Wednesday, the 7th of the month of Shvat, according to the Hebrew calendar, was the day of the death of the nun Paula, who was also Rachel, a Holocaust survivor from the Łomża ghetto.
Sister Paula saw in me a friend and a Jew. A Jew and a friend. I do not know what came first. The fact that I was Jewish was certainly significant to her.
Towards Rachel / Paula's anniversary, I agreed with Daisy, her beloved cousin from Kibbutz Maagan Michael, who was also her only relative in Israel - to light a ‘Neshama - candle’ together, say the Kaddish and in general - we decided to go together to the cemetery in the monastery on the Mount of Olives every year.
The corona did not allow the plan to be fulfilled in its geographical location, but assited by the “heart coordinates” and with the help of the zoom - we were there. We were together with Rachel, sister Paula. We lit a candle and said the Kaddish in her memory. We were in her Jerusalem. Attached is a photo of the table with the candle that Daisy lit, along with two souvenirs that Sr. Paula gave her: a postcard of the view from the monastery and decorated stones with the prayers "Peace be upon Jerusalem", "Peace be upon Israel", "Peace".
I have added a letter that Sister Paula sent me for Rosh Hashanah. It starts with a quotation from the psalm 122: " Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee " ...
I already wrote briefly about the story of Rachel/Paula two years ago, and you can read it here: Kaddish for the nun. This headline attracted attention and the story aroused so much curiosity that I was approached by journalists, radio and TV channels. Then others started writing, and I found out that I do not know much about ‘Rohale’ from the ghetto...
I only know that she loved me, perhaps because, among other things, I never asked or interviewed her about her Jewish past. If she wanted to - she spoke. If she did not want to - she did not share. Only in the last two years have I had the privilege of perusing her words: memories and reflections she has written, and every day another letter and another note pops up ...
Last year when Daisy and I stood next to the grave in the cemetery in the monastery, to hold a memorial service on the Hebrew date (and all the nuns left the monastery because they wanted to join the Jewish memorial service), I read the chapters from the Bible about the biblical Rachel, Our Mother Rachel. I read the episode where Rachel takes (steals?!) the Teraphim from her father's house, on the day Jacob took his wives to leave their homeland:
"And Rachel took the Teraphim, and put them on the camel's saddle, and sat on them."
What exactly are Teraphim? Apparently those were house idols, the kind used for divination.
The prophet Zechariah is angry with those who practice magic and false prophecy:
"Because the Teraphim spoke evil."
And in 2 Kings, it is said that Josiah eliminated these idols:
" Moreover Josiah put away those who consulted mediums and spirits, the Teraphim and idols, all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah…”
The story of the Teraphim in the book of Genesis always sounded strange and problematic to me: how is it that the beautiful Rachel, our beloved mother and tragic character - secretly takes, leads astray and – in order to save Teraphim ! Save what is not worthy?!
Upon leaving her homeland, Rachel had to turn her back on her previous religion, leaving everything behind including her culture and her previous life. She is supposed to turn her back on anything that was previously part of her identity.
Rachel from Poland helped me understand Our Mother Rachel, and I hold back my criticism of her for taking the Teraphim ...
Rachel left her homeland and her father's house. She left for Eretz Israel and integrated into the world of Judaism, which is particularly hostile to idols. But it was impossible for her to erase the past, and to completely abandon her previous identity! She took part of her old self to her new home. And that past was not dead.
Also our 20th century Rachel, on her tortuous way to the convent, 'stole' the Teraphim from her father's house:
She put Judaism ‘on the camel's saddle and sat on it’…, hid it and guarded it when she wandered in the woods, when she hid in places, when she pretended to be a gentile, when she knelt in front of the cross, when she was admitted to the monastery in Poland and finally when she immigrated to Jerusalem 45 years ago.
At a certain point, the nun Rachel from the Łomża ghetto took the Teraphim of Judaism out of hiding. She now put them on the table!
Here is what she wrote in Polish, in a letter from May 1975, after returning from the first encounter with the remains of her family - the encounter with her relatives in America
(and thank you dear Daisy for translating the letter and passing it on to me):
I would just sometimes get a heartache thinking of having to tell them the entire truth about myself and of them not understanding. And that was the worst thing for me. I could see right through their thoughts from the distance. They believed I went to the monastery to hide during the war and that I stayed there out of gratitude. It would be disappointing for them to hear that it was already after the war when I joined. But that was the exact reason I was going there, to show them that I was free and that converting to Catholicism didn’t mean I was no longer Jewish. My attachment to my nation wasn’t broken, in fact it was stronger than before. It was the monastery where I realized who I am.
Now I (Yisca) read in amazement – and read again... I put the letters in Bold and underline the sentence:
My attachment to my nation wasn’t broken, in fact it was stronger than before.
It was the monastery where I realized who I am.
This year I decided that I would tell the story of Rachel / Paula in English.
Why do that?
First, because I recently got to re-know Paula through diaries, letters and notes left by her, and I assume that after telling what I know, there will surely be responses and additional material from other people who knew her better than I did.
Second, I chose to compare her story to the stories of two other Holocaust survivors:
Aaron who would later become Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, and Oswald who would later become Brother Daniel.
Click here or on the picture for the lecture.
Sister Paula's story is a trigger for a deep and poignant discussion of the question of self-determination, the question of 'who is a Jew' and the question of who has the authority to set boundaries and restrictions on Jewish identity.
Before The war , several biological brothers and sisters of Paula's parents left the Christian continent with the cursed history, and were privileged to start families, marry children, embrace grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They were given this opportunity in other Christian continents, which by the grace of earth and heaven- did not connect the cross to the swastika ("credit" reserved for Europe). When they found out about their living family member, the only survivor of her nuclear family, they expected and hoped that Rohale would leave the monastery, get married and establish a Jewish family. In the face of the attempt to annihilate a nation, this would be the appropriate answer. Their disappointment was great. Their heart was broken. At the end of her visit to the United States, some family members found it beyond pain to bid her well, as Rachel was willfully returning to the nun’s cell in the convent in Łomża, Poland!
“Now I had the most difficult days ahead of me, the days of saying goodbye to the uncle. Up until the last moment, he was hoping I would stay… Everyone was nice and kind to me, but his love was special, truly father-like. I felt very bad for him. When, despite his hopes, the day of my departure approached, the uncle left for Florida bitterly, without saying as much as goodbye. Most of the family members didn’t even want to bid farewell to me.”
In the ongoing correspondence between them, the question of identity arises in full force:
Is it possible to further define Rachel - the nun Paula - as a Jew?
Certainly, I will not judge them - not Aaron who became Cardinal Lustiger, nor Oswald who became brother Daniel and of course not Rachel who became Sister Paula.
In their way, they were holding on to their Teraphim of their old home.
Nor will I judge the State of Israel, which has set boundaries and restrictions for them. I will try to read and explain the opinion submitted to the Ministry of the Interior, on the basis of which, to a large extent, it was decided that they
- Holocaust survivors who crossed lines - are no longer Jews.
My dear and esteemed friends from Ben-Gurion University, Prof. Effie Shoham-Steiner and Prof. Jackie Feldman, agreed to host the lecture at their research institutes:
The Center for the Study of Conversion and Inter-Religious Encounters and
the Rabb Center of Holocaust and Revival Studies
Holocaust Survivors who Crossed † Over the Line
Wednesday, January 27,
You are welcome to send the link to English-speaking friends in Israel and abroad.