Magazine article The Christian Century

Family Secret

Magazine article The Christian Century

Family Secret

Article excerpt

WHEN MY FATHER boarded a ship to New York in 1938, he brought his trunks of family silver and linens--and his faith. Years later he returned to Germany with my mother and me and showed us the magnificent church where he was baptized, raised and confirmed, St. Mary's in Lubeck.

When I was 16, my father gave me a book of sermons by Helmut Thielicke. He raved about Thielicke's ability to connect with students, professors, farmers and shopkeepers alike. He admired the theologian's brave repudiation of Nazi propaganda. It was a high homiletical bar set by my father, who died before I preached my first sermon but not before handing over the glorious inheritance that has shaped my life.

I recently found the manifest for the ship my father sailed on: the S.S. Europa. I was shocked, overwhelmed and disoriented when I read, beside his name, his race: Hebrew. My father was Jewish! He was descended from a Jewish family that can be traced back to the 17th century. I have not pastors but rabbis in my background, including Elijah Ba'al Shem. Legend says he created a golem (a creature made ex nihilo) who waited with an ax on market days, ready to strike anyone about to attack a Jew. When the golem's powers became known, Elijah Ba'al took the golem to his attic and erased the holy name traced on his forehead, whereupon the golem turned back to clay. The door to the attic was permanently bolted shut. Another family rabbi, Jacob Emden, was a renowned scholar and Talmudist who defied convention by insisting that Christianity has a valuable place in God's plan for humanity.

My grandfather's father was a Jewish leader in Wittmund. He celebrated his 71st birthday by donating chandeliers, furnishings and altar cloths to a synagogue he helped build. In the same week that my father landed in the U.S., that synagogue was destroyed. Soon Wittmund was declared "clean," Judenfrei.

Grandfather Moritz Neumark settled in Lubeck, directed operations in the steel plant there, and served on the city council as the only member of an anti-Nazi party. In 1934, after 28 years of civic and industrial leadership, he was pressured to retire. My father remained at the plant for several more years until his parents urged him to leave the country. Kristallnacht was only months away.

On January 27, 1943, my grandparents were transported to Terezin concentration camp, where my grandfather died. He was 77. It is likely that his ashes were dumped in the nearby Ohre River. …

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