• Shame, Silence, and Family Secrets: How Enduring Antisemitism Created False Identities

    Margaret K. Nelson on Concealing and Unearthing Hidden Jewish Heritage

    In May 2009 Heidi Neumark, a woman certain that her German parents were “lifelong Lutherans,” and herself a Lutheran pastor for nearly thirty years, received a late-night call from her daughter; the call contained surprising news. Neumark’s daughter told her mother that her mother’s grandfather had died in a concentration camp and that her mother’s grandmother was a “death-camp survivor.” Neumark almost laughed, thinking that “this was clearly a case of mistaken identity, or identities oddly conjoined in cyberspace.”

    And although she needed sleep to prepare for her Sunday morning pastoral duties, she followed her daughter’s lead on the internet and in so doing came to believe this news for herself: “A page opened the door into an alternate reality where [my grandfather] Moritz had morphed into a child named Moses Lazarus. I was sucked into a vortex of revelations as one website pulled me into another and then another, imploding the old verities of my life.”

    As she readied herself for bed, no longer “the person I thought I was,” she wondered how it was possible that she had never been told “the truth.” The family history passed down about her maternal grandparents—who had met and fallen in love as teenagers in a Lutheran youth group at their Brooklyn church—remained unchallenged. But the stories about her father’s family now turned out to be fairy tales of a sort.

    Because her father had died several years earlier, Neumark could not ask him why he had concealed his ancestry or how he would feel about her learning—and then publicly revealing—a set of facts he had carefully hidden. Although she believed she had been close to her father growing up, she worried that she had barely known him when she discovered he had hidden something essential about himself not only from his daughter but even from his wife.

    She wondered how it was possible that she had never been told “the truth.”

    Neumark was not anti-Semitic, and she was far from being ashamed to learn of her Jewish ancestry. Yet, she was not about to change her religious beliefs: she had been Lutheran far too long to want to abandon or even to regret “the faith that has guided, gladdened, and sustained me, even though the center of my joy is seared with lament.” Still, she chose not to ignore this new information. Within months she and her son traveled to Hamburg and from there to Wittmund, a small town in Germany, to meet with “a stranger who evidently knew much more about my family background than I did.” Her guide took her first to a cemetery where “under a grove of trees was a wall of forty-eight blocks, each with a name, birth date and place of death: Auschwitz, Minsk, Riga, Lodz, Brandenberg, Theresienstadt.” Her son found the name of his great-grandfather on the last of these.

    Next, they went to a cemetery where they discovered memorials of still other relatives, including a family member who had been a rabbi. And then they moved on to the house where her ancestors had lived, in the town where no Jews remained, where she believed “it is the first time in over a century that a Neumark is walking through the very streets that once bustled with Jewish Neumarks.” At that moment, she writes, “feelings of continuity and discontinuity collide with each step.”

    While in Lubeck, where her grandfather had planted a thriving steel industry in the 1900s, she learned about her grandparents’ wealth, privilege, assimilation, and baptism of their three children; she understood also that none of that could save them from being victims of the Holocaust. Although her grandparents were able to send their three children out of Germany, these grandparents were taken to Theresienstadt, where Neumark’s grandfather was murdered.

    Most of Neumark’s subsequent search for relatives, pursued both on a second trip to Germany and on the internet, ended in sadness: she learned of death upon death among people who “were family, my father’s uncles, cousins and their children whom he had never mentioned.” But, she writes, “something wonderful happened!” when she discovered living relatives in California. Soon after she joined them to celebrate Passover. Learning suddenly of her Jewish ancestry, Neumark embarked on a quest for understanding; that quest resulted in the acquisition of new family—both living and dead—and through them links to a history she had never known.


    As she tried to make sense of why her father hid his Jewish ancestry, Neumark concluded that anti-Semitism shaped his decision. He arrived as a young man of thirty-five in New York in 1938, during the period when anti-Semitism in the United States was reaching its zenith. In the years immediately before the United States entered World War II, popular orators like Father Charles Coughlin regularly made broadcasts justifying the attacks of Kristallnacht as a reasonable defense against communism; in those years also, a boatload of Jewish refugees was refused permission to land in the United States.

    Neumark’s father settled in New York, where, by 1941, almost every synagogue in the city’s Washington Heights had been desecrated and where “Jewish children were regularly attacked by teenage gangs whose members were all found to have been influenced by anti-Semitic propaganda they were exposed to at home or in school.” Given these circumstances, Neumark’s father might have thought it best to keep his head down and his private self to himself. And in a sense, he was not really “passing”: his parents had had him baptized while a young child in Germany; the family members considered themselves to be assimilated Germans, not Jews.

    Neumark’s father would have no reason to change his decision after the war ended as anti-Semitism rose again, reaching another high point between 1945 and 1947. A public opinion poll in 1946 revealed that 55 percent of those asked responded “yes” to the question of whether “Jews have too much power in the United States.” In the decades that followed, even as anti-Semitism abated and Jews became classified as white, rather than some other race, remnants endured in the form of housing discrimination enabled by covenants and “gentlemen’s agreements” ensuring that desirable areas remained not only entirely white but also Christian.

    For example, an “unwritten understanding” kept Jews out of La Jolla, California, in the 1950s. And as late as 1960, a study conducted by the Fund for the Republic found that American Jews still faced discrimination in housing and had not yet achieved “full equality with the white Christian population in choice of residence.” Two years later, in 1962, Richard Ornstein, a Jewish refugee from Austria, contracted to purchase a home for his family in the elite Sand Point Country Club area of Seattle; he soon learned that the “property’s deed contained a neighborhood-wide restrictive covenant barring the sale or rental of the home to non-whites and people of Jewish descent.”

    In the face of intense resistance to his moving ahead with the purchase, Ornstein eventually withdrew from the fray, saying he would prefer not to move into an area that would not accept him. Anti-Semitic actions and policies ran into opposition from Jews and their allies who fought for legal remedies. The initial victories were in the field of employment discrimination. In 1945 New York became the first state to ban discrimination in hiring based on religious affiliation. (Still, Neumark was told by a friend of her father’s that “it was not uncommon, even throughout the 1950s, to find job opportunities in the paper listed as “Chr only.”) Anti-discrimination legislation concerning education and immigration followed.

    Fear of anti-Semitism and a desire to protect oneself and one’s family constituted reasons for concealing one’s Jewish identity in post–World War II America.

    Gradually the capacity of people to engage in overt discrimination declined in the United States. Biases, however, remained: a 1964 study by the National Opinion Research Center reported that “48 percent of Americans believed Jews had irritating faults and were more willing than others to use ‘shady’ practices to get what they wanted.” In 1992 the same attitudes about “irritating faults” were found among 24 percent of the population and those about “shady practices” among 22 percent.

    Were being Jewish no different from any other characteristic like the color of one’s hair or even whether someone dyed their hair, it is unlikely that the revelations of the Jewish ancestry of two public figures would have achieved the newsworthy status they did in the last decade of the twentieth century. When he was running for president in 1994, a Boston Globe reporter revealed Senator John Kerry’s Jewish ancestry. According to that account, Kerry’s paternal grandfather came to New York City in 1905 with his wife and four-year-old son four years after he had changed his name from Fritz Kohn to Frederick Kerry. A Washington Post reporter broke the news of Madeleine Albright’s Jewish ancestry in 1997, soon after she had become secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.

    Fear of anti-Semitism and a desire to protect oneself and one’s family constituted reasons for concealing one’s Jewish identity in post–World War II America. Neumark cited additional reasons that, as we will learn, also influenced the family members of other memoir writers. In addition to an “internalized sense of shame” at being Jewish, Neumark suggests that her father might “have viewed his history as a burden that he did not want to impose” on his family. Further, she adds, her father’s silence “may have gone beyond his conscious control,” composed as it was of both trauma and survivor guilt.

    Kati Marton, the author and journalist, writes something quite similar about her parents, who like Neumark’s father had hidden from their children the fact that they were Jewish. To reveal that fact they would also have had to “acknowledge suffering.” They chose otherwise because, Marton believes, they felt “suffering entailed a loss of dignity.” Both of these authors had parents and other relations who not only were persecuted but perished in Eastern Europe; among their relatives, those who came to the United States might have hoped they could leave their anguish behind and start a new life in a new country without daily reminders of what they had endured.


    Heidi Neumark was born in 1954; she does not know precisely when her father made the decision to conceal his Jewish ancestry, but she knows that following his immigration to the United States in 1938 he never spoke of it. Madeleine Albright claimed that she did not know of her parents’ conversion until 1997 when she was fifty-nine. Her parents had grown up as Jews in Czechoslovakia; they escaped to England in 1949. After they had already been living there in safety for two years, and Madeleine herself was four, her parents became Roman Catholics.

    Kati Marton, who wrote about her parents’ experiences as spies in Hungary, learned both at an earlier age (thirty) and at an earlier moment in history (1979) about her heritage; still, her parents, like Albright’s and Neumark’s, made the decision to conceal their Jewish ancestry after they were securely protected from the violence in Eastern Europe. The same is true of Helen Fremont’s parents (as she discusses in two separate memoirs) who chose to conceal their Jewish identities in the United States following their immigration at the end of World War II. In his memoir, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, Peter Godwin reports that his father made the same decision at around the same time in England.

    Three other memoir writers—John Kerry, Susan Jacoby, and Christopher Hitchens—discovered the Jewish ancestry of family members who had made the decision to pass as Christian well before the events of World War II. As noted, Kerry’s paternal grandfather settled in the United States as a Catholic; Jacoby’s family had begun to “pass” early in the twentieth century; Hitchens’s mother never revealed her Jewish ancestry following her marriage in the 1940s in England. None of these three memoir writers knew of their Jewish ancestry until they were adults themselves; all grew up thinking they were Christian and, in two cases, Catholic.

    Over time, many came to regard the new knowledge as holding out the promise of resolving mysteries and providing a far richer understanding of their own heritage.

    In analyzing her parents’ decision to conceal their Jewish heritage from their daughter, for example, Albright considers that a decision made at the height of anti-Semitism might have been difficult to undo in subsequent times: “When viewed through the lens of the Holocaust, the moral connotations of such a choice had been altered irrevocably. Perhaps that is why my parents never found a good time to discuss the decision with me and seemed to avoid doing so with others.

    Before the slaughter of six million Jews, they might have found the words; after it, they could not.” Albright thus fashions an explanation she can live with: her parents could never find the right moment to reveal their own history. In short, the shocked surprise that attended learning of a parent’s hidden ancestry seems to pale in comparison with the shocked surprise of learning that one had no genetic links to at least one parent. And over time, many came to regard the new knowledge as holding out the promise of resolving mysteries and providing a far richer understanding of their own heritage.

    Peter Godwin, who had grown up in Africa as part of the white settler class, initially learned from his mother (who decidedly was not Jewish) that his father was born a Jew. “For a moment,” he says, he “still can’t quite grasp what she’s saying.” He could see his father only as he had always appeared: “My father, as I know him—George Godwin. This Anglo-African in a safari suit and desert boots, with his clipped British accent—is an invention? All those years, he had been living a lie? His name—my name—is not our own?” Quickly, sense making began.

    Some came to believe they could now make sense of something more profound about what happened in their families during their own childhoods.

    First, Godwin thought he could understand the origins of his father’s evasiveness: “Even as I struggle to absorb this, aspects of his character began to fall into place. His truculence, his intense privacy, the minefield he has laid around all things personal. He has been sitting on this huge secret all this time.” Second, he came to see his father in a new light. Now he looked Jewish to his son: “He seems to look different, more… more Middle European.” Third, Godwin believed that his father was “finally acknowledging his real identity, hidden from the world for half a century.” That is, he writes about his father “trying to discard a mask” but not being able to “easily access what’s underneath” as if to say that somehow, his father’s authentic (essential) self must lie somewhere in the young Jewish boy shipped by himself from Poland to England and not in the now elderly man who survived in a foreign country on his own, trained for a career, traveled to Africa, and built there both a farm and a family. In short, Godwin uses the new knowledge to reinterpret physical appearance, personality, and a life lived to conceal an essential self. Other memoir writers do much the same.

    As Susan Jacoby began her career as a journalist, she was brought face to face with knowledge of her father’s Semitic origins. She wondered why she had never previously put two and two together: “With his lavish, curly black hair and his moderately but unmistakably hooked nose, my father looked so very Jewish—or so very much like what Jews are thought to look like.” Christopher Hitchens, similarly, having learned at thirty-eight about his mother’s Jewish heritage, says that once he acquired this information, he saw his maternal grandmother in a new light: “She certainly and rather abruptly looked Jewish to me, which she hadn’t while I was growing up. Or perhaps better to say, when I was a boy I wasn’t in any sense Jew-conscious: Dodo had dark ringletted hair and a complexion to match, and when I registered this at all, it was with the stray thought that she looked like a gypsy.”

    Godwin, Jacoby, and Hitchens all display here a racialized understanding of what it means to be Jewish, an understanding that places physical appearance in center stage. (Yet none of the memoir writers discussed in this chapter recalled being identified as Jews because of how they appeared to others. Only one writer, Susan Jacoby, remembered having been asked occasionally whether she was Jewish because of her distinctive name; not knowing otherwise, she always denied it.)

    Even more profoundly than suddenly seeing their relatives as looking Jewish, these three, along with other writers, believed at that moment they had acquired new insight into both a parent’s experiences and a parent’s personality. They now came to understand just how real the threats of exposure had been even after they had found safety in England or the United States. And they believed they could begin to make sense of aspects of their parents’ personalities as behavior formed in response to those threats.

    Claims of newfound understanding and of being able to integrate new material about one’s parents into previously observed aspects of their personalities and their family life went further still. Some came to believe they could now make sense of something more profound about what happened in their families during their own childhoods. As Fremont puts it, once she discovered that her parents—whose lives she knew had been shaped by the Holocaust although she did not know precisely how—were Jewish, she knew that they were still in hiding.

    Moreover she came to believe “that all the underground emotional tunnels in our house were not just figments of my imagination.” And after half a glass of wine, she grew “fond of the idea” that her parents were Jewish because it “would explain so much.” It would explain “all those mysteries of childhood,… a jigsaw-puzzle past in which all the pieces were missing except my parents.” That sudden explanation she describes as having the effect of “tectonic plates slowly clicking into place, finally fitting.” Kati Marton, who learned that her parents were not simply Hungarians but Jewish Hungarians, writes, “I had sensed a missing piece: the absence of photographs or mementos from my mother’s side of the family.” In the face of this missing piece, she describes a feeling of relief because “a void was filled.”


    This excerpt was adapted from Keeping Family Secrets: Shame and Silence in Memoirs from the 1950s by Margaret K. Nelson. Copyright © 2022. Available from NYU Press.

    Margaret K. Nelson
    Margaret K. Nelson
    Margaret K. Nelson is A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Sociology Emerita at Middlebury College. Most recently she is the author of Like Family: Narratives of Fictive Kinship and co-author, with Emily K. Abel, of Limited Choices: Mable Jones, A Black Children’s Nurse in a Northern White Household.

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