Remembering Natalie Hess, a Jerusalem teacher who survived the Holocaust

Natalie Hess, who died recently at the age of 86, was my idol; she molded my life and the lives of countless others. If you were a teacher trained by her, you could do anything.

 NATALIE HESS: Healing aura. (photo credit: COURTESY THE FAMILY)
NATALIE HESS: Healing aura.
(photo credit: COURTESY THE FAMILY)

The “first conditional” is possible and probable: “If you study, you will pass the test.” “If you sleep enough, you won’t be tired.” Fulfill the condition, and the result will come to pass.

The third conditional details downsides of not meeting requirements: “If you’d studied, you would have passed.” But you didn’t, and flunked. If you’d slept, you wouldn’t be yawning now.

The second is tricky – it’s improbable or impossible. “If I were you, I would go for it” is easy to say – but I am never going to be you. “If I were a rich man, I would ya da di da, di di di di di di da....” means Tevye hopes to be rich one day, but he’s not expecting big bucks to start flowing from his cows at any point soon.

Try teaching those nuances of English grammar to fidgety 15-year-olds in the sixth period on a hot summer’s day, before air-conditioning was installed in Israeli schools. Good luck. It won’t be fun.

Unless you were lucky enough to be a teacher trained by Natalie Hess. Then you could do anything. Natalie, who died recently at the age of 86, was my idol; she molded my life and the lives of countless others. And the mere fact that she survived her childhood and lived to spread such joy is remarkable.

Gymnasia Rehavia school in Jerusalem (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Gymnasia Rehavia school in Jerusalem (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Surviving the Holocaust

Hess was the opposite of drop-dead gorgeous; her luminous beauty and Shirley Temple curls more than once literally saved her life. Hidden as a bewildered five-year-old by a Polish gentile judge, a friend of her lawyer father, the tiny Natalia Chojnacka was plonked under a pile of blankets in a wooden chest when the Nazis came hunting for Jews in Piótrkow Trybunalski, Poland. “A young German soldier opened the lid, scrabbled through the things and saw me lying there,” she recalled, years later in an Israeli high school staffroom, where she headed the English department. “His blue eyes opened wide. He looked around, covered me again, and left.” Hess’s magic was working already.

Surviving the Holocaust meant a miracle a minute, and the judge’s wife knew the Germans would be back. She insisted the little girl be sent to family friends walled up in the ghetto, despite their promises and money received from the child’s parents before being deported to their deaths.

Natalie related this, in her serene, twinkly manner, over break-time bagels at Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Rehavia; it catapulted me back to a high school lesson of my own.

Mr. Cohen, an electrifying teacher, was discussing the Holocaust with a bunch of overprivileged students whose servants dished up dinner every night.

“We tend to think of all Germans as monsters,” he began, “but I wonder what we would have done, faced with a gun to our own kids’ heads and the barked question hanging in the air: Is there a Jew in your house?”

Saving a kid cowering under the quilts, and risking your own daughter’s brains, was something we couldn’t contemplate at 16. At 20, listening to Natalie but still childless, I could not forgive the judge’s wife. But when my own children were born, and then my grandchildren, I revisited that question from five decades ago: would I risk my babies for somebody’s toddler? I’m not sure. Would you?

Natalia’s foster family did not rise to the ranks of the rare righteous among us, and shoved her into the ghetto, unregistered and so at even greater risk than most. Eventually, she was deported with Helena and Kuba, the family friends who sheltered her, to Chuta Kara, a Polish work camp; at the entrance, all children were selected to die. Just as she was about to cross that terrible line, the camp commander, riding by on a horse with his young son in the saddle, swooped up the condemned curly-haired little girl and trotted off for a sivuv (brief tour) of the surroundings; his son had pleaded for a playmate. Ten minutes later, he deposited the Jewish kid back with her people, but on the living side of the line. Sometime later, she and Helena were transferred to Ravensbruck.

At another selection, this time after a traumatic train journey, mothers and children were dispatched to Bergen-Belsen, where “the food was better and life would improve.” Natalia didn’t know the uniformed officials were lying through their teeth; she just knew that she was always starving; the dream of bread made another journey bearable. But suddenly a woman doctor peered into her throat and proclaimed, to Natalia’s dismay, that she had scarlet fever and could not travel. Only years later did she discover that the doctor was a Jewish prisoner determined to save at least one Jewish child. Natalia never had scarlet fever, but her life had been saved yet again.

NATALIE HESS told us these stories, ages and ages after the atrocities, and I would walk into my own classroom on Holocaust Remembrance Day and repeat them. But she was not defined by the Holocaust; or if she was, it was in a way that is hard to articulate – a tikkun olam healing aura radiated off her somehow. Her throaty voice – low and husky – was alluring and compelling; she showed us that the quieter you are when you speak, the quieter students have to be to hear you – pins echoed loudly in our calm classrooms because of her.

She believed that “ein yeled ra, yesh rak yeled she’ra lo” – there is no bad child, just children who are made miserable by life – wisdom that’s informed the pedagogy of all her student teachers. She honed in on lesson plans and “lesson flow,” and making learning fascinating and fun. If she’d been our education minister, the country would be completely different today.

After her unspeakably rough early years, Natalia was sent to Sweden with Helena, the Jewish-Swedish dentist family friend with whom she had survived Ravensbruck. At 16, after successfully becoming a happy young Swede, Natalia was relocated again, this time to the States, to reunite with a long-lost maternal aunt. Natalia became Natalie, married John Hess, and had 53 blissful years with him until his tragic death in a traffic accident.

During their more than five decades together, John and Natalie lived in Israel for almost a quarter of a century, raising three beautiful daughters, building careers, making happy memories and making many people, including me, into better human beings. Eventually, they returned to the States, where Natalie studied and soared, getting a PhD, writing books, and making her very special mark in education there, too. I lost contact with her then, to my sorrow, and it was with a slap of sadness that I read the black-bordered notice in The Jerusalem Post.

Today, after life’s fitful fever, Natalie lies safely next to her beloved husband in a cemetery nestled in the hills of Jerusalem, next to graves of soldiers who fell immediately after the Holocaust in the War of Independence, building a safe haven for Jews from all over the world.

Natalie Hess embodied the best of the best: resilience, kindness, joy, acceptance, spreading love. I am so grateful that I knew her. Rest in peace, Natalie; you made the world a better place. ■

For more on her remarkable journey, see Remembering Ravensbruck: Holocaust to Healing, by Natalie Hess; available on Amazon.

The writer lectures at Reichman University and Beit Berl College. [email protected]