A Post-War Conversion
by Melissa Suran
She lights the Shabbat candles in the dining room, where there is a picture her brother Manfred painted of a smiling, portly man in a blue apron holding a glass of wine. The antique, crystal chandelier amplifies the flames into a brilliant twinkle that dances across my grandmother’s face. At 80, she has no distinct wrinkles etched on her mocha skin, except for a faint line tracing the sides of her mouth. She is 5’6” and has muscular arms made strong by daily workouts. Her primly curled, silver hair and make-up are, as always, embodiments of perfection. Today, she wears a pair of jeans with a brown belt and a tucked-in, cable-knit sweater that matches the ice-blue eyes she inherited from both her parents. She always says, “Just because I’m an old woman doesn’t mean I have to dress like one.”
Because I knew my grandmother simply as “Mom-mom” for the first half of my life, I sometimes forget that she is more–a complex person who survived World War II and a woman for whom life has never been static. She worked as a nanny, a dentist’s apprentice, and even a model. She is also a descendant of German nobility on her mother’s side. Raised Roman Catholic, she had doubts about organized religion, especially after witnessing so much death in the aftermath of the Dresden bombings. Nevertheless, she converted to Judaism.
Her given name is Helga and she was born on September 28, 1933, in a town known at the time as Beuthen O.S. (Oberschlesien) in Germany. After the war, it became a part of Poland, where it is now known as Bytom. Helga’s father, Herbert, was tall and handsome–and a devout Roman Catholic who intended to become a priest until he met Franziska and married her in 1932. After Helga, they had three more children: Manfred, Hans-Jürgen (nicknamed Hansi), and Brigitte (nicknamed Gitta). Herbert remained profoundly religious and brought his family to church every Sunday. Helga never liked going to church, especially since the incense always made her nauseated. She claims she was already a “bad Christian” as a child and to this day, she cannot remember a single prayer. She would often leave church in the middle of Mass or make up an excuse to avoid going at all. She chuckled when she told me, “instead of church, I went for a walk downtown.”
Even though she detested organized religion as a child, my grandmother believes that Jews must preserve their identities. I asked her why it matters so much to her that I identify as a Jew.
“If I put effort into a garden and I’m not around to take care of it, I still want to know that someone is taking care of it for me,” she replied. “I made a promise to keep Jewish traditions…when I’m not around, I want to know that you’re still keeping them alive.”
Nevertheless, when my grandmother prays, she talks to God, “whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever you are. I don’t like praying out of a book because people wrote it,” she said. “What I say comes from my mind.”
Even though I understood what my grandmother meant, I could not comprehend how she found the faith to believe after everything she had been through.
Helga was six years old when the war broke out in 1939. While the children in Beuthen noticed little difference in their daily lives at first, a few years later, merely walking to school became a dangerous task.
“I could have been dead,” my grandmother recalled. “The school was very far away, I had to walk 45 minutes to get there, and the planes were always shooting…when the alarm went off, they sent all the kids home…I had to walk home, and to the left and right, and every which way, I could hear the shooting.”
Helga’s parents opposed Adolf Hitler’s policies but never outwardly protested them. The Nazis considered anyone who challenged Hitler and his Reich a traitor, and traitors went to jail–or worse.
All three of Franziska’s brothers were punished for opposing Hitler. Gregor was beaten publicly by a group of Nazis for speaking against them. Victor was sent to a concentration camp but fortunately was liberated after the war ended. Josef was also sent to a camp, although he met a more gruesome fate.
The camp authorities informed Helga’s family that Josef had died. The family visited the building where Josef’s remains apparently were kept in hopes of bringing them hope for a proper burial. Not only were they not permitted to make arrangements to retrieve Josef’s body, they were also not allowed to open his casket to see him one last time. The family asked an elderly man who looked after the bodies why this was so. Although he said that he was not supposed to tell them, he eventually relented.
“It was because most of the time, you could barely recognize the person after what [he] had been through,” my grandmother said. “Honestly, we don’t even know if there was a body inside the casket since no one was allowed to look inside. And as far as I can recall, he has no grave. Who knows what they did with him.”
To avoid fates like Josef’s, many kept their opinions private. My grandmother said it was dangerous to confide in others, even friends, since betrayals were common. So everyone kept their political views to themselves (or lied about them) and did what was necessary in order to stay out of trouble–at least most people did.
But keeping quiet was not necessarily enough to keep someone out of harm’s way. When Helga was about nine, her father was drafted into the German Army.
When she was ten, Helga was “drafted” into the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the female league of the Hitler Youth. All Aryan children were required to enroll. It only took a few sessions for Helga to grow bored and irritated.
“The only thing I remember how to do from there is how to make a Santa Claus out of cardboard and cotton,” she told me. “And it never looked like a Santa Claus to me, it looked stupid, more like one of Snow White’s dwarves.”
During Bund Deutscher Mädel activities, Helga was told what to do and what to believe, and she detested being forced to be and think a certain way.
“I never liked pressure and I hated it there. I absolutely hated it there. I tell your grandfather the same thing–the more you push me, the less likely I’m going to do something.”
Helga decided to stop going. One of the group’s leaders came banging on the door of Helga’s house, insisting on speaking with her mother.
“All I know is that after the meeting, my mother said that she was in trouble because of me, because I would skip the meetings.”
But the official hostility toward her behavior only made Helga even more reluctant to return. Although she evaded going back, not everyone who rejected the Nazi Party was so lucky. When she was 10 or 11, Helga saw bodies dangling from the branches of a tree. Among the dead was a priest. Although the Nazis renounced religion, many pious individuals clung to their faiths. Soon though, it would not matter what anyone believed.
When she was 11, Helga and her family were among the refugees who went on the run after learning that the Russians (a.k.a. the Soviet Union’s army), who were notorious for their savagery toward German civilians, were about to invade Beuthen.
“I think they only had outhouses in Russia, so if you had an indoor bathroom [the Russians] thought you must be rich and had to be a Nazi…so they smeared their [feces] all over your walls,” my grandmother told me.
The rumors were true, and in some cases, even worse. Helga’s aunt Anna, who remained in Beuthen, was raped from the front and backside by a group of Russian soldiers. Because she was a very religious widow who took a vow of celibacy after her husband’s death, my grandmother said “it was double torture for her.”
Before the Russians invaded Beuthen, Helga’s mother gave each of her children a bag and told them they were leaving immediately. It was winter and bitter cold outside, so taking their heavy, wool coats was a must, especially since they were going to remain on drafty trains for long periods of time.
Many Germans boarded refugee trains, seeking safe havens from a revenge-seeking, invading army. Most of the cities and towns en route from Beuthen claimed they had no space for the refugees, so the family kept on the move.
“I felt like a yo-yo because the train kept going from one place to another since there was no place to stop,” my grandmother recalled.
When the refugees would finally find a location to temporarily settle down, they would be placed wherever there was room, whether it was a farmer’s house in a small German town or in a large gymnasium-like building in the middle of Czechoslovakia, with nothing to sleep on but straw.
“They gave us the same straw that animals sleep on, we didn’t even have mats,” my grandmother told me. “But children don’t care. To them it doesn’t matter. They think it’s fun. I never slept on straw before–I slept in a beautiful bed in my old room. So I jumped around on the straw and thought it was funny… but after the first night, it wasn’t fun anymore.”
Place after place, the refugees found themselves back on the trains. American planes were constantly overhead and they would fly down low and shoot at the trains, not knowing or seemingly caring who was aboard.
“Wherever you went, you were never safe. Everything would fall apart. It was a mess.”
And there was little food. One day, Helga and one of her three paternal tantes (German for “aunts”), left the train at a rest stop to find something to eat. Helga’s Tante Grete was worried about her baby, as she had trouble breast-feeding since she suffered from malnutrition herself. So Tante Liesle took Helga with her to find food for the adults and milk for the baby.
“I don’t know exactly what they were arguing about, but Tante Liesle got mad at a Nazi and he pointed his rifle at her. He had one of those big rifles that hang over your shoulder. I remember Tante Liesle saying that her fiancé is a soldier fighting on the front lines and here this Nazi is about to shoot her. He finally let her go.”
This subjection to the stresses of constantly being in danger and the lack of proper nutrients was especially hard on the very old and very young. Helga’s three-year-old brother, Hansi, developed a high fever, which eventually turned into pneumonia. Helga and her family had no choice but to leave the train and get him to a hospital at the next stop–Dresden.
They had been living in a small village outside of Dresden for about a week, staying with a farmer who provided them with free food and shelter in his home. Although they were used to bombs falling daily, this time it was different. It was nighttime when the sirens went off and the sound of planes overhead was louder than normal. Franziska told her children to stay inside, but they went out to see what all the commotion was about. Helga was standing in the yard when suddenly bombs started dropping over and over. Her mother began crying.
“They came twice that night out of nowhere,” my grandmother said. “I remember, I thought the sky looked like it was lit up with Christmas trees because of the phosphorus.”
Dresden, a metropolis of 750,000 once renowned for its history and culture, was transformed into a ghost town of rubble and ash in a matter of hours. Approximately 13 square miles were decimated. Somewhere between 18,000 and 25,000 people lost their lives that night.
After the bombings stopped, Franziska and Helga searched for the hospital where they left Hansi. There were no street signs, no landmarks. Just smoke, the smell of burnt flesh, and debris.
While looking for her little brother, Helga saw parts of dead animals as well as people with nothing left on them but their shoes. Their bodies were burnt black, reduced to a human coal. There was no way of really knowing where you were. The only markers were the haunting chunks of bodies. Franziska figured she was near where the zoo had been when she came across the remains of what appeared to resemble exotic animals. It was all so badly burnt it was hard to know for sure.
When she realized what her young daughter was seeing, and not knowing if the bombings would begin again, Franziska sent Helga away from the bombed-out landscape and continued searching for Hansi on her own.
“We were scared stiff, we thought there was no way he was still alive,” my grandmother said.
The large hospital where Hansi was staying for his treatment, Gerhard Wagner, extended many blocks. Now, it was nothing more than rubble. The only reason Franziska recognized it as the hospital was because of the color of the yellow-beige bricks. She realized it must be the right place when she saw a group of trucks parked outside. Franziska had come just in time–the trucks were there to transport the children who survived in the hospital’s cellar. Transport to where was anyone’s guess.
“Had she come a minute later, I might never have seen my brother again.”
Other parents arrived, searching for their children, and in some cases, the Red Cross was able to help them. But for several families, the most they could do was pray that their children were still alive, hopefully somewhere safe. After hours of walking, Franziska finally found Hansi.
“He didn’t want to talk, he was just sitting in a corner, like a scared little rabbit,” my grandmother recalled. “That took everything out of him. It took a long time to recover from all that shock.”
Two days after the attack on Dresden, Helga’s family was back on a train.
They eventually settled in Weiden, a little town in Bavaria. Because of the lack of space since bombs destroyed much of Germany, many refugee families were afforded makeshift living quarters created in former barracks. Helga’s family was lucky to receive housing in an actual building. It was part of a large apartment owned by a family who was forced to provide lodging by the German government. Since there were so many homeless refugees, the government ordered individuals with extra rooms to provide living quarters for those in need.
Helga’s family lived in one small room together on the first floor, where they ate, slept, and bathed. Helga developed allergic rashes every time she washed in their metal bathtub. Since they had very little space, Franziska left the moveable tub in an outside storage room when no one was using it.
On the second floor was a communal bathroom, which everyone in the building had to share. With two families on each of the three floors, the bathroom was frequently occupied. Only one family had a small, closet-like space in their apartment equipped with a hole that they used as a toilet.
Luckily, Helga’s family did not have to live there permanently. After the U.S. Army occupied Weiden about six months later, Helga and her family moved into a nicer building where they acquired two rooms–right next to a bathroom.
Although Helga finally had a roof over her head and no longer had to worry about bombs plummeting from the sky, she felt a strong sense of loss.
“I missed my own room, my own bed, my toys, my dollhouse, and everything. I missed everything. I missed my other family members, I missed home, I missed the way life was,” she told me.” I missed my father the most. More than anything else.”
Helga not only lost everything she ever owned (except for two changes of clothes and her winter coat), but she also believed her father was dead. For a while, listening to music was too hard for Helga emotionally. So many things that seemed indirectly related to her father–like music–reminded Helga of him.
The German authorities had cause to presume Herbert dead and informed the family that he was missing in action. Franziska received welfare from the government but no additional pensions since Herbert had been a draftee and had not volunteered for the Army as a “career soldier.”
When Germany converted its currency from Reichsmarks to Deutsche marks in 1948, the currency deflated 10 to 1. To offset the loss, the German government provided each person with 40 additional Deutsche marks.
“After the war was over, the money went POOF,” my grandmother said. “At least we got free health care at the time.”
With no other source of income, Fraziska decided she had to find work to support her children. She acquired a position working for a Jewish doctor cleaning his office.
“I remember he was incredibly nice to us and he paid her very well. He gave us food, clothes, big jars of peanut butter, and everything.”
His name was Dr. Berg. He lost his first wife in a concentration camp but remarried soon after the war ended. There was a shortage of doctors, which was exasperated by the fact that a large number of liberated Jews from concentration camps needed medical care. Several of these Jews lived in a large hotel in Weiden called Cafe Weiss, which was transformed into a displaced persons camp.
Since Jews were allowed to work again, Dr. Berg was able to open up a practice. And thanks to him, Franziska found work as well.
With their mother gone long hours, Helga mothered her siblings as best as she could, wishing her father was there to take care of them all.
In 1954, Helga’s family found out through the Red Cross that Herbert was alive, and he was reunited with them in Weiden. The Russians held him as a prisoner of war and somehow, the Red Cross was able to intervene.
“He always said that we have to thank a Jewish doctor for him being alive,” my grandmother recalled.
Herbert was so ill from working long hours, malnourishment, and heart trouble that a doctor was going to send a letter dictating that he should not work in the mines anymore, which is where the Russians were sending some of their prisoners. Throughout his captivity, Russian wardens frequently beat Herbert, leaving him with a permanent scar on the front of his head. His once dark brown hair was marked with a patch of white near his forehead–another lifelong reminder of his beatings.
Terrified that the Russians would “get rid of him,” Herbert begged the doctor not to write the note and to let him work. She took pity on him, agreed, and brought him to her house to do minor jobs there. Herbert eventually regained his strength and made it back to Weiden, where the government gave him and his family a new apartment.
When Herbert was strong enough, he worked for the new German government, and when he retired, he received a medal of honor. Herbert and Franziska remained in Weiden for decades. A heart attack ended Herbert’s life at 71 as he was dressing for church one Sunday morning. Franziska died on a Sunday afternoon at age 89 while talking on the phone to my great-aunt. They are buried in Weiden, together in a single grave, one body atop the other.
While her parents were able to adapt and make Weiden their lifelong home, for Helga, who had grown up in a large, cultured city, it was dull and unrefined.
“I never felt comfortable in Weiden, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t breathe, it felt like I was suffocating,” she said to me, adding that it was full of German “hillbillies.”
“So why not go somewhere else?” I asked her.
“Go where? There was not much to choose from, everything was demolished. There was no place to live. We were lucky to find the one room,” my grandmother replied. “War is dirty. War is ugly. And what happens? It’s the people who suffer.”
Helga was not the only one who disliked the city. The phrase “Wen Gott kann nicht leiden, den schickt er nach Weiden”–which roughly translates to, “If God does not like you he sends you to Weiden”–was popular among the refugees.
One of the only places in Weiden that Helga did not loathe was school. “I loved school so much that when I had an operation on my toe and I wasn’t supposed to walk, I walked on my heel so I wouldn’t miss a day of class,” my grandmother told me.
After Helga finished grade school, she went to Berufsschule, vocational school, where she trained to be a dental assistant. Although Helga dreamed of becoming a pediatrician, she did not have enough money to continue her education. Instead, she found a job right out of school and worked into her teenage years.
She was now 18, and frequently went out with friends and dated boys. There were American soldiers stationed in town, and although they looked and sounded intriguing with their uniforms and accents, a girl would quickly get a bad reputation if she were caught dating one of them.
Helga was at a friend’s birthday party in Weiden when she met Erwin. She thought he was irresistible with his suave attire, suntanned complexion, rosy cheeks, and black, curly hair.
“When I first saw him, I thought jeepers, that’s a good-looking guy,” my grandmother recalled. “I never thought I had a chance with him since I had no money for elegant clothes. I was a poor little nothing, and he always dressed like a movie star.”
Although he was a Romanian native before becoming an American citizen, the part of Romania where Erwin grew up belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire before war turned the borders into a mess. Not wanting Helga to know that he was Jewish and came from an Orthodox family, Erwin told her that he was half Italian, which is why he “looked Jewish.”
“He made up such a ridiculous story. Everybody told me back home he was Jewish, but these things never meant anything to me anyway,” my grandmother said. “I didn’t even care that he was Jewish.”
Like Helga, Erwin lost a great deal at a young age. His family was forced to leave their hometown of Czernowitz, Romania (now part of the Ukraine) and relocate to a city in the Soviet Union called Moghilev-Podolsk (also Ukraine today). While living in a ghetto, Erwin’s father, Max, died of typhoid fever and his body was thrown into a mass grave. Then Erwin’s sister, Clara, died of pneumonia soon after the war ended. Since there was no penicillin, Clara’s family could do nothing except comfort her while she was dying. She died on her 24th birthday.
When the Russians liberated Moghilev-Podolsk in 1944, Erwin and his mother, Mali, returned to Czernowitz. About four months later, the Russian Army drafted Erwin, who was now 18. He was discharged almost a year later after an agreement was reached that allowed Romanians like Erwin to either return to their hometown, regardless of what country it was a part of now, or settle in another part of Romania. While her son was in the Army, Mali obtained a visa and headed for Chicago, where three of her brothers had moved to after the First World War. When Erwin was discharged, he was unable to join his mother, as the United States had reached its quota. After acquiring his visa in Bucharest, Erwin left for Paris and lived there for a year. His uncle Harry, who knew the consul of the Dominican Republic residing in Chicago, helped Erwin get another visa.
Since the Caribbean was closer to the United States than France, Erwin moved once again. While in Santo Domingo, he found office work in a mattress factory. A year later, Erwin’s uncle Max sponsored him and he was permitted to enter the United States.
“His uncle Max knew Sidney Yates, who helped him come here,” my grandmother said.
Yates was a well-known Jewish congressman from Chicago who held his seat for almost 50 years. He also sponsored the legislation that lead to the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Thanks to Yates, Erwin’s entry into the United States was expedited.
In order to become a U.S. citizen immediately and not wait several years, Erwin had to register with the Army. He was drafted a year after arriving to the country. His name back then was Igor–when he was 26, he changed it to Erwin per the Army’s suggestion as a precautionary measure since he was previously associated with the Russian Army under his birth name.
Since he could speak seven languages (he is fluent in English, German, Romanian, Russian, Yiddish, and knows some Spanish and French), Erwin was assigned a position with the Military Intelligence Service. He was first sent to Stuttgart. His unit then moved to Weiden to interrogate illegal aliens at the border of Czechoslovakia.
Helga agreed to go out with Erwin, so long as he never wore his army uniform in public–a girl had to protect her reputation, after all. Erwin agreed and on their first date, he took her to the circus.
Although Erwin liked Helga, he dated other girls. Fed up with Weiden, Germany, and Erwin’s dating record, Helga left for Canada at 19 after her friend Fritz decided to move there as well.
“Even though I didn’t like Weiden, I never thought of going that far away,” my grandmother said. “But Fritz talked me into it and made all my papers ready. And I figured if [Erwin] really was Jewish, he would never get serious with a non-Jew, so why stay there.”
Before Helga left, Erwin gave her a small picture of himself. On the back he wrote, “I love you.”
Helga and Erwin wrote to each other. Helga’s mother also wrote to her and told her anytime she saw Erwin with girls. In one letter, Helga mentioned to Erwin that she met a man who hoped to marry her someday.
“In the next letter from your grandfather, he didn’t ask me to marry him. No, he never asked me to marry him. He just said we were going to get married.”
Helga was excited to become a Jew. During the two years she lived in Canada, she worked as a live-in nanny with a religious Jewish family.
“I lived like a Jew and I wasn’t even a Jew yet,” my grandmother recalled.
She observed the Jewish holidays with them and learned how to keep a kosher household. My grandmother told me that living a Jewish life came as naturally to her as “breathing air.”
Helga’s Roman Catholic father, Herbert, who remained in Germany, supported her conversion, saying the war took too many Jewish lives and that the faith needed more members.
“My father had several Jewish friends, so Judaism wasn’t so foreign to him either,” my grandmother said.
Similarly, Erwin’s mother welcomed Helga to her faith and family. Just as her mother-in-law had, Helga also has two sets of cutlery and dishes–one for dairy and one for meat, as well as a separate set for Passover, in accordance with halachic law. And just as Mali did, Helga lights Shabbat candles every Friday night.
“I love Judaism, it makes sense to me,” my grandmother told me. “There was an openness, a freshness, that I loved about it. Even before I converted, before your grandfather asked, I was drawn to Judaism.”
I asked her why.
“Many reasons,” she replied. “Part of it is because too many people lost their lives for it and I wanted to help rebuild what Hitler wanted to destroy…and another reason is because it just clicked. I’m not sure how to explain it, but I can’t imagine being anything other than Jewish.”
And after all the death she had witnessed, Helga was drawn to the focal point of Judaism–celebrating life. As a result, she did not take Judaism just in name–she took it on as her full identity.
“Being a Jew is a part of me, it is me,” my grandmother said. “Becoming a Jew…it was beshert.”
Melissa Suran is a freelance journalist from Chicago currently pursuing a doctorate at The University of Texas at Austin. She has a masters degree in journalism from Northwestern University and her work has been featured in several publications including Chicago Journal, the Chicago Sun-Times, Crain’s Chicago Business, EMBO reports, and Kaiser Health News.