Sometimes, when the obvious is right in front of someone, a person just doesn’t see the whole picture until something drastic happens and one has to re-evaluate the situation. That was true with discovering my father’s maternal grandparents were secretly Jews who immigrated to the USA (from what was Germany, and is now France) for a better life. While I never knew my great-grandparents, I knew my grandma, her sisters, her sister-in-law, and various cousins. From them, I learned whatever I knew as a child about my great-grandparents (and if you can believe it, we knew even less about my father’s paternal grandparents).


Some of the traditions Grandma and her relatives had were, frankly, very odd to my mother who grew up in rural South Carolina on an old, family farm. There were the usual cultural clashes seen between mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws. But there were some things Grandma insisted on which my mother saw absolutely no basis to do, so Mom remarked that these customs were weird. Looking back now, these differences usually were associated with Friday night dinners and Christmas celebrations. As far as Grandma knew, she and her family were Catholic Germans (which, there are Catholic Germans in the world, so this shouldn’t be unusual) and she celebrated Christian religious holidays. But some of the things she did sounded more like Hannukah or Shabbat customs, and some sounded like she was trying to convince the world she was Christian.


For example, every year Grandma sent a “holiday package” from Chicago, usually early in December, which contained gifts for our immediate family. Usually, the package contained two little bags of candy “gelt” (usually imported from Germany) for my brother and me. We had learned rudimentary German from Grandma’s family, and Grandma told us these little foil-wrapped candies in the shape of coins were called gelt in German, meaning gold. But whenever my brother would talk about these much beloved treats to anybody who didn’t know German, he’d refer to them as “chocolate money”!


When asked why she always sent gelt, she said, “Well, you know – it is a symbol of luck. Besides, the kids collect coins! They love these!” (Who wouldn’t?) But, strangely after Mom asked Grandma why she sent gelt annually, the next year and all the subsequent years that she sent presents, she sent both gelt and Christmas-themed imported chocolates from Germany.


Also, every year, Grandma always sent a lot of presents in the “holiday package” for my brother and me. There were always at least 3 presents for each of us, and one year, there were even 8 presents each for us. My mother thought this was overkill and talked to Grandma about the subject because she felt Grandma was excessively spoiling us. Of course, the question of “Why do you send the kids so many little wrapped packages?” came up, and my mother explained that we only got one present each for Christmas from our grandparents in South Carolina (so I guess Mom thought it made her family look less than generous).


Grandma replied, “Well, you know – some people think it’s more fun if you can spread out presents over several nights. You know – open one package for Christmas Eve, then open one on Christmas, and so on.”


My mother replied, “Not my kids!! It’s all I can do to keep them from opening their presents early! Whenever we say on Christmas it’s okay to open the presents, they all get opened in less than 20 minutes!”



As we got older, and Grandma became more feeble and shopping was more difficult for her, our Christmas gifts came in the form of money or a check tucked into a lovely card. While that was nice, it wasn’t as much fun as opening all of her little packages (at once). It seemed like Grandma kept better track of what things I liked and my outside-of-school activities than my other grandparents, and her presents always reflected my interests more than the socks and underwear from my other grandparents!


Then, there was Grandma’s Christmas tree compared to Mom’s tree. When my brother and I were still living at home, Mom made it her goal to adorn everywhere in the house with Christmas decorations. Plus, Mom’s annual Christmas tree was always more spectacular than that from the previous year. Not so at Grandma’s – Grandma had a teeny-tiny Christmas tree about 1 foot tall (< 1/3 of a metre) that was lit excessively with one string of the big, old-fashioned bulb lights. Maybe Grandma’s tree had a few ornaments on it. But it seemed like the sole purpose of Grandma’s tree was to only sit on the huge, old, free-standing radio in front of her living room window of her apartment to shine out “for the neighbors to see”.


On a weekend in December one year, we drove on a Friday to Grandma and Grandpa’s apartment from our house in central Illinois to spend a weekend with them (and then days later, we were going to travel to South Carolina for our main celebration with Mom’s family). After living in a house that was decorated so much that my best friend compared it to “Santa’s workshop”, we went to Grandma’s stark apartment where her solitary, way-over-lit, miniature tree stood on top of the old radio. When we arrived, it was after dark (which Grandma never liked us getting to her apartment after dark on Friday nights) and my brother noticed the tree was not plugged in where the lights were shining out Grandma’s front window. She said it was okay to turn the Christmas lights on, but my dad or my brother needed to plug the tree into the electrical outlet – she said she didn’t like plugging in the lights (but, yet she did it every other night of the week!). Then we heard a story about how much the neighbors enjoyed looking at her tree!


Of course, on every Friday night, she always had a pair of candlesticks on her dining room table lit, whether we ate dinner with them or not. Once, when we arrived for dinner on a Friday night (after dark because it was winter and we couldn’t get to Chicago from central Illinois before the sun went down), she had her candles burning brightly on her dining room table. My brother (always the sharp one to notice things which were different from the way Mom did things) pointed out, “Grandma!! Your candles are going to burn down before we even eat dinner!”


Grandma reassured him and said, “It’s okay – I like having the candles burning. If they burn down, I have more that we can use.”


But this seemed strange to us because whenever Mom used candles at the formal dining table for things like holiday meals, she always lit them just when the food was ready to be served and before we’d sit down to pray. Doing it this way, Mom’s candles never had the time to burn down (or even drip wax on the table!). Shortly after this discussion about Grandma’s candles, my mother and Grandma got into an argument over whether or not my brother and I should be drinking milk with Grandma’s pot-roast dinner! My mother, ever the farm girl who insisted on good nutrition for us all, won that disagreement with the logic that we had been drinking milk with every meal from the time we were introduced to food. Grandma looked absolutely sick at the thought, but she decided she wasn’t going to rock the boat further!


Over the years, Mom and Grandma had a lot more interesting discussions about food. After we moved to Florida, we had greater access to Jewish delicacies than we did in central and southern Illinois (where we had lived prior to moving to southwest Florida). If Mom would serve something like bagels, blintzes, beef hot dogs/sausages, or cheesecake, Grandma would say, “Of course I like this! I’m German!”


One day, Mom countered with, “That isn’t German – it’s Jewish!” Grandma didn’t know what to reply then! In her mind, these things which Grandma ate in her youth at her mother’s table were German. That’s how it had always been explained to her.


Probably the most telling thing about Grandma’s hidden heritage was the German I learned from my father’s relatives when I was little. I didn’t know it then, but it was heavily “peppered” with Yiddish words and I thought they were German words! I took German in college to be more proficient in the language (and my class hated me because I had been exposed in my earliest years to good German grammar, and it was second nature to me to conjugate complex sentences). I went to the professor teaching the class one day and started asking her about the nouns which my family used as compared to what the items were called in Standard German.


After going through about five words, the professor asked, “Is your family Jewish?”


I answered her with the only “truth” I knew at the time – “No, they are Catholic.”


The professor nervously cleared her throat, and explained, “Remember how at the beginning of the class we talked about how every little village in Germany has its own local dialect? Those dialects can be a big departure from Standard German usage and this is why it is important to study the fundamentals of a language you learned from family. Perhaps where your family lived, there were a lot of Jews in the area and their Yiddish influenced the local vocabulary more than in other places.”


I nodded to express my understanding of what she said. I said, “That could very well be. It could have been like here in Florida where the two communities lived and worked side by side – one influencing the other, so to speak.”


The teacher said, “It might be, although it wasn’t likely at the time your great-grandparents lived in Europe. But there could have been areas where the exception of accepting Jewish influences in local society occurred more than in other places. It’s hard to say.”


With that, we both had more questions about the locale from which my family came than answers. One thing emphasized to me as a child was to never ask questions to my great-aunts on what life was like in Germany because it had been so hard on the family. My great-aunts were dead at that point when I was in college, and Grandma, the youngest surviving offspring from my great-grandparents children (and the first born in America), had Alzheimer’s Disease. So she was unable to talk about the stories she had heard from her parents and older siblings.


About all I clearly remember my family ever saying about Germany was, “There’s nothing left for us in Germany!” They found and made new lives for themselves and survived as best they knew how. They worked hard in their new lives in America and focused on their futures – not their past. Maybe that’s how we all should be when our lives hand us adversity.


Shalom! Happy Hannukah! Merry Christmas! Happy New (Gregorian) Year!

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