Adapted from Heidi’s book Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory and Faith, published by Abingdon Press and available on Amazon.
I’ve recently been on my own “Who Do You Think You Are?” genealogical journey that began when my daughter Ana was up late Googling family names and called: “Mom! do you know you’re from a prominent Jewish family and your grandfather died in a concentration camp?” “Mom, it’s on Wikipedia.” Well Wikipedia…but it was true. I am a Lutheran pastor, but not the same one I was before Ana’s midnight call. Within months, a Wikipedia footnote sent me across the ocean to Germany and to the Czech Republic where my grandfather was murdered. My journey into suffering and loss also led to some surprising joys.
Thanks to a lovestruck matzah salesman, I ended up boarding a plane to welcome the Sabbath and celebrate the Passover with some newfound second cousins in California. Sol Tennenbaum was a German Jewish orphan who supported himself by a variety of odd jobs, including taking matzah orders and delivering it at Passover. In the spring of 1937, as Sol was taking orders, he came to the comfortable apartment of my father’s cousin, Kurt Neumark, and his wife, Paula. Kurt was a prosperous tobacco salesman, and Paula had opened a hat shop on the ground floor of their building. The couple had three children, including seventeen-year-old Edith, who answered the door when Solomon came calling. The two young people were quickly smitten with each other, much to the displeasure of Edith’s parents, who did not view Sol as a proper match for their daughter. Nevertheless, Edith and Sol began to date. It was the summer of 1938.
That fall, Kristallnacht devastated their romantic idyll. Edith’s mother’s hat shop was wrecked, the Neumark home was badly damaged, and her father was arrested and taken to the Dachau concentration camp. Sol proposed to Edith. Under any other circumstances, it is doubtful that her parents would have given their permission, but Solomon had a card up his sleeve, literally. His uncle, William, and older brother, Joe, had gone to live in California and could sponsor Solomon and Edith for visas if the marriage was allowed. By that point, their daughter’s survival was more important to her parents than class differences.
Solomon and Edith became husband and wife in January 1939 in front of a Nazi official who kept a cigar in his mouth the entire time, spitting out the words. Edith was nineteen years old and Solomon was twenty-five. In March, they left on a freighter that took them through the Panama Canal to Los Angeles, where Uncle William and Joe awaited them.
Edith and Solomon’s youngest son, Ben, met me at the airport in his white Acura and drove me through the San Fernando Valley to the spacious home that he shares with his wife, Cindy, who welcomed us with a wide smile and a warm hug. While she finished preparing our Sabbath meal, Ben gave me a tour of their house and took me out to their pool area surrounded by palm and grapefruit trees and a cactus garden. He showed me the spot where a cactus plant purchased by Edith in Panama for thirty-five cents had spent the last portion of its seventy years. Edith and Solomon were each allowed to take only five dollars out of Germany, and they bought almost nothing on their voyage except for the cactus–a birthday gift for Edith who turned twenty during the trip. She and Sol would soon celebrate the birth of their first child, Joseph, followed by Miriam, Daniel and Ben.
Ben and I went inside as the clouds flushed pink, and I sat at the table for what was going to be my very first Shabbat. Cindy lit the candles and said a blessing. We ate a delicious meal of lemon chicken and potatoes and shared family stories. The next day, Ben sat at the head of the table and led us through the Haggadah. It was the first time that their five-year old granddaughter was old enough to ask the questions meant for children. They begin, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Ben offered the traditional answers, recalling the Exodus story of slavery and freedom, but for me there were other answers as well. This night was different because I could now see my own family’s oppression and journey to liberation through the lens of the Exodus story. Now, with the cry of the enslaved Israelites, I heard the distant weeping and groans of my own relatives, my grandparents and my father.
Although my grandfather, Moses Lazarus, did not survive to be liberated, he left a trail for me to follow. Were it not so, there would have been no Wikipedia page for my daughter to approach and, at the touch of a keyboard, part the sea of oblivion, opening a path for me on another night unlike any other that led me to this table, lifting my glass and speaking Hebrew blessings in the candlelight. We sat together to share this Passover meal because of an exodus just one generation removed. We were in the promised land of southern California, and yet as I sat at the table, my own wilderness journey continued with some things falling into place as well as much that remained unsettled…and unsettling. My entire ministry has focused on work for social justice-in South America and the South Bronx and now at a Manhattan church with a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth and many undocumented immigrants. I’ve always been drawn to voices that others would deny and now I realize that the silenced cries of my murdered grandfather and other lost Jewish ancestors have reached out to me through the voices I can hear.
At the table, we are singing Dayenu, getting louder and louder with each verse: “If God had brought us out of Egypt–Dayenu!… If God had split the sea for us–Dayenu!… If God had fed us manna–Dayenu! …If God had given us Shabbat–Dayenu! …If God had given us the Torah–Dayenu! Dayenu means “it would have been enough.” I have my own questions about what is enough. Have I done enough to bear testimony to my Jewish forebears? What more can and should I do?
From a history of horror, I have received staggering gifts of truth, identity and love. This is something we all long for and need, and we can help to make it happen, one story at a time. Listening without prejudice or pity to those who are willing to recount their narratives of pain, loss and righteous rage is part of changing the world. Another challenge is naming our complicity in such narratives. Those of us who belong to religious communities can join to dismantle the architecture of judgment with all of its closets and shadowy corners and resurrect our history of sanctuary– not only for those fleeing violence and poverty in other lands but for refugees closer to home seeking community where they can be their authentic selves. We cannot undo the past, but there remains plenty that calls for our outcry and action today. What we do will vary, but I pray that we will not do nothing.
Heidi Neumark is an author, speaker and Lutheran pastor who has served congregations in the South Bronx and presently in Manhattan. Her experiences in congregational and community organizing in the Bronx led to a highly acclaimed book, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. In her present position, Heidi also serves as the executive director of a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth. She holds an honorary doctorate of divinity from Muhlenberg College. She is married, has two adult children and lives in New York City.