“My husband tried to tell me his mother was a German Jew, a few months before we were married. I was shocked, but tried to focus on the German, ignoring the Jewish part.” –Sharon S.
Until I was five, I was raised by my grandmother, Ottilie Huehner, in a quiet rural town in Connecticut. Being with her, I always felt very secure and very loved. But why I was singled out to be raised by her is a bit more obscure.
I do know my mother didn’t want me, so my grandmother took me in. While my mother couldn’t handle having kids around, she did raise my brother, Michael and sister, Kay. Yet she also gave up another brother, Steve and a sister, Linda for adoption.
Another explanation is that even as a small child, I was very religious, while my brother and sister were not. My mother was an Atheist and seemed to have no qualms about sending me to live with her mother, Ottilie.
But I will never fully understand the nature of the relationship between my mother, Annamarie, and my grandparents. I only know that my mother suffered with some sort of mental illness, while she was growing up.
My grandparents were German and rarely spoke English around the house. But my childhood seemed relatively normal…at least to me.
Ottilie and I went fishing together, went to our local Episcopal church regularly and read the Old Testament while saying our prayers at night. My grandfather, Alfred, was more distant and aloof. But my grandmother dearly loved him, which made me feel that he was there for me as well.
Although Ottilie never spoke to me about sin or Satan, she did tell me that Hell was here on earth. And that worrying about Hell in the religious sense, was useless. In church, she would quietly correct the sermons, telling me that I should only pray to God, and ignore the Trinity. There was no intermediary. All God required was for me to put my hands together and pray directly to Him. The Ten Commandments were utmost to her, and she told me as long as I obeyed them all, I’d be fine.
I loved my father, Walter, very much. He was a positive and consistent presence in my life. When he would periodically pick me up at my grandparents house, Ottilie would tell me he was coming and to go have fun with him. She would smile warmly at my father and obviously respected him.
Walter was quite fun loving, and because of him sometimes I’d even go back to my parents house and stay for a while. That’s where my older brother Michael and my younger sister Kay lived.
Michael and I got along well and we loved to play together. But, I also remember how angry it made my mother. It created terrible tension in that house and made me very nervous. So, it was always a relief when my father drove me back home to my grandparents.
Christmas meant very little to me, but I remember one particular Holiday Season with my father. I must have been four years old and it was at my parents’ house. It was a real Christmas, and Walter seemed genuinely happy to celebrate it. He made a tree and brought presents and lots of happy cheer. After that we only made pretend about Christmas
But on June 15, 1970 all this ended very suddenly. I was at my parents’ home that day with my mother and siblings. We were all in the house when my father suffered a fatal heart attack. He was sitting in a chair just eating a bowl of ice cream. That was the last day I ever had as his daughter, and the last one with my grandmother Ottilie as the mother who raised me.
There was no funeral and Annamarie never really explained to us, why…or that Walter was dead, for that matter. We as children didn’t understand any of this, but my brother took it especially hard because he still didn’t know where his father was.
That’s when I had to leave my loving grandmother, and move in with my mother, Annamarie.
My carefree days of fishing at the pond with Ottilie were over. I would still visit her house, but I couldn’t always stay, because I had to start school. And Ottilie’s house would soon be gone anyway.
Six months later it was Christmas time again. I was in school and all the teachers and kids were discussing Santa Claus and “Merry Christmas”. But the only thing we had at our house to celebrate was an old 33 rpm recording of Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”. It was quite creepy, yet we listened to it often. I was sure that Christmas was all about ghosts.
In my confusion I asked Annamarie to explain Christmas and what was going on. So did my brother, Michael. But she didn’t like those questions, and finally told us that we couldn’t have Christmas any more because Santa’s shop and all the stuff in it had burned down.
That’s when I sent this letter to Santa Claus.
With her spin on it she said the fire effectively ended Christmas. Looking back on it now as an adult, what she meant was, “Your father is dead! Now I have no reason to continue this obligation. So there will be no more Christmas!”
As a result, Christmas was the darkest and most dismal time we could imagine, living in my mother’s house. Even though I was no longer living with Ottilie, she maintained tight control over any holiday celebrations. To her, Christmas was just another day to be ignored, and Annamarie went along with it. We never sang songs or ever exchanged a single gift.
Ottilie knew full well my father was dead and our lives were turned upside down. So it seemed very cruel that she would not simply play along with Christmas, if only to keep us happy.
That was the end of 1970. By spring Annamarie had sold my grandparents house and a short time later it was demolished. Then she put Ottilie and Alfred in an old folks home. As a result Ottilie became severely depressed.
Then in 1976, my grandfather, Alfred passed away. Ottilie was simply devastated. She was alone now with nothing to do, no place to go, crammed into that gross little apartment in the retirement home. It was just horrible. She changed so much, I hardly knew her. A year later she had a series of stokes and moved in with us, in my mothers house.
With my father dead and Ottilie no longer my surrogate mother, I needed a lot of help. While I continued to go to the Episcopal church without her, I felt I was drowning in religious dogma.
By the time I entered the 7th grade I began attending Catholic school. But it was brutal and so confusing. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like an outcast especially if I tried to do what Ottilie taught me. So, I learned to fake it and stopped praying all together.
But I felt I was headed down a rocky road.
As we got older, Michael and I tried to “create” a Christmas, at least for show….just to fit in at school. But we could never really get it together.
As the years passed, I was confronted with so many clues regarding my true heritage. Yet I remained steadfast in my belief that my grandparents always spoke GERMAN, and that the food we ate always came from German markets.
Sometime after I married my husband, Brock, I met his grandmother, Emily. She and I hit it off immediately, probably because his family felt so similar to mine!
As we sat together she began speaking in her native tongue. I was so amazed because I understood every word.
I said, “Emily! You speak German!”
She was very old but she sat up straight and said, ” I do not speak German, I speak Yiddish.”
Later I told my husband, “No, that isn’t Yiddish, it’s German”.
I felt so sorry for her because she thought she was Jewish, when she was really German..like me.
That’s actually what I said!! It never crossed my mind that Emily was really Jewish.
Looking back, I realize that there were so many other clues that I either failed to recognize, or just plain ignored.
When I was still a little girl, I learned to speak with Ottilie in what I believed was German. Later Annamarie forbade me to speak my grandmother’s language because she said it was NOT German. Now of course I realize that she was speaking Yiddish.
Growing up with Ottilie and Annamarie, we maintained a very strict diet. No school lunches, and we were never allowed to socialize or go out to eat with other kids, or at their homes. “Grandma’s wine” was only Manischewitz. Matzos were our “saltines”. I was 18 years old the first time I saw ham at a friend’s dinner party. I didn’t know what it was. Lamb was the gold standard of meat in our house, especially at Easter. We were told that “our” foods were higher quality. It never dawned on me that our diet was Kosher.
By 1978 I had become a rebellious child. Following the other kids I hung out with, I had a small tatoo etched into my shoulder. Wearing a tank top when I came in the house, Ottilie spotted it instantly and told me to wash it off.
When I said that at it doesn’t wash off, she screamed at me, “What have you done??!! Sharon, WHAT have you done?”
Sobbing uncontrollably, she wailed, “Got im Himmel!!!” The police will recognize you now. When they come, you must cooperate!”.
She was totally hysterical. My mother said “Ma, God damn it, NO police are coming!!!” She was furious.
In 1998 my daughter, Krista was in Jr. High School, when I had a series of conversations with her guidance counselor, who I learned was an Israeli by birth. When he asked about my own childhood, I told him, among other things, how I was raised by my German grandmother, Ottilie.
Then he asked me if I knew that she was Jewish. I almost fainted right there, and said “What are you talking about??? She wasn’t Jewish!!!”
That was the most insane thing anyone ever said to me.
To calm me down, he reached out and said, “Sharon listen, it’s ok. Ordinary German citizens didn’t act that way. She was a German Jew.”
There were more incidents like that, but you get the idea.
Now I know for a fact that my grandmother’s family members were converted. But we don’t know who or when or under what circumstances.
Pete Vanlaw is convinced that if Ottilie ACTUALLY did convert, she only did so in the best tradition of the “Crypto Jews”. Those who secretly maintained their Jewish faith while publicly adhering to Christianity.
But I still wouldn’t accept the truth without the unselfish help I received from my daughter, Krista – who realized we were Jewish long before I did. And our determined genealogist friend, Lori Rosen at JewishGen, who worked tirelessly to track down Ottilie’s family.
Only when she and her European counterpart agreed that there really is a Star of David in the photo of my great uncle, Karl Frey’s headstone – finally proving that Ottilie and her family really were Jewish – was I able to accept the inevitable…that I too am really Jewish.
And now I understand why so many of my Jewish friends became instrumental in my life. They saw who I truly was long before I did…including my husband.
That was only a year ago, when I felt my whole life come into focus. Realizing my own errors, I felt enormous comfort that I was seeing all of this in God’s time, not my own. I would only see it when I was ready, not before.
I felt like I’d been half blind for 48 years, and only now did I have glasses. It was also comforting to learn there were others like me – that I wasn’t born a misfit.
And now I more fully understand poor Ottilie’s torment over the loss of her family in WWII. “They are all gone”, she would say. And she would tell me how much she wished she had never left Germany – that Germany was her home, and she will never stop loving her home. Several times, she told me that if she had stayed in Germany she would most likely have died too. She would just look very sad and say, “So, I am not dead, so I’m here. So it must be a good thing.” But she never looked very convincing. They call it, “Survivor’s Guilt”.
Now that I’ve accepted the truth, and made peace with God, I feel comfortable with it. But I still feel that I’m stuck between two places, hoping that someday I’ll find a rabbi somewhere who will take seriously what I have to show him. And that he will allow me to “Return to…” instead of “Convert from”, because I want to take up the life that my grandmother wanted so desperately for me to have, but wasn’t able to tell me.