From Germany to Jerusalem
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From Germany to Jerusalem

From Germany to Jerusalem

My long road to becoming Jewish.

by

I was born in 1934 as a German. God decided I would not be one of the Jewish Holocaust victims; instead I belonged to the nation of murderers.

And now I am a Jew.

I was raised in a religious Christian family. I went to church, studied the Bible, and prayed to Jesus. But the undercurrent of my childhood was the Holocaust, taking place so near, yet so far away.

As a little girl, I thought that Hitler was a good man. My father had been without work and we were very poor. Then Hitler came and suddenly we had enough to eat. I did not know any Jews and there had never been a synagogue in our little town.

On my fifth birthday, World War II began. My parents said that Hitler started it, but on the streets everyone said that Poland started and we only were fighting back. I was inclined to believe the latter. How could Hitler have done something bad? After all, he had built such wonderful Autobahnen roadways.

But my parents knew that Hitler was evil. When I started kindergarten, they took me out after one week. They said that the kindergarten teacher was a Nazi and would be a bad influence on me. So my parents made an excuse that I had lice and could not go to school.

We did not have a radio at home, although we could have gotten one for free. The government gave one to every family, so they could listen to Hitler's speeches. But my parents refused to have a radio because they didn't want me to even hear his voice.

The next year I started first grade; I guess my parents couldn't keep making excuses forever. Every morning we had to stand up, raise our right arm, and sing about the Deutschland. We had to be careful not to move our raised arm, since we were "strong German children." In Germany, to be strong and fit was something good; weakness was bad. Goethe wrote: "You can win or lose. You can be the anvil or the hammer." At age 6, I decided: "I will never be an anvil!"

If Hitler came to town, I would throw flowers into his car.

We were taught to love Hitler. By law, his picture was hanging in every home. In school, we had a writing assignment: "What would you do if the Fuehrer came to town?" I wrote that I would throw flowers into his car.

My mother had worked for the mother of Franz Rosenzweig. She told me that one day they drove all the Jews through the town of Kassel. People lined the streets and threw eggs at the Jews, along with hateful shouting. My mother stood there, weeping and feeling guilty that she was a member of the crowd. And what astonished her most was that these were otherwise "nice, normal people."

Before long, Germany itself was judenrein. Late in the evening, when my parents thought I was asleep, I stood behind the door in the dark and listened. They spoke of the concentration camps and the mass slaughter of Jews. It was forbidden to speak openly about it, but everyone knew. (After the war, when people said they knew nothing about what happened, I knew it was a lie.)

Once when my mother was hanging laundry on the line, I saw how bitterly she wept. She said that Hitler was a terrible man, and that I must pray as hard as I can that we lose the war.

Toward the end of the war, we had no school for the entire year. Then one day, as the war drew to a close, we had to assemble at the school. With the Nazi intimidation no longer threatening, the teachers decided it was time to come clean: They told us that all along they'd lied about Hitler, but were forced to do it. I was disappointed and despised them.

A memory from age 11:

The teacher is giving a lesson about the biblical prophets. We hear how Jeremiah was called by God to convince the people of Israel to change their way of life. But they did not listen, and ignored the word of God. In the end, Jeremiah flees to Egypt, and the Temple, the holiest place on Earth, is destroyed.

When I hear this, tears start running down my face. I put my head on my desk, in the middle of all the schoolbooks, and sob. Everyone is looking at me. The teacher comes over, angry. "Stand up!"

I stand in front of him, frightened. He shouts at me: "Why are you weeping?!"

Now I weep even more, uncontrollably.

"Why you are crying? Tell me now!"

I don't know what to say. I myself do not understand. And then I stammer: "I feel so sad about Jeremiah and the Jews."

I sit down and continue sobbing. I don't care what they say about me. They don't understand. I myself do not understand, what makes me weep so much about a story that happened over 2,000 years ago, in a country far away, to people I don't even know.

The teacher shouts: "Rubbish," then turns and walks away.

Here I was, a Christian girl in a German school, weeping over the destruction of the Jews, while the blood of 6 million was still fresh. For some strange reason, I felt a deep connection to the Jewish people.

Israel and Eli

In my early twenties I moved to England, where I learned to speak English. I read a book about the Holocaust which left me weeping and helpless. In England, I was invited to go to Israel, as part of a group called Operation Reconciliation (Aktion Sühnezeichen). These were groups of young Germans who volunteered to work for a year in countries where the Germans had done damage. They had already planted trees in Holland on dikes destroyed by German soldiers, built a church in Norway, and built a water carrier to a village in Crete.

And now for the first time they were going to Israel. (They had tried several times before, but the Israelis did not yet want them.) They wanted me to go to a kibbutz, to work in the fields and with cattle. That was not my idea of a meaningful experience, so I declined.

After England, I lived in Rome, as I'd always dreamed of. I worked for the Papal Oriental Institute. It was there that I confronted the question: What am I going to do with my life? I didn't have an answer. After thinking it over for a few days, I decided: God will give me an answer. He's the only one who knows. Not long after I received an express letter, asking me again to join the group for Israel. I felt God leading me in that direction, so I agreed.

In 1961, I came to Kibbuz Urim in the Negev. To my great surprise I felt at home in Israel and fell in love with the country. The kibbutz was founded by Americans, and since I knew English, I started missionizing them. But their arguments were better than mine. I stopped and thought to myself, Maybe I should know my own religion better.

I went back to Germany to study Catholic Theology. I studied all the "sources" and discovered that Catholic doctrine stands on very shaky legs.

I wanted to belong to the Jewish people. I was homesick for Israel, and in my spare time I published a book about my experiences in Israel called Die Straße nach Jerusalem – the Road to Jerusalem.

When she heard that I was German, she refused to see me.

When I finished my studies, I bought a ticket to Israel. For the first five months, I learned Hebrew at an ulpan, and then began looking for some kind of social work. Yosef, the head of our ulpan, brought me to a woman who was in charge of all the social institutions in northern Israel. She came from Germany, and when she heard that I was German, she refused to even see me. I had to stay outside, while Yosef tried to convince her. "Forget it," she told him.

In the meantime, this woman sent her son, Eli, to speak with me. (It would have been impolite to leave me standing alone outside.) She had unknowingly sent my future husband. Eli and I talked and talked, for days and weeks. We felt like we'd known each other for eternity.

Eli's family on his mother's side found it hard to accept me. They originally came from Spain, from a long line of Torah scholars. One studied closely with Rabbi Shabbtai Cohen ("the Shach") and the great Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch had married into their family.

Eli and I wanted to get married, but nobody would perform the ceremony, not a rabbi nor a priest. So we went to Cyprus and had a civil ceremony. I changed to a Hebrew name, Michal. I got pregnant and started doing Jewish things. I was proud to be an Israeli mother.

We split our time between Israel and Germany. Our first son was born in Haifa, and our second son in Bavaria.

Time went on and we settled permanently in Germany. Our sons grew up. We tried to raise them Jewish. Although we were not a religious family, I lit Shabbat candles and we celebrated the Jewish holidays. But that was not enough. Outside the house, our boys were just like the Christian kids. And we gave off contradictory messages that weakened the boys' attachment to Judaism: When we needed money, I relied on my background to teach Bible topics in Christian schools, and I wrote textbooks with a non-Jewish flavor, with titles like Biblische Geschichten für Kinder (Bible Stories for Children).

In the end, our sons married Christian wives, and our grandchildren are not Jewish. My younger son said: "I don't feel Jewish at all. I feel at home in the village, where everyone is Catholic." We were very sad about this because we wanted to raise them as Jews and knew we had failed.

Websurfing and Windsurfing

One day in 2002, my husband was surfing the Internet and came across an article on Aish.com, "Dry Cleaning for the Soul" by Rabbi Shraga Simmons. The article spoke about how even though we make mistakes, there is a way to fix them, by expressing regret and resolving to improve. What concerns God, more than our particular station, is whether we've made a commitment to change and are moving in the right direction.

The article made Eli think and he sat there all afternoon weeping. Then I read it and immediately joined him in crying. We knew our mistake. We had ignored the Torah and had not observed the mitzvot. We did not give our children the right Jewish education. We had not done nearly enough to counteract the non-Jewish environment, and some of our actions may have even pushed them in that direction.

But the power of teshuva, the article said, is that things can be fixed. Maybe not 100 percent in this world, but at least in the spiritual realms. So we started to change our life, to create a real Jewish home. We made our kitchen kosher, we learned to pray, and our Jewish holidays became different, too. We hoped to influence our grandchildren, so that they would see an example of Jewish life and become interested.

My life changed dramatically in 2004, when we were on vacation in Italy. Eli spent hours windsurfing, which he really loved. He often said that if he would die, he would want it to be on the sea while windsurfing. I would sit on the beach and watch Eli on his small green surfboard, in the midst of the beautiful sea, where he'd close his eyes and listen to the cry of the seagulls, the playing children, and the relaxing sound of the waves.

And then, suddenly, I found Eli outstretched on his beloved surfboard, dead. I was in shock. Yes, not long before he'd had a heart attack and a cancer operation. But he overcame it. And now in one second he was gone. I was alone. How could I possibly go on? We had been best friends for 39 years!

In my suitcase I had packed a printout from Aish.com, "The 48 Ways to Wisdom." At least I thought I'd packed it. When Eli and I arrived in Italy, I discovered that I'd mistakenly taken another article, "Death and Mourning in Judaism." Eli laughed about it, and said, "At your age, you can't rely on your mind anymore!"

The wrong file turned out to be the right one.

I knew that Eli did not disappear, that his soul was still alive, even more alive than it had been on earth. But I missed Eli terribly and was angry at God for taking him away. I wanted to die, too.

Jewish in Jerusalem

After Eli died, I continued to move forward in my Judaism. I took an online course about keeping kosher, and learned many new mitzvot. I thought many times about converting, and spoke to different rabbis. But it seemed so difficult and even unnecessary. After all, I had a strong Jewish feeling and was observing so many mitzvot!

On the other hand, I felt like something was missing. Should I convert? I struggled for weeks and months, back and forth. I made so many rabbis crazy that some of them gave up on me. I talked to God all day long and shed many tears. I knew I wanted to convert, but I didn't know how it was possible. In the end I gave up and said to God: "I don't know what to do any more. Please take all the responsibility and do with me what You want."

That's when my miracle happened.

In March 2007, at age 72, I came on a visit to Israel. I arrived at my hotel in Jerusalem just in time to light the Shabbat candles. On Sunday morning I went to the Beit Din (rabbinical court) that handled conversions. I explained my entire life story, and they told me: "Come back tomorrow for an examination."

I collapsed and an ambulance rushed me to the hospital.

The next day I went and took the exam. It was many questions about Jewish philosophy and law. I must have done well, because they told me: "Come back tomorrow to appear before the Beit Din." Hearing those words, I became very frightened and got terrible pains in my stomach. I collapsed and an ambulance rushed me to the hospital.

The doctors wanted to keep me overnight for tests and observation. But no way was I going to miss my appointment with the Beit Din! I had come too far to turn back now. The doctors said it was dangerous for me to leave the hospital, and that something worse could happen. But I had reached the point where I figured it was better to be a dead Jew than to live as a non-Jew. So I signed a form and left the hospital on my own responsibility.

I took a taxi back to the hotel and I was thinking: Why is God doing this to me? I started talking to the taxi driver and told him a bit of my story. He said that he did not see any meaning in his life and he'd thought about shooting himself. I told him that even though the Jews have suffered so much, we are God's special children, bound to Him by a covenant. As I got out of the taxi, he thanked me and said that our meeting had been planned in Heaven.

The next day I went to the Beit Din. They asked me a lot of questions – about Shabbat, prayer, and my feelings about Christianity. In the end, the rabbis felt that I not only knew Judaism, but loved it. They had me stand and say that I will observe all the 613 mitzvot, and that I accept the written Torah as well as the Oral Law. Then I recited aloud, "Shema Yisrael."

The next day I went to the mikveh and was Jewish. This all touched me so deeply and I could not stop weeping. One of the women there hugged me and told me not to worry, that a lot of new converts have such an emotional reaction.

Then I chose a second Jewish name: Batya, after the Egyptian princess who raised Moses, and whose name means "daughter of God."

I flew back to Germany, utterly exhausted.

Epilogue

So now I'm back again in the Bavarian Forest, in my own home with 130 books on Judaism. I feel so loved by God and so honored to be a Jew. And even though I am here with few other Jews, I see miracles every day.

I recently had a Shabbat guest, Marek. He thinks that his mother was Jewish. He was born in a little town which is now in Ukraine. But when he and his brother were children, they were separated from their parents and ended up in Czechia. Irena, his wife, was brought up as a Communist and is an atheist. She said that she felt a special atmosphere in my house on Shabbat, and wants to bring her children to experience it, too.

From a nation of murderers, I have become a daughter of Israel.

The only real sadness left in my life is that my older son is married to a Christian woman. But he is showing an interest in Judaism. He watches my observance with very sharp eyes. He taught his children "Shema Yisrael," and they say it every evening. And I use my influence as a grandmother: When the priest teaches them to pray to Jesus, I tell them about the one and only God.

On Friday nights, my older son comes to my home and brings some challah back to his family. He has stopped using the computer on Shabbat, and tries not to drive or turn on lights. Since he and his family are not Jewish, it is impossible for him to lead a Jewish life, but he says he hopes that will change. I told him the idea from "Dry Cleaning for the Soul" that changed my life: In God's book, every step counts. When my son heard this, he smiled.

I suffer from the heartbreak of knowing that I bore Eli descendents who are not Jewish, and I pray that the Jewish part of our family does not end with me. I hope that one day, when my son has more time and the children are grown, he will convert the same as I did.

After such a long journey, I feel I have attained my inner peace. Through it all, God showed me His love, and opened the door to teshuva. After I'd lost my husband, it gave me time to think it over again and again, if I really want to be Jewish. God wanted me to be alone, to confront myself and my budding Jewish soul. Even when I tried to escape, He grabbed me and put me back on track. Then He carried me to Jerusalem and arranged my conversion. Only now do I understand that His intentions were all for my good. What a special gift He has given me.

I still have nightmares of how the Germans tried to kill God and His children. But never, never will His enemies succeed. I am living proof: From a nation of murderers, I have become a daughter of Israel. I am so glad to be home. Forever.

Published: April 2, 2013


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Visitor Comments: 95

(88) Isabelle Cohen Johnson, April 11, 2013 1:57 PM

Repairing the faith

Very inspirational story, thank you for sharing it. I am too working on repairing WWII damages but as the daughter of a child of the Holocaust, who walked away from faith... It is painful but so rewarding when I hear my children reciting the Sh'ma. Chazak!

(87) Al, April 5, 2013 8:11 PM

Hi Michal! Such a beautiful story! Don't worry! They will convert to Judaism, if not your grandchildren, their children will! :) So everything will be alright! Judaism has been lost in my family for many decades, almost a century, and now I am willing to return, I feel it's a part of me!

(86) Alice, April 5, 2013 8:47 AM

Inspiring

I am an Orthodox Jew and I plan to tell your story at the shabbos table. I cried when I read it...
Thank you Michal!

(85) Maria, April 5, 2013 5:16 AM

My love for the Jewish people

I so relate with you and the love you have for the Jewish people.I am from Bolivia and my great grandparents on my dad's side left Europe during or maybe just after the war. They were from France. I do not recall ever celebrating any Jewish traditions as a child but I remember my grandma lighting candles on Saturday and covering her head. She never explained why. We also never celebrated Christmas. My mom on the other hand was very catholic and followed all the traditions. I now am very curious as to weather I have some Jewish blood and I have always had a special love for the Jewish people and Israel. I do pray that one glorious day God will allow me and my family travel to Israel. I also hope my dad will tell me more of our background. He faced many challenges when he was a child and also as an adult. He is atheist and hates anything that is religious so he hides a lot of things because he is trying to forget. Thank you for sharing your story it brings me hope that may be one day I will know why my life is the way it is. I do believe God has set a course for our lives and we might not understand it but boy does he know it. Nothing happens in our lives without a reason and a purpose.

Al, April 5, 2013 8:13 PM

Tell your dad it's also your right to know your origin :/ Same happened in my family...

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