First Female Holocaust Survivor Ordained a Rabbi
At 67, Helga Newmark has regained her faith and identity--and become a Reform rabbi
NEW YORK, May 25 (AP)--Helga Newmark was 11 when she first heard the 23rd Psalm at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Each evening as she lay on her bunk, she listened to a woman's voice from the bed below.
"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.