So how would you feel if you learned at the ripe old age of 54 that you were a Jew? Probably come as a shock, right? It did for me but not quite the way you’d expect. It happened 26 years ago. But first you need to be aware of events that happened two years earlier, after I’d suffered a heart attack.
It was during my recuperation 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 parents 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. That 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 visitors.
Fortunately, my wife was there to protect me. So, I just gave her the high sign, and she ushered my still sobbing mother out into the corridor, abruptly ending her visit. Still, it left me stunned and bewildered.
When I was alone again, I spent a lot of time trying to understand what caused my mother’s bizarre behavior. What was she so guilty about, and what connection did it have with my illness? Not coming up with much, I began wondering why she always seemed so fearful and fragile, ever since her nervous breakdown 43 years earlier.
Still finding no answers, I began to wonder what had gone on in Germany before my parents came here? What were they like then? Was the environment of fear that I sensed as a child, real or imagined? And if it was real, how was it linked to my condition?
That’s when I realized that growing up as an only child, I knew next to nothing about my parents before they came here in 1933, and zilch about any relatives that I may have had. Maybe if I could get some answers, I might begin to understand my own history and my mother’s strange behavior.
By the time I was released from the hospital, I was obsessed and had to know what went on before I was born. But my father was no help, and my mother’s behavior had made me so uncomfortable that I put off confronting her for almost two years.
When I finally felt confidant that she was emotionally stabile enough to let me ask her some questions, I set up a visit with her – just the two of us together in her den. At first, even after so many years, she still feared my father’s wrath. So, she was very reluctant to reveal much of anything. Then after I asked her some questions about the German relatives I’d never known, she gained confidence, and could no longer hold back. That’s when she revealed my parents’ long held secret that our family was Jewish.
However, my father was not so accepting. When he found out that my mother had shifted her allegiance by finally telling me the truth, he was furious at her because she had defied him by breaking 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. I was surprised because I never knew he had an English niece.
The grand daughter of my father’s brother, Willi, her name was Helen Shapiro. She had come to Los Angeles with her husband Colin to pay a visit to my parents, (there’s a whole other story here which will appear in a future blog).
We were to meet my folks along with Helen and Colin at a local restaurant. But when I walked in with my wife, even before we were introduced, the reality suddenly hit me like a blow to the stomach. Here was Helen, a living, breathing personification of the family I never knew, proving once and for all that my family was really Jewish, and so was I.