When You’ve Survived, You Know What’s Important

Sarah: Everything is always changing.

Jen: Do you think there’s anything that stays the same?

Sarah: Oh, yes. Family.


If you don’t have time to read this very long post about my experience at the 2015 Downingtown High School holocaust survivor symposium, I’ve already given you the takeaway gem: the only thing that doesn’t change in life across decades and generations is how important family is.

This is the second time I’ve volunteered as a driver for this event. I had a really magical time with Manya in 2012 (read more here). The event is set up like this: Philadelphia-area survivors are invited to speak to the sophomore class as part of the kids’ education about the holocaust, and several students are competitively selected to be one-on-one chaperones of the survivors for the day. The drivers’ (i.e. my) job is to get the survivors to and from the school. This time I was much less nervous and more excited. My charge for the day was Sarah Danon Meller, and when I googled ahead of time I discovered she is from Split, Croatia (formerly Yugoslavia). Yes! I was just in Croatia! I couldn’t wait to talk to her. I was also excited to go back to the school, which used to be a junior high school – MY junior high school – and became a high school when the school district split the high school into two. I hadn’t been inside since 1995.

I waited a few minutes outside Sarah’s house and then out came a very sprightly little lady in a lovely black pinstripe suit. And because I’m 5’2″ when I say she’s little you know that she’s TINY! She must have been 4’10”. She needed no help from me to get in and out of the car and we chatted like old friends from the time we got on the road to our arrival at the school. I made a point of not asking her to tell her war stories since I knew she’d be telling the whole story later that morning. We talked about Croatia and how beautiful the Dalmatian islands are, and the places that I visited. She was still disappointed that I hadn’t been to Split, even though I’d seen a good number of other places in Croatia (Dubrovnik, Korcula, Orebic, Cara).

SarahMellerI asked her all about how she met her husband and what she liked to do growing up in the states (she was not even a teenager by the time she got to NY). She said she loved going dancing, and told me that her husband asked her to go steady on their first date in January 1952, then he asked her to marry him 3 months later, and they got married on July 5, 3 months after that. I said, your anniversary is my birthday! And then she told me that her husband had died almost 3 years ago on July 6 – the day after their 60th wedding anniversary. He had waited for their anniversary and told everyone he saw in the hospital all day long that it was their anniversary. How beautiful and sad is that? She had a wonderful marriage, and has 4 children and 7 grandchildren. She told me that no amount of time she had with her husband would have ever been enough.

When we got to the school I passed Sarah off to her student chaperone and wandered the school a little, trying to get my bearings. The entrance to the school had been moved, which was disorienting. There were some vestiges of the old building, though, and that was fun to see.

There was a general assembly where 4 of the survivors told their stories to the entire sophomore class. One told of being in Vienna during Krystalnacht. Another woman was a child during the war and was sent away from her family on a train to England in the kindertransport. And Peter, whose father was a mechanic and conscripted by the German army to work on their vehicles. That man attributed his survival to his father, because even though eventually his father died in Buchenwald, because of his skill the Nazis had kept the whole family in a civil prison for a time before eventually sending them to concentration camps. Peter calls April 14 1945, the day he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, his second birthday. And then Manya, who I drove three years ago, told her story, too.

Manya closed with, “I hope I will be an example to others. We have only one life to live.”

After the assembly were break-out sessions, and I followed Sarah to her room to hear her story, which was incredible. She was 9 years old when Italy occupied the coast of Yugoslavia. It was a fairly benign occupation, aside from the burning and looting of the synagogue and beating of the congregation. But when Italy surrendered to the Allies, the Nazis came in to take over, and the neighbors warned the Danon family in the middle of the night. Sarah’s father and brother (his Holocaust Museum oral history here) took their backpacks and escaped to the mountains, joining the partisans in sabotaging the Germans (they assumed that women and children were safe). Sarah eventually knew she and her mother and little sister had to get out of Split but could not convince her demoralized mother to leave. Nine-year-old Sarah practiced jumping out of her 2nd story window so she could escape if the Nazis came to the door. Sarah remembered that the woman who used to bring their milk had always told her to come visit her farm. Sarah told her mother they needed to go there and ask her to hide them. Her mother said no – that woman wasn’t serious; she won’t help us. Sarah packed a blanket and a sweater, took her little sister and started walking. A few minutes later her mother called to them: “Sarah! I’m coming!”

“I wouldn’t have left without my mother, but she needed convincing,” Sarah said. Sarah became the family hero.

The woman at the farm DID hide them, in a little room, with a single mattress on the floor. They had to be completely silent during the day, for months. When the farm owner became too afraid to hide them anymore, they hiked into the mountains and joined the partisans like Sarah’s father and brother, although they still didn’t know where they were. They hid behind rocks during the day and walked at night. They begged for food. The partisans continued to fight against the Nazis. The group, which had collected many Jewish refugees, got word of a British destroyer that had agreed to rescue the refugees, and in the middle of the night Sarah, her mother, and her sister got in a rowboat and, under Nazi fire, rowed to the British ship and made it to Italy where they miraculously found her father and brother. If they’d arrived 2 weeks later, her father and brother would have already left for New York without them, but they were able to all go together. Sarah moved with her family to Philadelphia and she started her new life. She told us that all of the other Jews from Split who didn’t escape to the mountains were killed. She also told us she was sure she was alive because of God. The kids were all very respectful, but there wasn’t enough time for questions or interactions.

During the event and the luncheon I recognized a few teachers I had known. For a moment I felt like an honored historical relic myself when the student escorting Sarah said he had some “old photos of the school” on his phone and asked, “Do you remember it looking like this?” I realized that he wasn’t even born when I went there. Just another reminder of how special the opportunity is for those kids to meet the survivors. This opportunity won’t be available much longer.

I drove Sarah home and gave her a big hug when I dropped her off. I hope I see her next year.

Here’s a full list of the survivors who participated in the symposium this year: Larry Buchsbaum, Lilly Drukker, Dorothy Finger, Anne Fox, Ralph Franklin, Marius Gherovici, Gertrude Klein Gompers, Ernest Gross, Michael Herskovitz, Joseph Hirt, Joseph Kahn, Manya Perel, John Spitzer, Peter Stern, Erica Herz Van Adelsberg, Sarah Meller, Seymour Levin, Joel Fabian.


Je Suis Écrivaine

The human experience can be pretty confusing. I’m still reeling from yesterday’s news about the attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Because I write to make sense of things, I wanted to put this together for my own good. I wanted to sort of curate a collection of the things that gave me a little hope yesterday and today in the wake of murder for the sake of silencing opinion.

Lately I find myself self-censoring when I think about writing on this blog, choosing not to write a post because I don’t know how it’ll be taken by others or if anyone even cares. Charlie Hebdo, on the other hand, has always been the brazen opposite, publishing dirty, dirty, satire that I remember rolling my eyes at when I saw the papers around the newsstands when I lived in Grenoble. But I always loved that it existed and all that French irreverence.

What the Oatmeal has to say about religion in his “How to Suck at Your Religion” cartoon today is totally on point and says so much of what I’m thinking. He also makes a funny point about Judaism that is one of the reasons I am happy to have converted.

The worst part of these attacks is the systematic fear mongering. No one knows the real answer to the question of what happens when we die, but some people are so convinced that they want to kill anyone who doesn’t agree with them, even in the small act of drawing a satirical cartoon to that effect. And it requires a lot of bravery to keep going when your life or the life of someone you love is being threatened. Jon Stewart said on the Daily Show last night that comedy should not be an act of courage, and that was true and sad (and is echoed in the Oatmeal cartoon, not to mention mirrored by the response cartoons that are flooding social media).

I’m not writing this now to rant about terrorism, but to encourage myself and other writers to keep at it. There are too many times that silence speaks volumes – the wrong volumes. As Amy Davidson wrote yesterday in her New Yorker piece on the attack:

“There were times when the French government asked the magazine to hold back, but the magazine kept being itself, which is what one wishes for in a free press. Wednesday’s crime should not cause anyone to second-guess Charlie Hebdo’s editorial decisions. Silence is not where the answers to an incident like this lie.


Jewish Conversion

For several reasons the subject of Judaism and conversion (specifically mine) has come up a lot lately. I’ve been grilled by people of all creeds about why I converted. The questions from agnostics/atheists/any non-Jewish religion are usually much less aggressive, if you will. The questions from Jewish people are more… pushy, I guess, but the sentiment behind it is, as far as I can tell, more shock than anything: “Why would you want to convert?” And I can understand that. I think a lot of people look back on their religious education/life from childhood and are glad they are now grownups.

Anyway, one question from someone at a party went this way: “I’m really curious; why were you inspired to change your religion?” And we had a nice discussion. Another conversation was among friends I’ve known a long time, so it was an easy one to have.
Yet another conversation went this way: “Why did you convert? People don’t just convert to Judaism. Were you getting married?” Aside from the fact that I HATE when people ask me that, this was particularly awkward because I had just met the person asking me this question, at a communal dining table, and my date also happened to be black. So when I decided to appease her and say, “Well… yes. I was getting married to a Jewish person,” all the eyes at the table swiveled to my dinner companion… who said, “I’m not Jewish!”
Thankfully both he and I have a good sense of humor.
But all this has me thinking about how much work I had to do to convert. I found myself trying to explain it to people, like I’m justifying my Judaism. I know I don’t NEED to justify it, but I would venture to guess that not even many Jews know what kind of work goes into conversion.
Notes/transliteration from prayers
Notes/transliteration from prayers

I enrolled in a course through a consortium of synagogues in DC. There was a curriculum and I had to purchase a mountain of books (and read them). Even enrolling in the class was a feat in itself because I had to find a rabbi who had time to meet with me as my sponsor, and it took some time for me to find one. There was a list of “activities” outside of class that I was required to do (like visit the Holocaust Museum and go to a Jewish bookstore). I attended a year of  weekly classes where I learned about Jewish history, prayer, family life, life cycle events, holidays. We also had Hebrew lessons every week. Then at the end of it I had to go in front of the Beit Din – a panel of rabbis – for an oral exam and then I dunked in the mikveh.

Books and notes from conversion class
Books and notes from conversion class

I’m not trying to prove anything here… I just wanted to show those of you who may be interested what it entailed. It was a major accomplishment that I am still proud of. I still have a whole shelf dedicated to all my books. And here are a couple of pictures of the books and my notebook from the class.

“Practicing” Judaism: Conversion and Jewish Weddings

Background: I converted to Judaism 9 years ago. I still feel like it’s something I practice at and am no expert on, although I learned a LOT during the conversion process (not to mention a Jewish wedding and a Jewish divorce!).

I wrote a blog post about what it feels like to be a converted Jew a while back, and an acquaintance of mine contacted me after reading it because she had recently gotten engaged and her fiance was Jewish. She was considering converting and I was all too happy to share my own experience – not to sway her in any direction, just to talk about what it was like for me so she could see what she might be signing up for.

We had some long email and phone conversations, and she did decide to convert. I was glad to be able to be an ear and hear out her concerns – it really made me feel like I was putting my experience to good use!

She ended up inviting me to the wedding, which was flattering in itself, and then she asked me to actually sign the ketubah, which is really an honor because it’s the jewish wedding contract and only one male and one female witness sign it, and people get really beautifully decorated ketubahs these days and frame them. Not only were all those things exciting, but also the wedding was at the Levy chapel at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, which was incredibly beautiful. The ceremony was lovely and I became a bit of an unlikely ambassador of Jewish culture at the reception, because there was a notable lack of Jewish representation. I practically dragged a circle of people around the bride and groom during the hora! (“KEEP DANCING!”)

weddingI did have a facepalm moment during the ketubah signing… the rabbi asked me to sit down and sign, with the families crowding around, and he said, “Here’s where you sign in Hebrew…” and I looked at him with saucer eyes. I had never actually written my Hebrew name, and I didn’t even remember what the full name was, because when you’re born Jewish your Hebrew name translates to “first name, child of mother’s name and father’s name” but if you convert, your Hebrew name is “name you chose, child of …[?? major biblical character / Abraham or Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah].” He said we’d figure it out later, and I had to track him down during the reception so he could write it down for me and then ask the bride to get the ketubah from the car so I could write my Hebrew name. He was also a little confused – he asked Sherpa what his Jewish name was. He couldn’t quite compute why I had converted if my “spouse” was not Jewish. I told him he hadn’t picked his yet.

I did have a nice moment with the bride when we got the ketubah out again – I was able to thank her, and she told me one of the reasons she’d asked me to sign the ketubah was that she remembered me saying I had missed out on some Jewish traditions because I didn’t grow up with it.

I’m touched and really grateful. And we’re “family” now!

My Morning With Manya, Holocaust Survivor

On Tuesday I finally participated in an event I’ve wanted to volunteer for since I found out about it a few years ago. The high school that I graduated from hosts a Holocaust symposium yearly for the sophomore students, and a friend of mine helps to coordinate volunteers to drive the survivors to the event. She had asked me to help several times. This year I decided I had to make it happen. The survivors are not going to be around forever, and most of them are already gone. Meeting a survivor would be an experience to cherish.

I got an email with my assignment about a week ahead of time. I would be picking up Manya Perel from her home and taking her to the event. I called Manya to confirm, and she was extremely sweet on the phone. She asked what color car I’d be driving and told me she’d wave for me when I came.

When the day arrived I got up at 0-dark-thirty to make sure I wouldn’t be late. I made it to Manya’s, and she was waiting at the glass door of her complex, waving like she said she would. We had the most wonderful time in the car. She told me bits about her story, and we talked about traveling and our families, and she asked me why I had volunteered, and if I was knowledgeable about the Holocaust. I told her then that yes, I had learned a lot about it because I converted to Judaism. I was a little nervous, for reasons I can’t explain well in a few words, that she wouldn’t like the fact that I’d converted. But she was so interested, and we talked about my reasons for doing it, and she was so pleased that I had learned so much. I asked if she knew about Birthright Israel (a program that enables Jews under 26 to visit Israel for free) and she said of course! Her grandson was on a Birthright trip right now. She said I should go, and I told her I was too old. “You must go! Try! Tell them your story and they will make an exception!” she said, grabbing my arm. By the end of our ride, she was practicing her French with me, and we sang Frere Jacques, and she sang Shalom Chaverim, and she told me we were friends and that she was happy to have met me. It was beautiful.

When we got to the event, we joined the other survivors (maybe 20 of them) and drivers in the breakfast room, where sophomore students who had won the privilege of being a survivor’s chaperon for the day took over. Some of the other drivers had picked up several survivors, but I was lucky enough to have Manya to myself for the whole drive, and because we’d become friends on our short ride, I sat with her and her chaperon for breakfast and watched out for Manya like a mother hen. She brought out a copy of her book, Six Years Forever Lost, to show us. She showed us pictures from an envelope of herself with many, many important people she had met by speaking at different memorial events. She gave her testimony in a Holocaust survivor video series directed by Steven Spielberg in connection with the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which lives in various museums around the world. She was so happy to have been part of it, and she even saw her video in a museum when she visited her sister in Israel.  She said that the night before I picked her up she’d been singing and dancing at a reunion held for survivors in Philadelphia. She clearly loves life.

When the general assembly began, Manya was one of four speakers to give a presentation in front of all of the students. Each of the presenters had a different story of survival. Their stories were VERY emotional. One had been a 15-year-old son of a well-off family who was given false identity papers and sent alone to survive in another country. Another was the son of two survivors who explained the feeling of epic memory and the way his parents innately passed their passion for life, grief over loss, and story of survival to him.  And then Manya told her story, and said she had committed herself to telling it to as many people as possible. So, I want to share it here, too.

Manya Frydman Perel was born in 1924 in Poland and was one of 10 children. Her family was forced slowly into horrid conditions in a ghetto in the late 1930’s. Her family was taken by the SS, leaving her behind, and then she was taken at age 15 “for hard work,” an SS soldier told her. She survived work in eight different concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and in 1945 was taken on a death march as the Nazis tried to avoid defeat by the Allied Forces. In the dark of night, while still walking, Manya told her friend she couldn’t walk anymore. She knew she would be killed if she fell, so she and her friend found a way to slip into the woods and escape. The two of them hid under a tree for 3 days, listening to bombs exploding, before they were found and liberated by Soviet soldiers. Manya spent 3 years in a displaced person’s camp in Germany, recovering from the effects of near-death starvation. (She was given a displaced persons pass, so she could have traveled anywhere in Europe by train for free, but she was too sick to travel.) Three of her sisters and one brother also survived, but the rest of her family was killed. Manya now has two children and five grandchildren. She speaks very highly of all of them and how much she appreciates every minute of her life. Here is video of her speech:

After the general assembly there were breakout sessions where small groups of students listened to the survivors’ stories. Of course I sought out Manya’s room. I was a little upset watching some of the boys looking overtly bored by her talk. Other students were very respectful, and I am hoping that those guys just don’t yet understand that when you’re watching someone speak in front of you, they are watching you, too. I hope these kids grasped the gravity of the stories they heard and the fact that they had the opportunity to meet Manya, who is a miracle. She even asked for hugs from all of the students after her talk.

I’ve added a photo of Manya with her chaperon, left, and me, right. I have this strange feeling now that I’ve been touched by something magical, having met her. I’m very lucky.

Yes, Virginia, Chopped Liver Is Real

When I mentioned to people that I was asked to make chopped liver for the Seder I was invited to, a few people asked, “Chopped liver? Like, ‘What am I, chopped liver?’ Is that a real thing?”

Yes, Virginia, chopped liver is a real thing. I think the saying, “What am I, chopped liver?” comes from the idea that chopped liver is the often-ignored (and sometimes detested) side dish, and the person using the expression thinks they’re being sidelined.

Chopped liver is a popular/traditional Seder side dish, and every Jewish family has its recipe that has been handed down for generations. You always need that, along with matzoh ball soup, for Seder, whether you like it or not. It’s not part of the ceremonial Seder meal, but it’s a staple nonetheless.

Anyway, I did not find my ex’s grandmother’s letter in time to use her chopped liver recipe for Seder on Saturday. But I got a lot of response after my “Lonely Jew” post and my BFF’s mom wrote to me with her family’s recipe (thank you!), which I used, along with backup for measurement purposes from a recipe that I found on Pinterest, of all places.

Sherpa actually did most of the shopping and cooking, which is no surprise. He went to a local butcher and got a big plastic bag full of chicken livers – it was like a carnival prize goldfish bag, but full of chicken parts. Apparently the butcher told Sherpa there were some other parts in there we would have to sort through. That was fun.

Anyway, we made an egg-heavy version of the recipe and it turned out really well. I liked ours better than the store-bought version that also showed up at the Seder, and we got lots of compliments on it. Sherpa, it turns out, just doesn’t like chopped liver. Something about it reminding him of the liver and onions his dad always requested when he was growing up. But there was plenty of non-liver food, so we were both happy. And going to another “new” Seder is always fun for me. This was Sherpa’s third Seder already! He’s like an old pro.

A Lonely Jew on Passover

I don’t talk about this much, but I converted to Judaism in 2004. The whole process had a lot of up and down moments for me. The ups included learning about Judaism, going through the conversion process, learning from and connecting with my fellow converts, and becoming part of a community. The downs have been fighting the stigma and stereotyping that comes with being a convert, especially one who was getting married to a Jew and then got divorced.

It’s been hard to stay connected to Judaism since I got divorced, because the built-in Jewish family disappeared. After, I went occasionally to a reform synagogue, and even took another Hebrew class there, but I still felt disconnected and didn’t like going alone and I stopped going. I rely on my best friend’s family and family friends for holiday celebrations, but sometimes I can’t even celebrate the holidays because I’m traveling for a conference or something else prevents me.

The biggest hurdle I’ve had to jump, and mostly because of the frequency that I’ve had to deal with it, is the assumption that I converted because I was getting married. It’s the first logical connection everyone makes, and I try to diplomatically explain that no, I didn’t go through a year of Judaism classes, Hebrew lessons, and one-on-one meetings with my sponsor rabbi to go in front of a panel of rabbis and be tested for anyone but myself. I know it’s hard to understand. Even Sherpa slipped last week when we were out to dinner with our salsa-dancing friends before the ill-fated salsa class experience. One half of the couple found out I am Jewish, and she said, “Your name’s not really Jewish is it?” A very common question. No, I converted, I said. “Oh, I didn’t know that! … Why?” Always the question that follows. Sherpa chimed right in with, “She converted for her ex husband!” OY. I thought I’d gotten the point across to him about how much that one particular statement burns me up, but it’s a constant process, I guess.

So, it’s kinda lonely being a converted Jew with no Jewish family. Passover is coming at the end of the week, and fortunately I will be able to go to a Seder dinner at a friend’s family’s house, but I came pretty close to not being able to go to one. To top it off, when I got divorced I wrote to my ex’s Grandmom to say goodbye and requested a couple of her recipes, including her chopped liver recipe, although I didn’t think I’d ever make it, and now for this seder I was asked to make chopped liver and with all the moving around I can’t find the letter from Grandmom.

This has all gotten to me lately. I wonder if there is, or I wish there were if there is not, a community of young converted Jews to socialize with. To be fair to those people who assume I converted for my ex, it’s really rare for someone to convert without a partner to spur the decision, and for those people who have a Jewish partner it’s more easy to keep it up and create family traditions. My life has been in flux for the last 5 years, and every Jewish holiday is different. I recently read an article that reminded Jews that converts have a special place in Judaism, but I’m having a hard time feeling a part of anything, let alone special. Sherpa is very flexible and enjoys going to Seder, break-the-fast, and Hanukah celebrations with me, but obviously he isn’t going to motivate me to get more involved.

Cross your fingers that I can find that recipe before Friday! It would be such a nice tribute to be able to make Grandmom’s chopped liver, and maybe it would help perk up the holiday for me.