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The Hidden Child
Between Two Religions
A Girlhood in Occupied France
A Dual Experience
by
Renée Roth-Hanno

The very first time I experienced faith ­ a connection with a world beyond my daily one ­ was in a Catholic convent in Normandy on a mild, early spring day in 1943. I was 11. Paris had been bombed and I hadn't heard from my parents who were hiding in the French capital. There

There was no doubt in my mind: my mother and father were dead, if not from the bombs, then because they had been caught.

was no doubt in my mind: my mother and father were dead, if not from the bombs, then because they had been caught.

I was sitting in the garden, determined to keep my sad thoughts from my two younger sisters. I had settled at the foot of the statue of the Virgin Mary. I thought, She is a mother, isn't she?


Standing: Mother Superior, Sister Charles
 and Renée. Sitting: sisters Lily and
 Denise,  Spring 1944

She, of all people, would know how it feels to be afraid, to feel lonely. And for a brief moment, it seemed as if she were stretching her arms out for me ­ a little Jewish girl.

After the stormy times we had experienced, it was easy enough to bask in the warm and welcoming atmosphere provided by the nuns. Eagerly, I set out to put into practice what my sisters and I were being taught in the Catholic school we attended: performing my daily good deed, saying grace before meals, and participating in prayers and songs in a church that embraced us totally.

How I admired the nuns' selflessness and brave spirit ­ their risking their lives by taking us in, their scouring the countryside for food in those times of severe rationing.

They were always respectful of our differences, ushering us into church through the side door so we wouldn't have to genuflect in front of the altar. Yet they were mindful that we blend in. Only when the Germans invaded our town were we secretly baptized to complete our disguise.

Baptism had not been easy. As the oldest, I felt responsible for my sisters, then ages 9 and 8. I felt that it was a betrayal of sorts and that things would never be the same again.

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

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 Touch Wood: A Girlhood in Occupied France and its sequel, Safe Harbors.

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