This was a class that I taught about the Crypto-Jews who lived in New Mexico. It was given by The University of New Mexico and Elderhostel and met in Albuquerque in about 1982. I remember this class because it was so unique and meaningful to me. At that time, I had been an instructor for Elderhostel for four years.
This Elderhostel class on the Crypto (Hidden) Jews of the Southwest began like most others except for its students — there were three Holocaust survivors enrolled in it though by then most survivors of the Holocaust were dead. Most of the other students were American Jews with a smattering of Christians and other religious views represented. All of them wanted to know more about the descendants of Jews from Spain and Portugal who had been forced to convert to Christianity and ended up in the Americas. I had had Holocaust survivors in my classes before but never more than one in a class. In this case, their attendance was pure coincidence since they had not known one another before they met in the classroom.
From the beginning, this class of Elderhostel seniors was alert, full of questions and excited about the subject. They focused on how and why Conversos (converts) maintained rudiments of Judaism while outwardly practicing another religion.
Two viewpoints emerged. The men were particularly interested in the fact that the Crown assigned church officials the task of distributing land to colonists. The clergy, as the only significantly educated and literate portion of the population, would not award land to questionable Christians. If a family was discovered to be practicing Judaism, land ownership could be voided. The women were more interested in how families could have kept their heritage secret over centuries.
To all, the pain of living a secret seemed to be a topic of great interest, and our discussions frequently lasted over several hours. Our discussions became more and more personal.
At one point, the only male survivor emotionally cried out, “I can’t keep my ugly secret any longer!” One very kind woman reached out to him and embraced him and encouraged him to share his pain. Between sobs, he said that he was on a work detail outside of the prison camp, and he managed to escape and hide from his guards. As they were approaching his hiding place he threw a stone in another direction, which fell near another hiding prisoner. The guards discovered that man and shot him. After the guards left this man went down and found the dead man and buried him. He discovered that there was a supply of food and water stashed nearby, and he took these supplies and managed to survive until rescued. My student sobbed and mumbled about his guilt in helping the guards locate and kill the other man and then surviving on the dead man’s supplies. He seemed exhausted as were the rest of us. The room was quiet; there seemed to be nothing to say.
The oldest survivor, a woman, sobbed “I survived because my body saved me. I was used by all the Nazis — I don’t know how many or how often, and I never had a man with love.” She cried, “That’s all!” and slumped back into her chair.
After several minutes of silence, the third survivor simply said that she was picked out of a group of girls and delivered to a camp official as his maid. He was kind to her, and she became his mistress until the war ended. She said that not all Nazis were the same and reminded us that the Bible (The Jewish Bible or Old Testament) is full of violence and cruelty as well as wonderful stories of justice and love.
After taking several breaths she said that she decided to go to her home in Poland. She couldn’t find it, it was gone! She learned that all the people were gone. Only after some time did she locate someone who knew where it had been, and they went there. All they could find were a few pieces of cement that had been part of the foundation of the bank. Nothing remained of the synagogue. For the next few years, she was in a fog of unbelief and loneliness. She couldn’t even remember how she got to the United States. She said, “I can’t say more!”
Again, there were several minutes of blessed silence broken only by quiet sobbing. I couldn’t think of a thing to say and just sat there with my eyes downcast. Time and schedules became unimportant. After what seemed like an hour of meditation the quiet voice of a middle-aged Jewish student who was a lawyer began a statement that I will try to recall as accurately as possible. I paraphrase him as follows:
“I think all humans have done acts of commission or omission which they regret. We have not had control of some of them, but others have been done with our willful consent. In my own case, my transgression may not have been near the enormity of what we have heard today, but it has bothered me, and I have kept it secret.”
“My parents were a professional couple, who provided us two children with all the benefits of American life. I had many friends and count myself to be a child of privilege. Despite that fact, one of my friends and I resented the few Christian boys who lived in our neighborhood. We knew their route home from the Catholic school and decided to waylay them on their way home. We chose boys smaller than we, and we stopped them and when they resisted we hit them and even broke the arm of one of them. We ran home and no one suspected us. To this day I have felt guilty about that incident, and I have tried to locate the boys to make amends for my behavior. I learned that they were Irish and that their family had moved away. My friend had also moved west, and I was left alone with my secret. Thanks to each of you for giving me this opportunity to tell you my secret. I guess I will feel love for you special people all my life. I can’t wait to get home to tell my wife and son.”
For a class which began on a somber note, it ended with laughter and joy. I dismissed the class, but they wouldn’t leave. They hugged and laughed and cried. It was like no other class I have ever been involved in. I really don’t know what happened! Perhaps they were celebrating the ending of the power of secrets or the closeness this special group developed by sharing them.
Our hotel where we met had already prepared dinner for us, so we decided to meet later for drinks and laughter. The party that night was lovely; we felt so close!
Over the years I have remembered that class and have concluded that the magic of that day was that we confronted our humanity face to face.
I am telling this story to share that unique time of pain and joy with my Beatitudes Campus family.