he realized that the visitor who used to visit his home frequently, bringing books and talking with him, was his father. His father was a municipal politician in Prague.
While Tomas is aware of the halachic definition of a Jew, he is even more acutely aware of who is considered a Jew in society. He is very much aware that had he lived during the Holocaust, he would have been considered Jewish.
His father never had a committed relationship with his mother, and his father’s family does not accept him. But this has not made Tomas adopt a negative attitude toward Judaism. On the contrary. He has visited Israel as part of a Birthright project and was impressed. He believes that its existence is important and explains simply: If Nazism returns, he will have a place to go. His father helped him to find the necessary papers. That is the only time that the two of them came close to discussing the Jewish question. The other time was when his father brought him a book about theater in the Theresienstadt ghetto.
Tomas’s perspective on Judaism is made up of various stereotypes, many of which are ethno-racial, some of which are funny, and some of which are a bit odd. For example, he points to the interpreter -- whom he did not need because his English is excellent -- and says that she is Jewish “because she’s wearing a lot of jewelry and a scarf.” He thinks that his talent in science stems from the fact that he is Jewish, and that Jews have an inborn talent for making money in commerce. He believes that anti-Semitism stemmed from the fact that long ago the Jews holed themselves up inside ghettos and made money that others did not have. He regards the religious leaders of Judaism as a little ridiculous.
But as much as the conversation reveals about Tomas, the end of the interviews speaks volumes. He politely declines the photographer’s request for a picture and asks to be identified only by his first name. “You know, with the new technologies, soon it will be possible to identify someone over the Internet by his picture just as much as by his name,” he said.
Q. What's wrong with that? At worst, people will know that you’re Jewish on your father’s side.
“It’s not a good idea. There are still fascists, and the public image of Jews is still not all that great.”
* * *
This Israeli interviewer cannot help but feel a certain irony. In the Jewish state, people fight for the right to be considered Jewish, and that controversy has to do with civic, religious and economic matters. For European Jews, that identity is a label that someone else attaches to them -- a fate that cannot be erased. Sometimes it is the anti-Semites who provide the answer to the question who is a Jew: "Jewishness" is a fate that forces one to remain vigilant and be careful -- regardless of whether the fears are anchored in reality.