The Jews who didn’t know they were Jewish

We talk to people who have had to come to terms with the fact that their true religious identity was concealed from them.

By Mel Poluck, January 7, 2010
Crime writer Peter James discovered he was Jewish at the age of 22.

Crime writer Peter James discovered he was Jewish at the age of 22.

For people who have been lied to about their true identity and who then find out they are in fact Jewish, the revelation has a unique and powerful effect.

Crime writer and film producer Peter James was raised by a quintessentially English father and a supposedly Catholic mother. It was only when he began facing daily taunts of “Jew! Jew! Jew!” from a group of his fellow schoolboys, who singled him out because of his physical characteristics, that he first suspected he was Jewish.

The bullies opened his eyes to the possibility and knowing that his mother, Cornelia, had arrived in Britain from Vienna as a refugee in 1938 with just one small suitcase, he persistently asked her: “Am I a Jew?” She persistently denied that he was.

It was only at the age of 22, staying in Canada with his mother’s brother, that James’s suspicions were finally confirmed when, welcomed with a huge Shabbat meal, he encountered his first gefilte fish and a family oblivious to his mother’s deception.

“I suddenly felt this incredible warmth. I thought: ‘I’m a Jew — I like this’,” he says. And being shown around Toronto by a group of “gorgeous” Jewish women hardly took the shine off.

It has only been over recent years that facts about his late mother’s experiences have emerged: that she scrubbed anti-Jewish slogans off walls as Nazism took hold in Vienna; that her younger brother was beaten for being Jewish, and that her friends were taken to concentration camps. But the sense of shame she continued to feel was palpable. “Why have you told the whole world we’re Jewish?” she asked James after he told a journalist he attributed his success to her example— after arriving in Britain, she had become glovemaker to the Queen.

“She just couldn’t talk about being Jewish. It was like a door that remained closed,” says James, who plans to write a novel about the Holocaust. “On her deathbed she said: ‘I want to apologise to you for being Jewish’. This broke my heart. When she died, I realised there was so much I didn’t know.”

While James, whose latest novel, Dead Tomorrow, was published last month, is a non-practising but “proud” Jew, for those who embrace Judaism once they discover their true identity, the path is not always smooth.

Jacob Knop, who works in Jewish education, was 18 when his mother told him he was Jewish. How did he react? “I was very pleased. I had been going to events supporting Israel. A sense of gut conviction of being Jewish had been with me all the way,” he says.

Knop’s mother’s family had assimilated generations ago, although he suspects they knew they were Jewish. During the Second World War, his great-grandmother risked her life hiding Jews fleeing the Nazis in her house near the Dutch-German border. Knop’s mother had seen Jews forced to wear the yellow star and witnessed their deportation to death camps on trains which passed her house.

On her deathbed my mother said: I want to apologise to you for being Jewish

Peter James

Since discovering the true nature of his background, Knop’s life and career have taken a distinctly Jewish path. “I’ve made choices which have defined the outcome of my life. I married a Jewish woman. My children are Jewish.”

His mother, who later denied she had told her son about his real identity, remains ambivalent about his position as a committed Jew. Knop’s own enthusiasm remains undimmed despite what he calls a “forbidding” first experience of going to synagogue.“No-one explained anything. It was unfriendly,” he says.

For Roderick Young too, synagogue was an early hurdle when he began immersing himself in Judaism, particularly as he had spent his youth going to church four times a week.

“Going into a synagogue and ‘owning it’ is difficult. If you’re born Jewish, the Rosh Hashanah service is yours, even if you hate it,” he says. Young — whose mother so fervently wanted to bury all traces of her Jewishness, she doctored the family tree and cut all ties to the openly Jewish branch of the family, he says — found out he was Jewish from an aunt when he was 23.

Soon after, he became a rabbi. To this day, his mother maintains an “absolute hatred” of his job, he says. Indeed, he acknowledges that he found it harder to come out as a Jew than as a gay man.

The vehemence with which many people deny their Jewish heritage is striking and bears testament to what must be deeply troubling memories. And there can be a knock-on effect when a child’s Jewishness is finally revealed to them.

The parent’s concealment can make the son or daughter feel their new Jewish identity is somehow tainted.

“People who as children suspected their parents were Jewish made the inference that if their parents are denying their Jewishness, it must be toxic or shameful,” says Barbara Kessel, who interviewed 166 “outed” Jews for her book, Suddenly Jewish.

“The overwhelming majority eventually separated themselves from those feelings and made an effort to consider objectively what it means to be Jewish. Many Catholics struggled with the notion of losing salvation,” she says.

“Several people I interviewed were angry with their parents at having been denied a piece of their identity. Some were livid. For many, the secretiveness engendered anxiety. The children weren’t fooled by the deception — they were baffled and unsettled by it. Some children of Holocaust survivors were grateful to their parents for trying to save them from antisemitism.”

Today, while there is no longer a need to conceal Jewishness to survive, Kessel says in some contexts, Jews remain cautious.

“I think that even in locations where diversity is celebrated, Jews have a small voice that cautions them not to trumpet their Jewishness in non-Jewish venues, just in case. Jewish history is simply too full of resurgences of anti-Jewish sentiment to allow Jews to relax 100 per cent.”

Clearly, the nature of concealment makes it difficult to build a clear picture of the kind of scale on which Jewish denial took place. According to Professor Antony Polonsky, founder of the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies at Oxford, in Poland for example, approximately 60,000 Jews survived outside the Nazi ghettos, mainly by assuming a new “Christian” identity. He estimates a third maintained this identity after the war.

The good news is that today, people are less likely to cover up Jewishness. “That people have taken so long to reveal this secret is a reflection of the unease they felt about revealing their Jewish identity,” says Polonsky. “This has greatly diminished and is one of the reasons why people are now more willing to tell their children.”

Overall, Kessel’s interviewees, with their disparate experiences, shared something deeper than Jewish genes. “The most prominent finding I encountered was the human need for authentic identity,” she says. “People profoundly wanted to know who they really are, even if they ultimately rejected their identity. They all wanted to know what it was they were rejecting. I don’t think you can build a relationship with anyone — including yourself — on the foundation of an identity that is false.”

Last updated: 10:44am, January 7 2010