by Peter Gorog
“Did your mom pray during the Holocaust?” asked an 8th-grade student after one of my presentations at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I was surprised hearing this question, and while I tried to compose my answer, I also tried to figure out what prompted her to ask it.
I knew she was a part of a group from a Catholic private school. I also knew that prayer is very important in Christianity, and Catholics pray to specific patron saints depending on their need or activity (healing, travel, country, peace, etc.). She might have wanted to know if Jews had patron saints too, or she could have been interested in knowing if my mother’s prayers were answered and divine providence played a role in our survival.
During the presentation, I mentioned my mother’s Orthodox Jewish upbringing and practices before World War II. I also talked earlier about my great-grandfather, who was a rabbi in a small town, and about my grandfather, who studied to be a rabbi but later chose a secular trade.
I was almost four years old when the Soviet Red Army liberated the Budapest ghetto, so my personal memories are very thin about our life during the Holocaust. However, my mother’s prayer every night when she tucked me into bed is one thing I remember very well. Her gentle voice and the beautiful melody are seared in my memory. So much so, that I was not even three when I knew the Shema by heart. It is one of the most sacred prayers in Jewish liturgy, and I knew it in Hebrew. This traditional Jewish prayer is chanted twice a day, when one wakes up and before one goes to bed. Although I could fluently chant this prayer, even if it was out of tune, I could not understand one word. Actually it took me another 40 years to learn what this prayer was about.
I told all of this in my response, and I put it into context of the Holocaust. I told the audience that this was also the last prayer observant Jews recited before they entered the gas chambers.
I also told them that when the Holocaust was over, my mom stopped praying, stopped observing Jewish traditions, stopped lighting the Sabbath candles on Friday nights, and stopped going to synagogue, except for Yom Kippur to say kaddish for my father. This is a prayer for our loved ones who are not with us anymore. We fasted on Yom Kippur, but my mother never told me why. She turned away from religion after the Holocaust, as many survivors did who could not reconcile their loss with a benevolent G-d.
I finished my response with a “happy ending.” I told the young lady that my mother started to pray again and lit the Shabbat candles after she visited me here in the United States and saw, that after 40 some years, I had returned to the faith of my parents and grandparents. This last comment might have been the answer the young Catholic girl was waiting for. She might have been relieved, and her faith might even have been reinforced by knowing that my mother found G-d again in spite of all the horrors of the Holocaust.
There is a very touching story about the Shema and its significance in the life of Jewish people. The story is about some Jewish children who survived the Holocaust in convents and monasteries in the care of nuns and priests. Many of the parents did not survive, and Jewish organizations tried to identify the surviving children who might have had living relatives.
While in the care of Catholic institutions, they were brought up in the tradition of the Catholic church. After the war was over, the church was very reluctant to turn the children over to Jewish charities. They claimed that they took care of Jewish and non-Jewish orphans, with little or no documentation. Even their Jewish-sounding names could not necessarily prove that they were Jewish.
It happened at one of the orphanages that the representatives of the Jewish organizations started chanting the Shema in the dorm. Their thinking was that if Jewish parents had raised the children in their first few years of life, the survivors most likely had memorized the Shema and their mothers’ voices, just like I had. They hoped that the children would recognize the familiar tunes. It worked! One by one the Jewish children started shouting “Mama,” “Momma,” “Mamushka,” each in their native language, and they joined the chorus of voices. After many years of separation, they still remembered the words, the tune, and the love and comfort their mothers provided during those dark times.
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