The Day I Learned I was a Jew

 Shock & Awe

So, how would you feel if you learned at the ripe old age of 53 that you were a Jew? Probably come as a shock, right? It did for me, but not in quite the way you’d expect. It happened 27 years ago. But before I get into it, you need to know about the events that happened two years earlier, after I’d suffered a heart attack.


It was during my hospitalization when my parents had come to visit me in the Cardiac Care Unit. I must have looked terrible, lying there connected to a bunch of IV tubes hooked into humming, beeping machinery, and oxygen tubes stuck in my nose.

My folks hadn’t been there long when suddenly my mother began sobbing. That much I could deal with. But then she began to wail, loudly lamenting that my condition was all her fault, which made no sense to me.

Hey! I don’t need this! I was in a CCU, trying to recuperate from a heart attack, and not feeling very hospitable. I just wanted some peace and quiet and not a lot of grief from a visitor, even if that visitor was my mother.


Thankfully, my wife was there to protect me. When I gave her the high sign, she calmly ushered my still sobbing mother out into the corridor, sweetly but abruptly ending her visit, and restoring some semblance of sanity.

Still, the encounter left me stunned and bewildered.

Later, when I was alone again, I spent a lot of time trying to understand what caused my mother’s bizarre behavior. What demons in her past made her feel so guilty? But above all what connection did it have with my heart attack?

I had a lot of time to think about it, but didn’t come up with much. Then I began wondering why she always seemed so fearful and fragile, ever since her nervous breakdown 43 years earlier.

Mom & me 1943, a year before she was hospitalized.

Mom & me 1943, a year before she was hospitalized.

Still I found no answers

What went on in Germany before my parents came here? What were their lives like back then? Was the undercurrent of fear that I sensed as a child real or imagined? And if it were real, how could it be linked to my condition?

That’s when I realized, having grown up as an only child, that for whatever reasons, I knew precious little about my parents and their lives before they arrived here in 1933. And next to nothing about any relatives I may have….or had.

Searching for My History

Maybe, if I could get some answers, I might begin to understand my own history and finally be able to learn what was behind my mother’s strange behavior

Lying alone in my hospital bed, I had plenty of time to obsess over it. By the time I was released I was so consumed by it that I HAD to know what went on before I was born.

But I couldn’t do a thing about it because my mother’s behavior continued to make me so uncomfortable that I ended up putting off any confrontation for almost two years.

Finally, when I felt she was emotionally stable enough to let me ask her some questions, I set up a visit with her – just the two of us,  alone together in her den.

Where we met in my mother

Where we met in my mother’s den.

But we got off to a very slow start. Still afraid of my father’s anger, even after so many years, she was reluctant to reveal much of anything. Only after I began asking her questions about our German relatives – the ones I’d never known – did she become more comfortable with my questions and more confident with her answers.

The Dam Breaks

Suddenly she was no longer able to hold back what she’d kept hidden from me for so many years. That’s when the truth came pouring out – the secret that my parents had withheld for so long – that our family was Jewish.

My father was not happy that his secret was out.

My father was not happy that his secret was out.

But my father wasn’t prepared for me to know what he’d kept hidden since I was born. When he learned that my mother had shifted her allegiance by finally telling me the truth, he was furious. She had defied him and broken his code of silence.

But the real shock didn’t come until a few months later, when my father invited me to meet an English niece of his from London.

By then, his anger had subsided and he was willing to share more about our family. But I was surprised at the invitation because I never knew he had an English niece.

Later I learned that her name was Helen Shapiro. She was the granddaughter of my Dad’s brother, Willi, and was coming to Los Angeles with her husband Colin to pay a visit to my parents, having only learned of Dad’s existence a few months earlier. (See “Kurt & Willi’s Feud” Prts 1 & 2)

The plan was for my wife and me to join my folks at a local restaurant and meet Helen and Colin for the first time.  But I wasn’t prepared for my reaction, after 50 plus years believing I was a Gentile. When we walked in, even before we were introduced, the reality of it made my stomach knot, as if someone had punched me with their fist.

Here was Helen….my COUSIN:  the living, breathing personification of the family I never knew I had, proving once and for all that I really did have a family, and all of us were really Jewish.

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Pete Vanlaw - Paul, if you think you have an interesting story, please get in touch with me.

Pete Vanlaw - Thank you. You comments are very important to me. Glad you’ve signed up to follow. A preview of the next post appears briefly in the footnote about the Natzlers and has do with Adolph and Hedwig’s dear friend who was murdered my the Gestapo, and more.

A Pleasant House - I’ve just found your blog (thru I don’t know where) and have read every post. WOW! What a story and you tell it so beautifully. I’m hooked. Just to make sure I haven’t missed anything- you’ve only been posting since April of this year? (2103) I don;t want to miss anything so I’m going to follow.

Pete Vanlaw - You’re asking the $64 question. That was one of three questions hanging over my head that 1st led to me research my family, and then to create to the film?
1. Why was my father so adamant about not telling me that we were Jewish?
2. Why did my mother never see her parents again after she got them out of Germany and to New York.
3. Why did my grandmother, Gertrude commit suicide?
There a lot of ponderables, possibles and probables, but nothing concrete. Meanwhile, I’ve done a lot of naval gazing in search of answers which have lead me full circle – that each circumstance has a number of possible answers. But one answer fits all three: FEAR!

Pete Vanlaw - Hi Helen,
Have you looked at the website and the many pictures of your family?

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