Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Today I discovered the earliest documentable traces of my family, from the Neumark area of Germany, now Poland. (It’s the Neumark, like the Bronx!).

Jews were officially permitted to live in the Neumark (an area within Brandenburg) since 1344 and that license was extended to Jews living in the city of Brandenburg in 1420. This acceptance proved fragile and ended abruptly during the Black Death when Jews were scape-goated and blamed for poisoning wells and performing spells to cause the plague. Persecution and execution followed.

The surviving Neumark/Brandenburg Jews were expelled, permitted to return, taxed prohibitively and finally in 1510, expelled again for desecrating the host. Since the advent of the 13th century doctrine of transubstantiation, (codifying the belief that the communion wafer was actually the body of Jesus), Jews were accused of attacking consecrated wafers, stabbing and piercing them with knives, nails and needles in an attempt to recreate the crucifixion of Jesus, ironically implying that Jews believed it was the body of Christ. Blood from the bleeding wafers was supposedly used as rouge on Jewish cheeks. Along with these fabrications against Jews, fantasies were spun about consecrated hosts wailing in pain like injured children. Stories circulated about hosts buried to hide the evidence of crimes committed against them emerging from the ground as butterflies, alighting upon the blind and crippled and healing them.

Many Jews were victimized by this hateful hysteria, condemned and burned at the stake. This is what happened in Brandenberg in 1510. There was a mass trial of Jews charged with desecrating the host and 38 Jews were burnt alive. Two others “accepted” Christianity and were beheaded

“mercifully.” The other 400-500 Jews were expelled.

It was a group of these exiles who arrived in Wittenburg in 1510, among them the Neumarks where they lived until the 1930’s.

It is where my grandfather grew up. It is ironic that I stand at the altar every Sunday saying prayers of consecration over bread and wine and repeating the words, “The body of Christ, given for you. The Blood of Christ, shed for you” as I place the hosts in the hands of my congregants. I’ve done it for without thinking of the slaughtered Jews, my namesake Jews. I will not do it again without their painful presence beside me.

“On the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread.” For me, these remain life-giving words. In the face of betrayal and hatred – bread, not revenge. Bread -- not a never-ending cycle of violence. Bread. That is the sustaining hope that emerges from the desecrating slaughter of God’s children wherever and whenever it occurs.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

I have always resisted a blog because I like to write and rewrite and rewrite etc. Blogging is more immediate and imperfect, more like life. Now, I'm writing a blog because I’m getting stuck with facebook. What’s on my mind is not really facebook friendly. Although I have craved solitude to work on my writing and am on a writing sabbatical, I feel the need to speak out somehow from my "den" which is what my husband has taking to calling my office. I have installed a large blind that blocks all outside light. I love the light but, unfortunately, my office window faces the stairs leading down to our church office door. If people see me here, they begin banging on the window which is not conducive to a sabbatical. The office is partly underground so it has definitely become den-like. It is also cooler than the rest of my house. I was going to use the Union library, which I still may, but here I have all the materials I need and at this point I need them.

For most of yesterday and today, I have felt stuck in sorrow. Every time I go into the Shoah database, I find another family member. The toll is up to three in Terezin (Moritz Neumark (my grandfather) and two of his brothers: Max and Julius, three in Auschwitz: Hans, Richard and Paul (my father’s cousins) three in Izbica: Kurt, and Walter, three in Brandenburg: Edgar, Karl and Richard and one in Minsk: Anna. This is the problem with facebook posting. I don't think most people go to facebook for Shoah updates, even though that is what is on my mind, filling my den with a fog of sickness and sadness. I was especially hit by the death of 20 year old Hans who died in Auschwitz. My son is also 20 year old Hans. I realize that there are many more whose names I will never know, but I am committed to finding the names and stories that I can.

Late yesterday, my search took a happier turn. When I found my father’s cousin Kurt in the data base, there was a page of testimony filled out by his daughter Edith. She did it at a Holocaust museum in Los Angeles and the testimony included her address. A few more google searches and I discovered that Edith had married Solomon Tenn and lived in California until their relatively recent deaths. I also found a reference to a Benjamin Tenn. Ben is retired and owns a consulting firm with a phone number on-line. I called and sure enough, Ben is the son of Edith and Solomon. He seemed quite happy to connect and got his brother Joe on the phone too. Joe is the family geneologist. It turns out that their mother survived thanks to a door-to-door matzoh salesman. Her family, like mine, was well-off and well-educated and considered themselves above lower-class Jews from eastern Europe, which Solomon was, but he had two brothers living in Los Angeles who were willing to sponsor the young couple. Due to this, edith’s parents wisely gave their assent and the couple married in 1939 and set off for a new life. They tried to get their parents out, but were unable to and both Kurt and Paula were sent to Izbica where they died in 1942.

Joe and Ben are my second cousins once-removed: the grandchildren of my father’s cousin. Their great-grandfather was my grandfather’s brother, Julius (who died in Terezin with my grandfather). I had been wondering if any of my grandfather’s siblings had retained their Jewish identity and I was happy to discover that Julius and his descendents did. Joe and Ben told me that they have always been devout, practicing Jews as are their children, who have all married Jewish spouses. When we spoke on the phone, they were getting ready for the Jewish wedding of a grandson next weekend.

In the midst of so much death, it is great to discover this new branch of the family tree, continuing to nurture and celebrate their roots, as life goes on.

And I think it is worthy noting that life goes on in their family only because class prejudices were overcome for the sake of survival.