Apr/May 2004 spotlight

Christmas Past

by Ana Doina

Every December fifth after dark we took our freshly polished shoes outside by the door, where they were left overnight to wait for St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas was one of the few traditional religious holidays celebrated—although privately—in my communist country. Had you been good throughout the year, on the morning of December 6th there would be oranges and nuts, chocolates, mittens and hats, a toy or two waiting in your shoes. Had you been bad, a rod for future punishment would greet you in the morning. I got one once. So did my kids, not that any such rod has ever been used, on me or on them.

Santa Claus was a different guy who came later in the winter. He was the absolute only religious character publicly and politically accepted by the Romanian communist regime. It was a big celebration on the 27th or 28th of December. Every workplace and school put on a big show. The jolly old man came with presents for all; children recited poems or sung for Mos Gerila, Old Man Winter. His traditional name, Mos Craciun, Father Christmas, had been abolished as a sign of retrograde religious symbolism.

No, a communist country is advanced. Religion and belief in God, the "opium for the poor" and for the uneducated, are forms of alienation not appropriate for an ideal society building a perfect, intelligent and progressive human being, right? Well, Old Man Winter was allowed, and in school, come December 6th, we all (teachers too) bragged about St. Nicholas and our gift-filled shoes, without anyone fearing punishment for political heresy. Chocolate and presents early in the morning; warm, sleepy fingers searching deep inside almost frozen shoes.

My children, now grown, still do put their shoes outside, and they still love to get the little chocolates and goodies. So do I. When they were little, my youngest would wake up first, open the door, and call—as loudly as he thought he could without waking the whole house—for his brother to come see, come see the big packages and the abundance of treats.

Christmas and Chanukah fall at the same time. For me Chanukah is an unclaimed holiday.

My mother is Jewish, my father Christian Orthodox. As young people, because of political circumstances and scientific allegiances, they were both atheists, or at least they tried, in the heat of the revolution, to keep up with the ideology of the day. I don't know how convinced they ever were by either one: communism or atheism. Probably, at least at the beginning, they did believe the promises for a better life for all people that communism was making. What else could they have done? What else was available to them during and after the devastation that war and fascism had meant for their lives, not to mention the Yalta peace?

For my mother, a young Jewish girl haunted by memories of the Nazis since age ten—when half of her family was swallowed by the camps—communism, whatever she knew or thought of it, meant at least survival. For my father, impoverished by the war, with only his brains and hands for assets, the promises of equal opportunity and proletarian heaven sounded more enticing than anything the "better race" had offered up to that point. Mother thought communism would bring to the world the Torah's ethos of social justice; Father thought communism would bring among men the Christian spirit of fraternity and equality. Did they believe in God? Both had been brought up religious. Her grandfathers were sons of famous rabbis, he had priests in his family, and his mother was to the day of her death, despite the social ostracism it meant, a very religious woman.

On a rational level I don't think they believed in God, emotionally or spiritually, but they put their trust, their young minds and their hopes in what was later called Eastern European Communism. It came in its Russian form with rituals, belief systems, moral and ethic precepts that were strong and structured enough to replace any religion, any God.

Thinking back, trying to imagine them in their mid teens, mature beyond their age after having had to hide, fight or worry for their very lives and the lives of their families, going for weeks at a time afraid, hungry and shelterless, it doesn't surprise me at all that they abandoned their early childhood God, a God whose very existence was being questioned not only by science, but by a fate tarnished with all the destruction and pillaging the war had wrought.

In Romania religion was banned after the war. God, if he ever existed, was no good to anyone anyway. Communism, which was supposed to be one of the most inclusive ideologies, brought widespread governmental discrimination against religious people of all denominations. It started slowly at first: there were gentle re-education sessions, atheization meetings, forceful demystification, an entire superstructure created and organized to wage a persuasive war of conscience on the believer's retrograde and musty soul.

By the time I was born, if one was openly religious or was known to believe in God, one was cut off from any social and/or economic opportunities society had to offer.

In school we were taught that believing in god was blindness or stupidity, some sort of a disease. However, many traditions, mostly Christian, some slightly changed, found their way into the party's politics and ideology.

After signing my birth certificate, my parents also signed divorce papers, and for seven years thereafter bitterly fought for custody. It was an ugly fight. My father claimed my mother was an unfit parent for Romanian children because she, a Jew, was of Austro-Hungarian descent, a member of the bourgeoisie, and had as her maternal languages Hungarian and German. All of these things, he argued, were bound to have a negative influence on her children, since our new society had to bring up positive citizens who possessed a clear national identity in the free communist state of Romania. Of course it didn't matter that everything her family ever owned had been confiscated by the Romanian government during the war on account of fascist racial laws, or that she herself was lucky to be alive considering the faith of most of her relatives.

Exasperated after many trials, endless arguments and careful consideration, the judge decided to split up the children between the two parents—the oldest with the father, the youngest with the mother. To make sure he would not have to pay a political price for giving a child to a citizen whose national and political loyalty was at best dubious, the judge put a clause in the custody decision: the children would have to be brought up as Romanians. My oldest brother was never in danger of course, although my father remarried a Jewish woman as his second wife, but if I were ever to be brought up in the Jewish tradition, or even be told of it, or if I was ever to be taught any language other than Romanian, mother's custody was to be immediately revoked.

The divorce, custody fights, and the visitation ritual imposed on me while growing up made me feel somewhat of an outsider to both maternal and paternal families. My father remarried and had one more child. I visited them on weekends and passionately hated my fairy-tale stepmother.

At twenty-five, divorced, politically compromised as a member of the bourgeoisie, my mother became an outcast to her family and to the employment market.

I can still remember the perverse pleasure I took from strangers' or teachers' reactions when hearing from me, a string of a tomboy, that well, you see, my parents are divorced. It was the fifties and early sixties, and divorce was not yet a common occurrence. I still think they may have started the trend. But apparently, even in the free and egalitarian communist society, a divorced woman did not have a good name.

Partially excommunicated by her family, my mother and I found ourselves going from precarious lifestyle to precarious lifestyle, until her father made peace with the idea of her being a divorcee and we all moved in together for a while.

I remember this part of my childhood well. Grandfather, a forest engineer, was always gone far away at work in the mountains, in one or the other of the country's forests. Mother was busy with her own life, father with his new family. I was left with an ever-changing variety of gypsy or Hungarian nannies, many not even 16 years of age, who barely spoke Romanian, and a big mahogany box with pictures of elegantly dressed men, women and children, about whom I knew nothing. Some, I supposed, died of old age, but some were my mother's age. I could see in the pictures their growing up together. Where were they? Who were they? When asked, my mother would change the subject or tell me they died or left to Australia, America. So far away it seemed to me then, they might just as well have been dead.

Where were they? A few years ago, a distant cousin who did make it to America during the 1950's told me that those whom I'd known from the pictures—my great grandmother, her daughters and grandchildren—died in Dachau and Auschwitz. Only one made it to America, whatever was left of her after the Lager. "Why didn't they tell me?" I asked my cousin, and so she told me of the custody clause, about which I had also known nothing until then.

They were good at keeping secrets, my parents.

My grandmother, my father's mother, was very religious. "Like a nun," the neighbors used to say. When I spent time at her house during vacations or weekends, she diligently taught me about god, church, faith and prayers. I thought her retrograde, particularly after starting school and being well indoctrinated by the atheist ideology. I'd look at her when she spoke of Jesus, Heaven and Hell as if she were dizzy or sick.

My mother never discussed religion at all. Her father didn't speak Romanian well. When friends or curious neighbors would look up his non-Romanian name and raise a questioning brow, I would recite, "He is Austrian and Hungarian, so he speaks Hungarian and German, although he doesn't like to speak German anymore because the Germans were so bad during the war. My Grandmother, his wife, died of cancer before I was born."

"Are you a Jew?" a neighbor once asked.

"No, no, of course I'm not. You see, my father is Romanian, and my mother... well, she is of Austrian descent."

None of it had been explained to me. It was a narrative I created out of bits and pieces of words heard here and there. As a child, I intuitively knew there was in my life something—a soft unspoken reality out of my reach—that was best left unknown. I remember going to sleep at night, praying to the god I didn't believe in, to please, if he did exist, and this would be a way to show he did, make me have blue eyes and not be a Jew.

In the few years we lived together, when he was home on weekends, my grandfather and I shared a morning ritual of reading poems in bed before breakfast. He would read to me in Romanian with a funny accent, an accent that sometimes revealed new meanings to known words. I don't have many good memories of my childhood, but this is one of the best. One of the few memories I have of him. Brownish greenish eyes casting a melancholy and timid smile, fair skinned hands with long spidery fingers holding a leather-covered book. In his silk pajamas, he would let me sit on top of the silk-covered wool-comforter still smelling of wild flowers and sheared wool, and "we" would read poetry slowly, carefully, his accent giving a mystical aura to each word.

He never spoke to me about religion and would skillfully avoid all my questions about all those smart looking people from the picture box.

Like most people in our neighborhood, in both my mother's and my father's houses we celebrated St. Nicholas, Christmas and Easter. My mom would put up a Christmas tree in our house, and I'd get my shoes filled with goodies from St. Nicholas, at least until she got married. Victor, her new husband, was Jewish and a very important journalist. He didn't celebrate any religious holidays. He was a true communist. Well, almost, or for a while, until he, too, fell from communist grace.

My new step grandparents were strange people. They spoke a different language amongst themselves, one I didn't know, and since I didn't like these old geezers, I never asked and was never told what language they were speaking. Some sort of German? But how could Jewish people still speak German after what happened to them during the war? They were strange anyway, and who cared? By then I was busy with school and friends, even boys. They actually spoke Yiddish, but at eleven I wasn't supposed to know anything about it. They, too, kept the secret.

We moved to a new neighborhood, my mother and I, her new husband and his teenage son. We all had different names in that house, mine not matching any. That Victor was Jewish was a well-known fact, and since I was a kid in that house, everyone assumed I was his daughter. Oh, the lengths I would go again to let everyone know I wasn't! Good thing I had the previous lessons learned during my first stepmother era. I didn't like them, I still don't, but the passion is now gone.

"So are you Jewish, too?" neighbors would ask me.

"No," I would say, "only Victor is. You see, I have a different father, in a different part of town, different brothers."

It was getting tiresome, and I was now thanking that God I didn't believe in, just in case, that my family had been spared from being Jewish. I was finding out about concentration camps, war and anti-Semitism from Victor's long perorations and desperation cries. As a child, he too had barely escaped deportation, had friends and family missing, he too suffered the incredible humiliations of the racial laws and work camps, and he was always telling and retelling the tragic story of his youth.

In ninth grade I fell in love with a guy who one day came to me and said flat out, "You are Jewish. My parents told me." I spent a long time explaining to him how I was not. Only much later, I found out quite by accident that his father had been part of a youth Nazi sympathizer organization. I don't know if he knew or knows, but I can't totally dismiss the fact that his father knew more than I did about me, based on that past. At any rate, our romance didn't hold, as the guy was insanely jealous.

In eleventh grade I fell in love with a Jewish boy whose mother survived Auschwitz. She was emotionally fragile. I was fascinated by her tragedy. "You, too, are Jewish," she said to me one day. No, I wasn't, and again explained. By then I had such a flawless narrative put together, it didn't so much as trigger an emotion or thought about it any longer. But, should I marry her son, I thought, and yes, we were considering it for some time in the future, I would convert if she wanted me to.

Anti-Semitism? Not really. But was I attuned to it? Sometimes people would speak angrily against one or another neighbor's stinginess and call him Jew, but it was, I thought, more of a figure of speech. Other times people would comment on someone being smart like a Jew, or bookish like a Jew, or mercantile. I never really knew or paid attention to who was and who was not Jewish among my friends. I wasn't interested.

My stepbrother on the other hand was passionate about it. He called himself a Zionist, was emotionally involved in the Israeli politics and faith. He would go to his mom and his grandparents for Jewish holidays, since we didn't celebrate any in the house. I didn't even know there were Jewish holidays, although the milkman's wife fed me latchkas, ghefiltefish or chulan and promised to teach me how to cook them one day, particularly since I was dating a Jewish boy. The milkman's daughters were my best friends for a while until they left for Israel. But no one cared much of what the other's ethnic makeup was, as long as we all spoke Romanian and played the same games.

"Why didn't you teach me Hungarian or German, Mom?"

"Because you are not Hungarian or German. You are Romanian. You don't need to grow up as a minority. Your father is Romanian, so you are Romanian."

Indeed, who needs to be a minority. Hungarians were not exactly loved; they stuck out like a sore thumb based on old ethnic conflicts and hatreds. I knew that well. I had a few classmates who were Hungarians, and some relatives in Transylvania.

When I was 19, my grandfather died in an airplane crash while commuting between his forests and his house. He was 74. Going through his papers and pictures, I found religious books and artifacts. Jewish. I was surprised, speechless at first, but then events, conversations, gestures gained context, suddenly came into a different focus. A puzzle was rapidly being solved. I now understood what was meant by the "You must have inherited this non-Romanian personality trait from the other nationality in your family" my father and aunts would say when I showed any sign of mercantile talent, or when I went on splitting hairs about words and meanings, turning everything into endless theories. Now that softly shushed "She has to find out one day" my stepgrandparents or stepfather would say when they thought I wasn't paying attention had a meaning. Now it became clear why the milkman said Mazel Tov and winked at me when he found out I passed the high school entrance exam, or why Victor would say to mother, "She, too, would have been taken, you know."

So what does one do when one finds out one is not what one thought one is?

But wait a minute. Did I really not know it? There had been my sometime sudden anguish that after all, maybe, just maybe, I was Jewish, as so many people around me thought I was. There was my eventual lack of protesting against the idea, when I began to let it go without trying to convince other Jews in my life, who considered me Jewish anyway, that they were mistaken. There were my childish prayers to an unknown, non-existent but nonetheless compassionate God that he make me blue-eyed and non-Jewish. There was my deep sorrow and exaltation for the plight of the Jewish people, my readiness to change roles with Ann Frank, to be part of that tragedy body and soul. Was I? Wasn't I? Did it really matter at all?

I was nineteen, atheist, humanist, fighting against totalitarianism for freedom of speech and democracy. Ethnicity and nationalism were plagues of the past. Or if they were not yet, they soon would become part of the past.

My Jewish fiancé was in Canada and didn't even know of my discovery. So much for my converting. He never found out. I could never write to him such news. It wouldn't be politically correct to send something like that in the mail.

I never confronted my mother about this family secret. I thought her silence was due to the political climate and her own convictions and philosophy of belonging, of being assimilated into the larger society. As far as she was concerned, she had kept the secret to help me. It was better not to have a dual identity. I was Romanian and that was that. No need for anything else.

I never confronted my father about his part in the secret either. I probably never will. I know why he did it, and in the circumference of his personality it makes perfect sense. Goal over means: he wanted me and did everything to get me. In the end it didn't work.

It was the fear of losing me that kept my mother, my grandfather, my maternal relatives from ever telling me my family history. Fear and political manipulation had power over them and blocked half of my heritage.

Some years ago when the kids were still young, I brought home two of the menorah that the Lubavitch Rabbi had been handing out at a new synagogue in town. My boys know their grandmother is Jewish. They consider themselves "a little bit Jewish," and they proudly announce this all the time, to their grandfather, too. My husband, a Catholic, knows more about Jewish traditions and holidays than I do, and what I know I learned in America where I, too, read poems to my children with a funny accent, revealing new meanings to old words. I even write for them: poems and stories full of misspellings and grammatical errors.

Some years ago, for the first time in my life, without knowing how to, I lit candles on the menorah. Which side gets lit first? I still don't know. We still have those menorahs but don't really use them. No prayers either, Jewish or Christian. We know none. A tree, presents, decoration, a mention and a greeting for Hanukah. My kids jokingly sing a song they've learned many years ago in school.

I've learned a lot about Judaism and Jewish history in the past years since I've learned to read English and found many books at the public library, my main source of Jewish and American studies. I don't know if I am ready or even want to learn about all the rituals involved in either Christianity or Judaism. I don't even know how to answer that pesky question that still comes up now and again, "Are you Jewish?" but I know I want to give my children the choice I was never given. I want to give them the choice to learn whom they are. It is strange, isn't it? In a country where most people's "roots" don't go deeper than two to three generations, I worry about my boys knowing whom their great grandparents were. Maybe it is because family gives context to life, and I am trying to supply another mahogany box full of pictures and stories of yet one more missing family.

And isn't that what Christmas and Chanukah, my dearest St. Nicholas and all the other holidays are about? A celebration of life no matter how dysfunctional, of self no matter how confused, and of family no matter how disjointed.


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