Sylvia Sukop. Journal of Lesbian Studies. Volume 23, Issue 1. 2019.
In a rare photograph from her childhood, taken in 1929, nine-month-old Olga Gabányiová sits bare-legged on a fur throw in her grandfather’s tender embrace. Her round face is open, her gaze outward. Starting their lives over, she and her newly divorced mother, Marie, have moved in with Marie’s father Wilhelm Bergmann, a leader in the Orthodox Jewish community of Chotěboř, Czechoslovakia. Olga remembers the widowed Wilhelm as a strict but caring disciplinarian who owned a factory that made wigs for Orthodox women and for theater and opera. Their house was the first in her town to have indoor plumbing.
Wearing a brocade smoking jacket and tie, white mustache and goatee, Wilhelm turns toward Olga. Eyelids softly lowered, he appears to be speaking to her, perhaps even singing, as she clasps his left index finger in her tiny hand. It’s a moment of profound familial security and intimacy that would be shattered, irretrievably, within a decade.
Olga, as I write this essay, is in her ninetieth year of life. The story of our unusual friendship—that of a Czech Holocaust survivor from an Orthodox family and, a generation younger, a German American lesbian Jew-by-choice—is a story of love and chosen family, of kinship uniquely fostered under the inclusive, affirming canopy of progressive faith communities and individuals, and sealed by one of Judaism’s central tenets, “Choose life.”
LGBTQ Jews, a minority within a minority, had long been invisible in synagogue life. Traditional Judaism, like traditional Christianity, viewed homosexuality as a sin, an abomination before God. Rejected after they came out—if they even dared—by the communities in which they had been raised, queer Jews sought spiritual connection where they could find it. In Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that meant attending MCC, the Metropolitan Community Church.
Emboldened by the gay civil rights movement, a handful of individuals led by the Rev. Troy Perry audaciously and at great personal and professional risk made history in 1968 by starting the first-ever Christian church with a primary, positive ministry to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. Their first meetings and services were held in Perry’s living room. Unprecedented in the religious landscape not just of Southern California, where it began, but of the world, MCC created and sustained a space—eventually purchasing a building—where LGBTQ people of faith could feel integrated and affirmed in their sexual and spiritual identities.
Lesbian and gay Jews actively participated in MCC church life but, without accepting Christ, they could not become full members or vote on church policy. In 1972, four Jews were among those who showed up for a weekly MCC “rap” group and decided it was time to establish their own congregation. They would do so with Rev. Perry’s warm support and encouragement, and free use of the church’s space. Metropolitan Community Temple was born—later renamed Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), House of New Life—with lesbian Sherry Sokoloff serving as its first interim president.
BCC’s founders moved quickly to establish ties to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism, with nearly 900 member congregations across the United States), whose official recognition would be crucial to ensuring BCC’s survival and future growth. Shabbat and holiday services were held in the basement of MCC in the West Adams section of Los Angeles until that building was devastated by a fire. Rabbis at Leo Baeck Temple, an older and much larger Reform synagogue in Bel Air, 14 miles and two freeways to the west, immediately stepped forward to offer temporary space for BCC to continue to hold services. Though Leo Baeck’s congregants leaned conservative and might have protested, its rabbis were committed, saying at the time that they were grateful for the opportunity to perform such a mitzvah (a commandment, a good deed performed out of religious duty).
In March 1939, German troops invaded the Czech provinces of Moravia and Bohemia. By then, Hitler’s rise to power had brought anti-Semitic laws and violence to systematic, terrifying new levels. The previous fall, on November 9 and 10, 1938, a coordinated wave of attacks on Jewish homes, shops, and synagogues came to be known as Kristallnacht (literally, crystal night) for all the broken glass windows in its wake. Jewish communities in Moravia and Bohemia had also been swept up in this vicious pogrom—50 synagogues were attacked and the majority of their contents were lost.
Olga was 10 years old and, though the prayer hall in her town was not attacked, her family was now in Nazism’s tightening tentacles.
Under Nazi occupation, any resistance was quickly put down and the destruction of Jewish communities accelerated, including in Olga’s hometown of Chotěboř [pronounced KHOT-yeh-borzh], 75 miles southeast of Czechoslovakia’s capital city of Prague. Jews were soon barred from participating in everyday economic life. They were forced to register all assets and possessions as Nazis took over their businesses. Jewish children were banned from public schools and Jews could no longer enter restaurants, theaters, or swimming pools. They also had to turn over their driver licenses. Beginning in September 1941, Jews were required to wear the yellow Star of David; later that month, synagogues and Jewish places of worship were permanently shut down. Life for Jews became unlivable and the threat of deportation loomed.
I was 10 when my family moved to Nuremberg, a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania that my father chose, in part, for its name. He was an ethnic German raised in rural western Hungary; his parents were farmers. German was his first language, spoken at home; Hungarian his second, spoken in school.
Born in 1934, my father was a child during the War. On visits to the village of Márkó, I have seen the low-slung house where he grew up, in a row of similar houses with a ditch between them that once served as a shared latrine. In my father’s cousin’s papers, I have seen the official Bestätigung (certificate), dated after WWII ended, declaring that none of our Hungarian family were Nazis, a fact I heard echoed in the stories of elders, now deceased.
My father fled Hungary’s Soviet-backed Communist dictatorship as a teenager in 1949, leaving his parents and brother behind, before the “Iron Curtain” sealed off the border with Austria. He escaped on foot and, after being processed as a refugee in Austria, was able to join other relatives who had resettled in Bavaria, where he would go on to attend agriculture school. One of his classmates from a local farm family became his best friend, and that friend’s younger sister became his wife, my mother.
On both sides of my family, the Hungarian and the German, everyone was Roman Catholic and, growing up in Pennsylvania after my parents emigrated to the United States, so was I. Religion is an inheritance passed unbidden between generations. What ones does with it is a matter of choice.
In 1973, the fledgling congregation of BCC was entrusted with the care of a Torah scroll rescued during the Holocaust. BCC’s scroll, dating to the nineteenth century, had once belonged to the Jewish community in Chotěboř. It was one of 1,564 Torah scrolls—part of a vast collection of Jewish ceremonial objects, some of them hundreds of years old—amassed beginning in 1942 under Nazi supervision at the Jewish Museum in Prague (established in 1906) from over 100 congregations in Bohemia and Moravia, all of them wiped out.
After the war ended, the scrolls languished, damp and deteriorating, in a dilapidated Prague synagogue being used as a warehouse. In 1963, three London-based Jews—an art dealer, a scholar of Hebrew and Jewish studies, and a wealthy member of Westminster Synagogue, a Reform congregation near Hyde Park—worked together to purchase and rescue the imperiled scrolls. Transported by truck across Europe and via ferry to Dover, the scrolls were delivered to Westminster Synagogue in February 1964. Since then, the nonprofit Memorial Scrolls Trust that oversees the collection has catalogued and preserved the scrolls, many of which arrived in tatters, without protective covering, or wrapped in random cloth. Two were held together with a woman’s corset, another cinched with the belt of a child’s raincoat; some were blood-stained.3 Signs of hasty, even violent, removal.
The Trust’s primary mission is to get scrolls back into the arms of living Jewish communities. The organization has sent out scrolls on long-term loan to more than 20 countries, according to the Czech Torah Network, “to be cherished as memorials to a tragic past but at the same time to be read and studied by a new generation of Jews, the guarantors of Jewish survival and rebirth.”
An anonymous donor covered the cost of repairing scroll #115, originally from Chotěboř, and shipping it, air freight, to Los Angeles. In BCC’s archives, I found the United Airlines paperwork of January 5, 1973, when BCC’s newly elected gay president, Stu Zinn, picked up the scroll at LAX and drove it home in his car. It would be officially welcomed and dedicated by BCC in a ceremony at Leo Baeck Temple that March.
Between 1941 and late 1944, German authorities, assisted by local Czech police, deported tens of thousands of Jews, including from Prague, the country’s oldest and largest Jewish community, to Terezín and other concentration camps. Deportation of Jews from Chotěboř—Olga’s family among them—likely took place in June 1942, along with other deportations from Bohemia, although no specific record exists.
Young Olga survived the Holocaust thanks to the extraordinary efforts of a 29-year-old British stockbroker, Nicholas Winton. Unheralded for decades, but later dubbed “the British Schindler” and knighted by the Queen, Winton organized and funded the Kindertransport—an ambitious operation to take Jewish children by train to safety in England and arrange homes for them there. In July 1939, at age 11, wearing a numbered tag for identification, Olga boarded what turned out to be the last of seven such trains to leave Prague. Her young cousin was supposed to be on the next train, scheduled to depart September 1, 1939, but with Hitler’s invasion of Poland on that day, it was canceled. World War II had begun.
Like the majority of the 669 children rescued by the Kindertransport, Olga’s stay in England was expected to be temporary. She was taken in by a childless Methodist couple in the village of Croston (northeast of Liverpool), where the father was headmaster of the school. “I went to church every Sunday,” Olga recalls, “and played the piano for children to sing the hymns.” In a fragile voice, she sings me one from memory: Thank you for the world so sweet/Thank you for the food we eat/Thank you for the birds that sing/Thank you, God, for everything.
Olga never saw her family again. Her grandparents, her mother and father, all of her relatives in Czechoslovakia—save for one uncle—perished. At Auschwitz, as she would learn much later, “My mother went straight from the train to the gas chamber.”
While grateful for all that her foster family had done for her, as soon as Olga turned 18 she left for the United States, joining her mother’s half-sister, who had emigrated prior to WWII. Olga arrived by ship in the Port of New York Harbor on August 31, 1947, and lived for a time in Washington Heights. Back then, she tells me, the neighborhood was known among Jews as “the Third Reich” because so many Germans lived there. In 1951 she became a U.S. citizen and married a Romanian Jewish immigrant, Leon Grilli.
The ship that brought my parents from Germany arrived in New York on August 8, 1959, and I was born two years later.
My parents’ stories of the war did not, when I was young, include the catastrophic fate of the Jews or the fact that there had once been thriving Jewish communities in towns near where they had each grown up. I learned about Nazis and the Holocaust on my own, somewhat in school but mainly through books and documentary films I sought out and independent research on visits to Germany. I became deeply immersed in Jewish history and, while raised Catholic, increasingly connected to Jewish practice through a number of close friends. I lived seven years in Boston, followed by seven years in New York, and among my friends, it was the lesbian feminist Jews who had most successfully integrated their faith tradition with their LGBTQ identity. They warmly included me in their Passover Seders (featuring the feminist-inspired orange on the Seder plate6) and other holiday observances and life-cycle events.
Over the years, I would fall in love with three born-Jewish women, and live with two of them. I was a Jew-in-training long before I became a Jew-by-choice. I began formal study and completed my conversion to Judaism after moving to Los Angeles and finding BCC. I was on the verge of turning 40, and the echoes of Exodus were not lost on me—in the Biblical story, the Israelites wandered 40 years in the desert until they reached their Promised Land.
Whatever one might think about the historical accuracy or theological veracity of Torah, one indisputable fact about ritual Torah scrolls is that each has been written by hand. The prodigious labor of inscribing a scroll’s 304,805 letters in ink on parchment in precise columns of 42 lines can typically take up to a year and a half; if one letter is wrong or illegible, the scribe must start that column over. In order for it to be kosher (to satisfy the requirements of Jewish law) for ritual use, neither the writing nor the scroll itself may be damaged or have imperfections.
Written in 1880, BCC’s scroll from Chotěboř has aged beyond the possibility of restoring it to fully kosher status. But in March 2005, with the help of a New York-based sofer (Torah scribe) who spent several days at our synagogue in Los Angeles, BCC members, old and young, came together to restore a single passage.7 One by one, letter by letter, over 100 different hands darkened the ink that had worn thin in chapter 30 of Deuteronomy, the passage that, by tradition, Reform Jews read on Yom Kippur morning. It includes these words:
I’ve put life and death in front of you, blessing and curse.
Therefore choose life, that you might live,
you and your children after you….
I, too, took the feather quill in hand. It was the first time since early childhood that someone else guided my hand in writing, in getting the writing right, even if it was only one letter. The act of repairing a Torah is considered so sacred that, as it is said in the Talmud, “Even if a person corrects only one letter, it is as if they wrote the entire Torah scroll by hand.”
Growing up Catholic in the 1960s and ’70s, the prohibition against same-sex coupling was understood if largely unspoken, as were the shame and fear that came with it.
Having skipped a grade in middle school, I graduated from my Catholic high school at 16. By then I knew I was a lesbian, but virtually no one else did. Though I had no word for it at the time, the recognition hit me full-force (as I have written in an essay9 on my journey to Judaism and to BCC) in my first-grade classroom at St. Catherine’s elementary school in Reading, Pennsylvania, where I fell in love with a girl named Stephanie. I can’t recall when I first learned the word, but I do remember looking it up under “L” in the dictionary. Finding the word there, among all the other words, felt inordinately affirming, a crack of light in the darkness. It made “lesbian” not permissible exactly, but seen and known and recorded. A beginning. In the beginning was the word.
One act of restoration led to another. After repairing our Chotěboř scroll, BCC hoped to locate a living survivor from the same town. Through the Los Angeles-based Shoah Foundation and its extensive and well-indexed Visual History Archive of audiovisual testimonials of survivors, we found her in 2006—Olga (Gabányiová) Grilli. Olga was living in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she had married and raised three children.
Olga had no idea that a precious relic from her community had been rescued. Although she had returned with her family to Chotěboř for a visit in 1993, they found few traces of the Jewish community she once inhabited, other than a neglected Jewish cemetery, encircled by the town’s Catholic one.
We planned to invite Olga to participate in a very special event that fall, commemorating Kristallnacht and reuniting her with the scroll. For BCC, the big unknown was whether or not this recently widowed, heterosexual grandmother would be willing to connect with our explicitly LGBTQ synagogue in such a public way. Once she discovered that the Torah scroll that her Orthodox grandfather Wilhelm had likely held and kissed and prayed from was now entrusted to the care of an LGBTQ congregation led by a lesbian rabbi, Olga might have reacted with revulsion and anger. But the opposite happened. From our very first contact with her, Olga was pleased and profoundly grateful. She accepted our invitation immediately. BCC offered to cover her airfare to Los Angeles, but she insisted on paying her own way, bringing with her an entourage of family members, three generations in all.
Coming out as a lesbian paved the way for my coming out later as a Jew. The former took place in the mid-1980s, a few years out of college, via a letter to my parents because I was too afraid to tell them in person. A few weeks later, my mother wrote back to me on decorative stationery in the cursive script she’d learned from the nuns in Germany: I don’t know why this happened or what I may have done to cause it. But I know God loves you, and I love you. I received her epistle like a blessing—to the extent it was an absolution, it seemed directed at herself, not me—and I wept with relief. I set aside, for the time being, my disappointment in the fact that she decided, after reading the letter, not to show it to my father.
By the time I decided to become Jewish, in the late 1990s, my mother had died, at 55, of cancer. But the rest of my big and big-hearted family were supportive. On a trip to Bavaria, I shared my Jewish news with my mother’s Catholic sister, Luise, as we chatted on her porch, brimming with colorful flower boxes on a summer afternoon in 2004. My aunt’s reaction was understated and, as I look back on it, insightful. She simply affirmed that it was good that I had something to hold onto, etwas fest, something solid. And then we went inside to have coffee and plum cake.
I finally—officially—came out to my father as we cared together for my mother at the end of her life, at which point my sexual orientation seemed incidental. He unequivocally embraced me and my then-partner Audrey, buying both of us plane tickets for the funeral in Germany. And when I became Jewish, he seemed to take active pride in my conversion. None of his seven children stayed in the Church; in his estimation, I, at least, had chosen a faith-centered life.
Having learned that dozens of Czech scrolls were on loan from the Memorial Scrolls Trust to synagogues across Southern California, BCC planned a first-of-its-kind reunion to take place in November 2005. We made it a goal to bring as many of the scrolls together as possible for the sixty-seventh anniversary commemoration of Kristallnacht—the historical moment considered by many to be the beginning of the Holocaust. We called the event Etz Chayim (tree of life), the same name given to the wooden rollers on which a Torah scroll is mounted. Since BCC’s sanctuary was too small to accommodate the large crowd anticipated, we held the event across town at Leo Baeck Temple, our longtime ally partnering with us once again, and I co-chaired the organizing committee.
Late on a Saturday afternoon, cars began flowing in to the temple’s expansive parking lot off Sepulveda Boulevard, directly across from the entrance to the Getty Center and one exit from the Skirball Cultural Center, both places where I used to work. In the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, this very junction, strangely enough, constituted my village. Standing outside the main door of the synagogue, I marveled at the multitudes of Jewish drivers licensed by the California DMV, a reminder that, under Nazi rule, such ordinary privileges had been methodically eliminated.
The past continued haunting the present as one vehicle after another rolled up to me and popped open its trunk. A venerable old scroll would be lying in the back, carefully wrapped in prayer shawls or blankets, including, in BCC Rabbi Lisa Edwards’s car, the one from Chotěboř that had been dedicated in BCC’s temporary home here at this temple back in 1973. I or another volunteer would carry each scroll into the synagogue, itself named for a Holocaust survivor. We would place the scroll gently on a long table alongside the others, 28 in all, silent witnesses to the destruction of their original communities, testifying now to the vibrant persistence of Jewish life on this far western frontier.
As the service started, the Czech survivor scrolls were carried in procession into the sanctuary in the arms of their current caretakers—the mood that singular Jewish blend of mourning and celebration. Olga, hugging with both arms her hometown scroll, now cared for by BCC, led the procession in a wheelchair pushed by her granddaughter, Pamela. It was hard to hold back tears—mainly of joy. The klezmer band Gay Gezund played with extra exuberance and the congregation, numbering close to 400, spontaneously burst into song and dance.
The evening continued with a screening of the film The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton. Then, Olga told her own story and how it intersected with BCC. “When a tree is cut down,” she said, “its roots are still intact. This is true of our people. Though Hitler tried to annihilate us, those of us who survived picked up the pieces of our lives and started over again. I was one of the lucky ones.”
I joined Rabbi Edwards on the bima (altar) for Havdalah (literally: separation, distinction), a ritual to mark the close of Shabbat, the seventh day of rest after six days of creation, of work. In front of the great assembly, we performed the blessings over the wine and spices and candlelight, turning our hands before the tall flame that rose from the triple-tipped braided candle, flexing and curling our fingers, observing the shadows they made, singing the prayer that thanks God for both darkness and light.
Looking out across the sanctuary, I saw hundreds of people who, like Olga, had not hesitated to take up BCC’s invitation to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime convergence. All together, we sang the lilting nigun (wordless melody) that is commonly used for the Havdalah ritual, even in many Orthodox settings. Sometimes mistaken as Chasidic in origin, it was in fact composed in 1976 by Debbie Friedman, a lesbian who developed much of her early material in Los Angeles, as a regular at BCC, and went on to become the premier singer-songwriter of contemporary Jewish sacred music.
Jews were the primary targets of Nazi extermination, but the regime also persecuted and killed members of other groups, including political opponents, the physically and mentally disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Catholic and Lutheran clergy engaged in actual or perceived resistance—as well as Roma (gypsies), Poles, and the Slavic and so-called Asiatic peoples of the Soviet Union.
The persecution of homosexuals was not new under Hitler, but it was brutally intensified, part of the Nazis’ larger crusade to “purify” Germany. Thousands of gay men arrested under laws criminalizing homosexuality were sent to concentration camps and died. Lesbians were not as directly targeted, in part reflecting the subordinate status of women generally—they were not viewed as a political or social threat. Yet they were not immune from violence, imprisonment, and death.
Being LGBTQ is never the whole of a person’s identity. Nor is being a Holocaust survivor. Yet these are vitally important identities to assert in a world of haters and contested legitimacies, a world in which extremists work to deny the history, the validity, the very lives, of certain people and truths.
If Olga had preconceptions about LGBTQ people before meeting Rabbi Edwards and the congregants of BCC, they melted away before she ever entered our synagogue. She embraced us unconditionally. I admired Olga’s energy and openness, her savvy and wit, and how she managed to live without malice, despite all that she and her family had suffered. We stayed in touch after she came to L.A. for her reunion with the scroll, and soon I was visiting her at her home in Poughkeepsie, another time at her sunny winter condo in Florida, before she moved into assisted living in New York.
On my first visit to Poughkeepsie, we drove to see her synagogue and its cemetery, where her beloved husband Leon is buried, then out to eat at a local restaurant. Our conversations, then and now, range from books we read to current events and politics, and she keeps in touch through email on her iPad. Sometimes we Skype. We are both registered Democrats and have known each other over the course of three presidencies, together rejoicing at #44 (Barack Obama) and infuriated by #45. “This country deserves better,” she told me, bitterly shaking her head after the election of Donald Trump, a leader who embraces White supremacists and whose tactics have been compared to those of Hitler. She had cast her own vote for Hillary Clinton.
Like many aspects of traditional Judaism, Torah scrolls are highly gendered, from their production to their ultimate use. The word Torah itself is a feminine word, and the literal translation of the prayers that follow the ritual reading from it include the verse, “She is a tree of life to those that hold fast to her.”
Until recently, nearly all scribes were men. In 2007, Jen Taylor Friedman, then in her late twenties, became the first known female scribe, or soferet, to complete a Torah scroll in modern times. Though there are now several dozen trained women scribes who have worked on or completed Torah scrolls, a number of Orthodox Jewish leaders have deemed them invalid, unkosher, for ritual use. A Torah scroll completed in 2015, through the multi-year international project Women of the Book, includes visual art by 54 Jewish women artists, including BCC’s lesbian past-president, Davi Cheng.
In many Orthodox communities, women are specifically banned from touching a scroll, by custom if not by law. Today, this prohibition plays out in the ongoing controversy at the Western Wall in Jerusalem where, once a month for over two decades, feminist Jewish women have carried and read from a Torah scroll, though their chanting from it is often drowned out by protests; they have even faced physical assault.
As part of the Jewish community in Chotěboř, Wilhelm Bergmann was able to hold and read from a Torah scroll on many occasions. His granddaughter Olga, however, when she was growing up, was not allowed to touch one.
A large Torah scroll can weigh 20 pounds or more. Today, BCC has three scrolls, and the one from Chotěboř is smallest and lightest, perhaps 10 pounds. It’s also the most fragile, used only on special occasions. The first time I held our Czech scroll was at the Friday night Shabbat service in February 2001, when I embraced the covenant and officially became Jewish. I remember how the handles of its wooden rollers rested on my forearms and how its upright body, at once solid and delicate, leaned into my torso. It reminded me of carrying my sleeping siblings when they were little.
Earlier that day, I had met with Rabbi Edwards and the other two members of my beit din (court) at the University of Judaism (now known as American Jewish University) and undergone a ritual immersion in a blue-tiled mikveh, an intimate ritual that held me and marked my transition. At the time, I knew nothing of the scroll’s history, nor of Olga, but in years to come I would become deeply invested in learning about both, and together they would form a palpable link for me to a heritage I was not born into but had to piece together for myself.
For Olga, too, the scroll provides continuity with the past, though it can’t begin to replace all that she has lost. “When I saw the scroll in Los Angeles, when I held it in my arms, it was very meaningful to me,” she told me years after the reunion. “That the scroll’s life continues in Los Angeles is very comforting to me. I am happy it found such a wonderful home where there are people who will take care of it.”
Olga’s scroll will always have an honored place at life-cycle events (like my own bat mitzvah in 2014, in my thirteenth year as a Jew) and every year at Yom Kippur, when we turn the scroll to Deuteronomy. We chant the words in Hebrew, “that you might live, and your children after you,” as her grandfather might have done, his eyes gazing down on that very parchment.
When my mother died, we transported her body back to her hometown in rural Bavaria to be buried in her church cemetery. During her childhood, the parish’s priest died at Dachau for his resistance to the Nazi regime. Father Georg Häfner became pastor of her Catholic church in Oberschwarzach in 1934 and baptized my mother as a newborn in 1938. He spoke openly of his opposition to Hitler and refused to give the Nazi salute. Banned from teaching religion in the local school, he began doing so in secret. My mother’s older siblings, Luise and Raimund, were among his students, though she herself was too young. Constantly harassed by the Gestapo, he was finally arrested in 1941 and sent to the concentration camp at Dachau, where he died of starvation and disease in the Priesterblock (a section set aside for hundreds of jailed clerics) in August 1942—the same summer that Olga’s family members were likely deported from Chotěboř and sent to their deaths.
“Let us seek to be good with everyone,” Fr. Häfner wrote from prison in a letter to his parents. In 2011, Pope Benedikt XVI, himself a Bavarian, officially beatified Häfner as a martyr for his faith.
The Torah scroll is a sacred object, but it also likes to dance. During the holiday of Simchat Torah (rejoicing with/of Torah), Jews the world over conclude the annual cycle of Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle, by dancing with it. At BCC, as in other congregations, we begin by carefully unrolling the entire scroll, so long that it takes many people to help hold the sections, at chest height, as it circles the room. Then, we read from the final chapter (in Deuteronomy) and the first chapter (in Genesis), these ending and beginning points in the text so impossibly far apart from each other across the 100- to 150-foot expanse of an unfurled scroll, then intimately bound together again once it gets re-rolled. Our physical action mends the split, restores continuity.
We rewind and re-cover the scroll, and the dancing finally begins. With loud music and all of the pulsating energy of a gay nightclub, I take my turn with the blue-velvet-robed Torah scroll, holding it tight to my chest while dipping and spinning at the center of an exuberant circle of Jews and friends, all eyes on the two of us.
After my mother’s death, my father retired and later remarried in Florida. On one of my visits from Los Angeles, we were sitting down to Sunday dinner—Sauerbraten—prepared by his new German wife. The pot roast, in this case pork, filled the house with its succulent aromas. As a Reform Jew, I don’t observe kosher dietary laws and I was eager to enjoy Inge’s cooking. Unexpectedly, my father asked me to offer a Jewish blessing before the meal. I had to suppress my laughter at the wild, postmodern mashup of cultural and religious traditions, and violations thereof, embedded in his request: a German devout Catholic inviting his lesbian daughter, a newly minted Jew, to recite a bracha (blessing) over his Protestant wife’s pork. Of course I did so, graciously and in Hebrew.
When my father died in 2008, I gave the eulogy at the funeral mass in his Catholic church. Every year since, I light a candle and say Kaddish (mourner’s prayer) on his yahrzeit (anniversary of a death), and I do the same for my mother. As my parents’ faith encircled me in life, mine encircles them in death.
Today, Olga uses a wheelchair and does not travel far beyond her assisted living facility and her dialysis center, both in White Plains, a half-hour train ride north of Manhattan. I try to see her whenever I am in New York.
On my most recent visit, in December 2016, she treated me to dinner downstairs in the well-appointed dining room. With her encouragement, I ordered lobster prepared by the in-house chef—a pointed reminder that, while many Jews live here, it is not a Jewish home and neither Olga nor I keep kosher.
Later, upstairs in her private room, I took a seat on a sofa beside a large display of photographs on her bookshelf, the majority of which document her decades in the United States, raising her family in Poughkeepsie, and the numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren that followed. I pick up the modestly framed photograph of Olga as a baby with her grandfather and ask if I may take a picture of it. I position it at an angle to the window’s pale winter light and, using my smartphone camera, take a picture of the picture. It nestles now, in a streaming digital scroll of memories, my own and Olga’s, which I hold onto.
Fewer than 100,000 Holocaust survivors are still alive. In striking parallel to that figure, the rescued Czech scrolls, since being brought back to life over the past 50 years in Jewish communities around the world, have been used in an estimated 100,000 b’nei mitzvah, confirming a new generation in their Judaism.
Olga and I met through a string of unrelated miracles—her rescue by the Kindertransport, the rescue of Czech scroll #115 from Nazi confiscation, and my rescue by BCC, my wholly/holy affirming spiritual home of the past 20 years. Had Olga and I never met, I would likely not have had the opportunity, as a lesbian Jew-by-choice with no Jewish relatives of my own, to develop an enduring (despite long-distance) friendship with a Holocaust survivor.
As Olga’s physical health falters with age as well as kidney failure due to blood pressure medication she took over many years, I am confronted with a question I had not anticipated. Shouldn’t every survivor want to live as long as possible? What if one is tired of living? Suppose one loses a spouse, the love of one’s life. Suppose one loses the ability to drive, to walk, to live independently. Suppose one can no longer bear the time-prison of dialysis treatment, the week divided not into six and one, but rather three days on and four days off, year in and year out. Suppose the anticipation of another great-grandchild on the way is not enough, in itself, to cement one’s commitment to living.
Olga’s mind remains sharp. During my last visit, when we were alone in her room, she leveled her gaze at me and asked what might happen if she stopped her dialysis treatments. Her question startled me, seemed akin to a death wish. You’re our survivor, I thought selfishly. How could you even think about ending your life? I tried to hide my reaction and asked her if she had discussed this with her family or her physician. I did not want to overstep my role as a visitor in her life, not being part of the “team” that helps her get through each day. But Olga’s answer reassured me that I was not alone in my reflexive reaction to want her to want to live. She said it’s not a conversation she could have with her children because “they don’t want to hear it.” I didn’t want to hear it either. But it was, and remains, a lesson in the fullness of Olga’s humanity: from the complex negotiations that come with escaping death and, later, approaching it; to the investment that others may have in her to “be” a certain way, to make certain choices. Ultimately, it is her right to make decisions about her own life. To choose life on her own terms.
Even as we have diverged from destinies once prescribed for us, Olga and I have actively affirmed each other’s histories, families, stories, choices. I intend to carry hers for the rest of my days and know that my pioneering, passionate, LGBTQ synagogue in Los Angeles, Beth Chayim Chadashim, will safeguard Olga’s story and her community’s Torah scroll for years to come.