When I Knew

The title is misleading. The question I still ask myself is not, “When did I know I was Jewish?” but, “How, in God’s name, did I not figure it out sooner?” I blame Captain von Trapp.

I cannot remember a time when I did not know the story of how my grandmother fled Czechoslovakia, weeks after the Germans invaded, with my two-year-old father in tow, to meet my grandfather in London (the story of how he got to London, however, remained a secret until much more recently). She was a great storyteller, and in her version, she was not a bold heroine, but a foolish and somewhat spoiled girl, slightly oblivious of the danger around her. I heard many times about how she charmed the Gestapo at the border into letting them leave, how they had to stay in Versailles, and how my grandmother abandoned my father every morning to the tender ministrations of “la promeneuse” so she could hot-foot it to Paris, and later, of their life in London and Wales, of ration cards, and air raids, and shoes that unaccountably did not get polished when you left them outside your door at night. What I did not hear anywhere attached to the story was the word, “Jew.” It was a word I never heard used by any member of my family, in any context.

And that is where the Sound of Music comes in. I saw it for the first time a long time ago, long enough ago that I remember standing for the national anthem before it began. My grandparents had come to visit in Toronto, and we all went together. And there, on the screen, was their story, their love for their homeland, the evil Nazis, and their flight to freedom. They even lived high on a hill with a lonely goatherd, in a Swiss Chalet. In Quebec. Here it is:

Granny and Gumper's house in North Hat;ley

When the Captain sang “Edelweiss,” my mother says, tears rolled down my grandfather’s cheeks. Bless my homeland forever.

And once again, not a mention of the word “Jew” in the whole movie (Weirdly, when you think about it. Sure, the von Trapps weren’t Jewish. But Max? Max?). No wonder I was confused as the evidence began mounting and the questions started to come. Because I knew, I knew. But I didn’t know. I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and then all the Leon Uris books. I had dreams about being chased by Nazis. I even wrote a short story for school about a young girl, oh roughly my age at the time, escaping. I asked my father where our name came from. He lied (Miners from Lancaster come to work in the Silesian coal fields. I still have not forgiven him for this one!). I asked him why Gumper was smart enough to leave when others didn’t (you can tell I am getting close at this point). I asked my grandfather what happened to his two sisters. He left the room, and my grandmother changed the subject. I knew we weren’t Catholic, like all the other Czechs I knew, though when my grandfather swore, it was by Jesus and Mary (this also threw me off). Did I think they were Hussites? But no, the von Trapps weren’t Jewish. You didn’t have to be Jewish to flee the Nazis. It wasn’t a question about myself that I asked; it was one I had already answered.

Then cousin Frances came for one of the last Christmases before my grandfather and father died, and this time brought with her a family tree. On it were large branches that were missing, unknown relatives marked only “died in the war.” And Frances told us that we had a Jewish background. I didn’t fully absorb it, confused as I still was by the Captain. Maybe Gumper’s mother had been Jewish?

After my father died, my uncle sat me and my sister down with my mother and told us the story of our origins and swore us to secrecy. My mother already knew; my father had told her before they were married in an offhand way, and she regarded it as a matter of complete indifference. We didn’t keep it a secret; we started talking about our background and history with our father’s cousins, and with our grandmother, especially when we travelled with her to the Czech Republic after the wall came down. My sister remembered revealing all to our Kitchener cousins when we visited them for Christmas a couple of years after our father’s death.

For me this knowledge came, not as a revelation but as a confirmation, an “Oh, of course.” It was like I had spent my life doing a puzzle without the picture on the box, trying to piece together the faces I saw from the pieces I had. Someone handed me some missing pieces and suddenly all the sections I had been working on began to fit together. And on the woman’s face, the pieces now formed a smile.

2 thoughts on “When I Knew

  1. Laura L.

    I love this and it makes a lot of sense, sadly, that once you’ve made the decision to “pass” and hide your roots, it’s very hard to give this up. I wonder, did the generation(s) before us expect this could happen again? Are we naive to think it won’t, ever? I recently enjoyed The Sound of Music with my daughter Julia, and it’s funny how even with the limited writing Christopher Plummer has, he captures the national pride and contempt for the Nazi movement in his smoldering eyes.

    I have another friend in her 40’s whose father she believed, was of Argentinian heritage. Now in his 80’s, he revealed to her and to her mother two years ago that he and his family are jewish, and that he hid this after escaping to Argentina in 1939. She and her mother were astounded that he hid it so long. Her comment was “growing up in LA, everyone always asked if I was jewish – why did they know when I didn’t?!”

    My own father’s step-grandfather was born in Germany but moved to North Dakota as a child, in 1910. Before he passed at 98 in 1989, he recorded hours of his family story on audio-tape. It seems his branch of the Schnabel family originated in Russia, then moved to Germany, then to North Dakota. Careful review of the stories and the photos leads us to believe this story is also one of jewish migration to flee the politics of russia and germany, although as you say so succinctly, it wasn’t only jews who had to flee the Nazi’s. My husband’s family, christian germans, simply sent their sons to the USA to be tobacco farmers to avoid serving in the armed forces – we cringe to consider how many didn’t have such a choice.

    One of my favorite stories is of a friend whose mother was captured as a toddler in Hungary and left the camps as a teen, unaware of what happened to her sisters, and with knowledge that her parents were gone. The first thing this young woman did was make her way to the USA, where she married a Turkish Muslim immigrant. She continues to live in Scarsdale NY, and will not participate in her grand-daughter’s Bat Mitzvah’s, as “religion never did me much good!” A reporter reunited her with her sisters in the early 90’s after researching children who fled the holocaust – and they are grateful. Imagine how many more stories like this are out there?

  2. lucypick Post author

    These are all great stories, and I agree, there are many more like them. And like your Argentine friend, I realized once I knew about our background that there had been many people who had known about it even when we didn’t — I think especially of my friend, a year younger than me, who asked whether, if he came to the university where I was attending, if he would be able to hold onto his Jewish heritage. At that time I thought it was just a general question, but later I realized he was asking as one Jew to another.

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