First Female Holocaust Survivor Ordained a Rabbi
At 67, Helga Newmark has regained her faith and identity--and become a Reform rabbi
BY: Julia Lieblich
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me...."
Then she added, "Go to sleep, my beloved child."
The Psalm brought her comfort then, says Helga Newmark, now 67. But by the time she was liberated, she had no use for a God that could allow a Holocaust, and no use for being a Jew.
Now, half a century later, at an age when others retire, Newmark has become the first woman Holocaust survivor to be ordained a rabbi.
Soft-spoken and elegant in the blue denim dress of a matron turned student, she tells how she reached this point by a long and indirect route.
Some survivors can recall the details of 1940s European Jewish life, she says. "I remember bits and pieces."
She remembers, for example, that she didn't like to play with Anne Frank when they were growing up in Amsterdam. "She was very bossy." And she didn't think much about being Jewish until her mother told her she'd have to wear a yellow star.
"Some kids couldn't play with me anymore because I wore the star," she says.
Soon her family was told to board a freight train for Westerbork, a holding camp in Holland. There her father was put on another train, presumably headed for a labor camp. Later, when Newmark's mother was told she could sign up for a transport to join her husband, she doubted officials and refused, infuriating her young daughter.
"What's wrong with you?" Newmark recalls saying. "I'm going to go myself." It would be years before she learned that her father had already been killed at Auschwitz.
She would live in three camps, separated from her mother for long stretches, making friends she couldn't keep. She lost her friend Beatte, a pregnant woman, when guards forced her to have an abortion.
"I loved her and she disappeared. Then she came back and was never the same, and she died."
Then, when Newmark was 11, a guard raped her. "I didn't even know what was happening to me," she says.
It was one of many traumas she and her mother would not discuss after they were liberated from Theresienstadt in 1945 and moved to Amsterdam and then New York City.
"I needed to talk about it, but my mother didn't want to hear or ever talk about it again," says Newmark.
They didn't go to synagogue in New York or observe the Jewish holidays. "My mother said, 'There is no God, and I don't particularly want to be a Jew.' I said it, too. What good was being a Jew? I was in a camp for being a Jew."
At 17, Newmark married another survivor, but they tried to put the experience behind them. Not until she had children did she begin having flashbacks.
One of them came when she was stopped at a railroad crossing and saw a freight train. "It scared the living daylights out of me. I was in the train smelling the smells and screaming. That's when I went into therapy."
She didn't talk about the "whys" in therapy. "I could not face those questions. They were too painful." But she began to wonder what she would say to her three children if they asked whether there was a God and if they had a religion.
After exploring Buddhism and Catholicism, Newmark decided to try her own religion, joining a small synagogue in Ridgefield Park, N.J. Gradually, she became more interested in the Jewish rituals, and she began to enjoy the communal prayers.
"There's something very magnificent and awesome about sometimes listening to a community, a congregation, pray," she says. "The sound of it, as corny as it sounds, nourishes my soul."
In time she began saying her own prayers. "I pray under the shower and thank God for letting me be able to get into the shower and feel clean and move around."
Still, it would be years before she would approach the question: Where was God in the camps?
In 1987, after the death of her grandchild, "the question of why surfaced all over again," forcing her to confront the issues she'd avoided.
"I didn't suddenly discover the meaning of suffering," she says, though the child's death forced her to accept that some tragedies were beyond her control.
At the same time, she came to believe that the God she thought was absent in the camps is always present, but that people have the free will to inflict suffering.