This week I participated in a prayer service at a family celebration. One of the family members said the Mourner’s Prayer [Kaddish] in spite of my assumption that he had no such familial obligation. At the end of the service I asked him about it. His reply took my by surprise: “You’ll be amazed to learn that I am saying Kaddish for a Jewish apostate, who died recently, and who, apparently, was not buried as a Jew.”
Born in the town of Agnon
Now my relative related a story that enfolds the fate of Jews in our time.
“The man for whom I am saying Kaddish was born at the beginning of the century in Buczacz, a Galician town where the author S. Y. Agnon was born. He studied and practiced medicine in Lwow, occupied by the Russians when WWII broke out. He had planned to marry a university student and the two were engaged. Their plans were disrupted by the war. The doctor was sent to Tarnow by the Communist Regime, and was later exiled to Siberia for some infraction. He managed to survive the torment of the Soviet Gulag thanks to his profession. His betrothed also managed to survive. Her sister, who had married an Italian Count before the war and moved to Italy, helped her escape to Italy disguised as an Italian soldier.
All the family died
At war’s end the doctor returned to his birthplace in order to try and determine the fate of his family and betrothed. There he learned that all the members of his family had met their deaths during the Nazi occupation. From his violin instructor as a youth he learned that his betrothed had survived, and moreover, she knew her address in Italy.
The doctor sent a telegram to his betrothed in Rome and informed her of his intention to come to Italy and to join her once more. This, he in fact did. In Italy he learned that his betrothed, under the influence of her sister, had converted [to Catholicism]. She agreed to marry him only if he, too, would convert. The two were married in a Catholic ceremony.
Immigrated to the U.S.
Some years later the couple, with the assistance of the Catholic Church which arranged the entry permits, immigrated to the United States. The doctor and his wife decided to remain Catholics and to hide their Jewish roots in their new environment, as well as from the two daughters born to them in the early 1950’s. They were able to maintain this for quite a long period in spite of the fact that they had cousins in the United States who from time to time invited them to family celebrations.
One daughter studied law and became an attorney. The other became a psychiatrist. For years the two daughters struggled to determine their parents’ background. Too many of the stories told them by their parents made little sense. In some of their parents’ old documents they found the names of their paternal and maternal grandparents whose names sounded Jewish. But the Doctor and his wife would not talk and refused to tell their daughters the truth.
The secret concealed
Several years ago, one of the daughters, the attorney Helen Fremont, decided to act in order to expose the secret the parents were hiding from them. She wrote to ‘Yad Vashem’ in a search for information about her grandparents whose names she had. Documents were found and the secret concealed for decades was uncovered.
Helen Fremont decided to write a book about the affair and it was published few years ago. The book, “After Long Silence”, by Helen Fremont aroused much interest, and was also later published in soft cover. (The wide distribution of the book is evident in that it came to Israel and was sold in the Steimatzky bookstores). The book caused a stormy rift in the family. Moreover, the publication brought about contact between the sisters and their Jewish cousins.
Asking for KADISH
“Two weeks ago” – my relative told me – “Helen Fremont was in touch with me and informed me that her father had passed away. She asked me to do something in order to commemorate him according to Jewish tradition. After checking that there was no Halakhic obstacle involved and “although he sinned, he remains a Jew”, I promised that I would say Kaddish for him each time I prayed with a Minyan [quorum of ten required for saying the Kaddish]. And this I do.”
Who is that relative
As a result of the publication of this story many readers contacted me asking: Who is that relative and what is his connection to this amazing story. I had not published his name in the previous column since he felt obligated to protect the privacy of the people concerned. I convinced him to ‘go public’ by arguing that Helen Fremont, the author of “After Long Silence” herself mentioned him in her book.
I am speaking of Rabbi Joseph Schachter, about whom Helen Fremont says in her book: ”Without you, I’d still be in the dark about much of my heritage.”
The Yad Vashem Archives
Rabbi Schachter, born in Austria, escaped to the United States in 1941. He was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago and served in a series of positions in the Jewish community: Rabbi and Principal in Winnipeg, [B’nai B’rith] Chaplain at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and more. He made Aliyah with his family in 1972 and nowadays volunteers at “Yad Vashem” at the reception desk of the “Hall of Names”. In this capacity he helps people locate [information about] relatives who perished in the Shoah and also solicits [new Pages of] Testimony.
Yad Vashem houses a large archive that includes millions of documents. Some of them are original documents that deal with the fate of those who perished in the Shoah and have major historic value. Another department includes the “Pages of Testimony” based on the testimony of people who have some knowledge about the victims. These testimonies are incomplete, since very few eyewitnesses survived. Most are based on hearsay. Yet, often they contain details that are helpful. This is what happened in the story with Helen Fremont.
Rabbi Joseeph schachter enquiring people in fillout pages of testimony
Letter from Helen
Rabbi Schachter told me: “Some seven years ago I received a letter from Helen Fremont’s sister (in the book she is called Lara. This is an alias. In spite of all the revelations in the book, Helen Fremont does not reveal the true names of her parents and sister and uses aliases instead. In her first letter, the writer listed the names of her maternal grandparents and the paternal grandmother. (The paternal grandfather, had divorced his wife before the war and disappeared.)
I found that two people had each written [Pages of] Testimony about the maternal grandparents, and that they were, indeed, Jewish. I translated them into English and sent them to her. Later, I also got a letter from her sister, Helen Fremont, the author of the book. We exchanged letters each month or two thereafter and altogether dozens of such exchange correspondence continued.
“My advice to Helen was to tread carefully as regards her parents. My experience from other situations indicated that such exposure could bring about traumatic results. The parents’ reaction to the daughters’ initiative was ambivalent. On the one hand they wanted to continue to keep their past secret, and on the other hand, they had kept contact with their American cousins, visited them at Bar Mitzvah and Wedding celebrations. But never had they included their daughters in these visits. The mother was fearful about the exposure and simultaneously displayed great curiosity. As a result of the inquiry to Yad Vashem she found out what happened to her parents in the Shoah.
The two sisters slowly turned to Judaism, studied, went to synagogue, and the older sister sends her two daughters to a Jewish School.
The book caused a rift in the family. Only after the death of the father, the doctor, did they come together, sat ‘Shiva’ together, and asked me to say Kaddish.”
A Warm Family Gathering
One of the most touching chapters of the book is the concluding chapter published in the second edition. It describes the family gathering in the home of one of the many cousins discovered by Helen. The gathering came about as a result of the first edition of the book. Many readers immediately identified their relationship despite the pseudonyms used by the author. They flooded her with telephone calls and arranged for a family gathering.
Helen Fremont describes the great warmth with which she was surrounded in the air-conditioned apartment. The warmth of a family she had never known, the warmth of Jewish food. “I felt immediately at home”, she writes. The gathering was attended by about fifty relatives from all over the United States. Everybody talking all the time, when their mouths were not filled with bagel and smoked lox. One of them had brought two computer printouts six feet long on which the family tree was displayed. There were those whose pictures were pasted next to their names and Helen Fremont would consult the chart from time to time to find where each of them fit into the tree. “I never imagined that so many people could be family”, she wrote.
Several hours later someone brought a box full of documents. Among them were letters written by her mother in schoolgirl English in 1939, in which she tried desperately to extricate herself from the approaching inferno. A letter from the sister in Rome was also found, written in Yiddish. There was also a letter from one of the cousins to a congressman in an attempt to obtain an entry permit and letters of thanks from the cousins on receipt of food packages after the war. There were desperate letters in an attempt to find a place under the sun.
“We weighed the possibility of going to Palestine”, writes the mother in one of her letters, “but neither my husband or I are capable of handling a new war after all we have gone through.”
“My parents”, says Helen Fremont, “were tired. They wanted to settle down somewhere, to raise a family, and to forget the past. And that is just what they did.”
[Translated by Joseph Schachter– Items in brackets added fro comprehension]