had gone to bed one evening an ordinary, innocent 8-year-old, barely
knowledgeable about her Jewish faith, and I woke up the next day,
forced to flee my home
But I could not stop it. I
began to sleep walk and to suffer from attacks of breathlessness, so
severe that I feared I would die. And I had nightmares that we would go to
Heaven without our parents.
So when, a few months later, our
nunnery and town were bombed on that fateful D-Day, it felt right for me to
vow, if God let us live, to become a nun. It was the least I could do, and
also the most.
The truth is I had been terribly
hurt and scarred as a Jew. I had gone to bed one evening an ordinary,
innocent 8-year-old, barely knowledgeable about her Jewish faith, and I woke
up the next day, forced to flee my home. Also, I had been startled by the
open display of hatred around me in Paris. I was being branded as a Jew:
compelled to wear the Star of David, banned from movies, cafes and parks,
denied a radio and subjected to curfews.
But the real hurt had started
long before the war when I learned that Jews preferred boys. When I was
born, my father gave me a boy's name. He did the same for my middle sister.
And when my youngest sister was born, he told everyone she was a boy!
My mother's messages were hardly
more positive. Women don't count at all in a "minyan," she
reminded me. They are not allowed to touch the Torah or to pronounce the
name of God. Being a "balabusta" was my only chance in the world.
I was in no hurry to grow up.
In the Catholic religion, at
least, God is kinder to women, I thought. He made Mary the mother of Jesus,
and little Thérèse of Lisieux saints! The nuns were not afraid of Him
they were married to Him! Still, I couldn't trust Him. What if He
were the same God Jews prayed to and feared, He who couldn't care less about
the plight of the Jews even little children. So I turned to the saints
invoked daily at the convent: St. Anthony, who would unfailingly turn up a
lost key, a stray sock, and Ste. Thérèse, who was from a neighboring town.
I did not really believe in them, but that's all I had. I knew very little
about Jewish history and, feeling abandoned by my parents, the saints kept
me company and soothed my pain.
The isolation the alienation,
really continued in post-war France. For a long time, I couldn't look
into people's eyes lest they'd find out I was Jewish. Even when I felt safe
enough to bring up my Jewish background, I would clam up, my throat choking
out the words.
I had never told anyone about my
vow, but it was on my mind. Partly out of rebellion because I could not
forget the war years, as my parents wished, I would sneak out to church for
Sunday Mass, until the day my father found out and raged, "You are not
going to church! You are a Jew, for God's sake!"
He died three days later. I have
not attended Mass since nor have I wanted to.
It was only during a trip to New
York that the knot became undone. My very first culture shock occurred when
I heard people openly discussing the Seder in a department store. My most
liberating experience my very first hearty laughter occurred as I was
watching TV comedian Sid Caesar peppering his notorious German gibberish
with Yiddish words.
Only when I began to breathe
freely and to keep my head high could I begin to discover and appreciate my
Jewish heritage. I decided to make New York my home and, in order to revisit
the past, I began to write. In fact, English, I realized later, had become
the language of reconciliation for me. It allowed me some distance before
setting down my thoughts in French.
But it was the International
Gathering of the Hidden Child in May 1991 and those that followed
which provided me with the most valuable experience of all: a community of
peers, an extended family where I enfin! could feel
unconditionally accepted. So many have come to me and said, "I'm so
glad you wrote about your experience. It happened to me, too."
What am I today? Of course, I am
a Jew though not a conventional Jew. Being able to say, finally, "I
am Jewish" without choking or blushing is a wonderful feeling. I am not
religious. I don't believe in God. But because we only have each other, I
believe in human beings.
I am grateful for my dual
experience. It has expanded my vision and made me more tolerant of
differences. And I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to say "thank
you" to those who saved my sisters and me, and to have obtained
recognition from Yad Vashem for the only surviving nun.
It's been a long and arduous
journey. I am glad it is over. . . . Well, perhaps not quite. I still intend
to learn more about Judaism and I dream of finding an ideal congregation
with a rabbi a hidden child, perhaps who will welcome individuals who
have been exposed to Catholicism. . . and who will smile at my hobby of
collecting miniature churches.
RenéeRoth-Hano is the author of
Wood: A Girlhood in Occupied France and its sequel, Safe Harbors.