Coming full circle

The unlikely journey of a German-Christian woman who became an American-Jewish mother and the familial parallels that shaped her life

Love (illustratoive) (photo credit: Courtesy)
Love (illustratoive)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 When Annette met Harry in Munich in 1985, she was a 22-year-old college student grieving over her father’s sudden death only a few weeks prior.
The daughter of an American mother and a German father, both Christians, Annette had been born in the United States but had grown up in Germany.
Harry was Jewish and his family was part of the small Jewish community living in Munich. He was born in Paris – his mother was French and had gone into hiding as a child during World War II.
After meeting at the birthday party of a mutual friend, Harry insisted on driving Annette home. It was a pleasant and friendly ride and Annette found herself talking most of the way, telling him about the shock of her father’s death. He was easy and comfortable to talk to and when he said goodbye at her door he said he would call in three weeks.
“Three weeks?” she asked. Understanding that she was grieving, he said he wanted to give her some time. Annette did not really expect to hear from him again since in her experience guys often say they will call and never do.
That night while getting ready for bed, Annette had a surprising thought. “But surely I cannot marry a Jew,” she thought to herself and then quickly wondered why she had this thought. Had she been unconsciously checking out all men to see if they were “husband material”? “His being Jewish had not been a topic that afternoon, but it had been evident from our discussion of Middle Eastern politics. I didn’t know what being Jewish really meant, aside from the skeletons of the Holocaust and not believing in Jesus. I did, however, know the story of my great-aunt Resi, who had been married to a Jew before World War II. It was a memory that was not my own, a story that was not mine, but one that nevertheless shaped my thoughts.”
Annette Gendler’s story – Christian girl meets Jewish boy in 1980s Germany, converts to Judaism, and moves to the US, where today she is a Jewish wife and mother in Chicago – would stand on its own if she had decided to write her memoir in that way. It would have made a meaningful and thought-provoking book. But as Gendler was very aware, our own life stories never stand alone because we are shaped by the history of those who came before us, our parents and grandparents and their families, who were in turn affected by the experiences of earlier generations.
In Jumping Over Shadows, Gendler not only tells her own story, but juxtaposes the story of her relationship with Harry and her eventual conversion to Judaism with the story of her great-aunt, her grandfather Karl’s sister. Annette grew up hearing Resi’s story.
Annette’s grandfather and his family were living in the German-speaking town of Reichenberg, Czechoslovakia, when his Resi married Guido, a Jewish man, in 1938. Although the family knew many Jews and accepted them into the local community, they also understood what was happening around them – antisemitism was rampant and would soon get much worse. Resi’s family worried what being married to a Jew would mean for Resi’s future and the future of the children she might have. They also worried about how having a family member married to a Jew affected their own status.
Resi and Guido had two children, and while Annette never met her greataunt; she knew her daughter Herta while growing up in Germany.
Of course, the two stories have many differences as well as similarities – the fact that Resi’s marriage to Guido did not last is one example. But the parallel between her great-aunt’s marriage to a Jew and she herself falling in love with a Jewish man was so intense for Annette that she was apprehensive about how her family would accept Harry. At the same time, Harry was so concerned about how his parents would accept his marrying a woman who was not only Christian, but German, that he hid her existence from his parents for three years.
Resi never converted to Judaism, but Annette did, and today she is not only living a traditional Jewish life, but she even has two children who volunteered to serve in the IDF. In a way, with her children defending the Jewish state she has come full circle with her family history.
In Reichenberg during the war, her grandfather and his family feared for themselves when Resi married a Jew, because they knew what having a Jew in the family could mean for their own personal safety. Today Gendler and her family practice their Judaism openly and her children have proudly chosen to defend the Jewish state.
Gendler deftly weaves the two stories together and the result is an intriguing and absorbing memoir. In order to tell her great-aunt’s story, she did extensive research on her family history, the town of Reichenberg, and the turbulent times they lived in. The combination of flowing and descriptive writing, history, and the true stories of people who are brought to life on the page, makes Jumping Over Shadows a book that is hard to put down.