Ed. The following appeared in The Hebrew Catholics #64, pp. 17-18. All Rights Reserved.
Msgr. Eugene Kevane.
In July, 1935 I lived with a Jewish family in Munich. What I saw has stayed with me all this nearly half century as a Catholic priest, as a “Reverend Monsignor” and university professor. What I saw has been in my mind’s eye whenever Family Catechetics (as the Catholic Church calls it) comes up in my teaching. And especially whenever I am reminded of the Holocaust, something of which I did not dream at that time.
Recently I mentioned that distant but still vivid experience to my good friend, Rabbi Leon Klenicki. He urged me to put it in writing. So here it is.
Studying for the Catholic priesthood, I had just finished my first year of theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. I had learned to understand lectures delivered in rapid-fire Latin and had survived my first oral examination. Tired and half-feverish from the fierce Roman heat, I had great need for some time in that cool, fresh air above the Alps.
We young Americans in Rome passed the word to each other about a pension in Munich run by Catholic Sisters who were glad to keep us for a few days or weeks, restoring us by good home cooking for further travel in Central Europe. My day came. A three-engine German plane, primitive in retrospect, took me over the Alps. I went into Munich from the airport, found the address and rang the bell. The Sister was most kind, but full of regrets. “We are filled up. I’m awfully sorry.”
Then the Sister looked at me closely and lowered her voice after a quick glance both ways on the street. “If you want,” she said, “I can give you a note to a Jewish family not far from here. Perhaps you have not heard. The Jews are in trouble from this new government here and are suffering badly. We are trying to help them any way we can. If you would go to them, it would help them, and you would have a nice place to stay.” I thought, “Why not?” and said, “Fine, Sister. I’d be grateful for the note.” She took me inside, wrote the note and gave me directions.
Down the street, therefore, and again the doorbell. A dark-haired youngish woman opened the door slightly and regarded me carefully. She was obviously shy and diffident, overly so. Haltingly I described my need for a place to stay and said the Catholic Sisters sent me, offering her the note through the crack in the door. Reading it, her bearing and facial expression changed. “Willkommen,” she smiled, opening the door wide. “Come on in. Yes, we do have board and room for you.” She brought her quiet, beautiful children forward and presented them as only a devoted mother can do. “Come,” she said, “I’ll show you to your room.”
I was in Munich, Germany. It was July, 1935, with the particular meaning of that point in time, full in the emotional upswing of National Socialism. I had only the vaguest notion about it, and no idea of what was setting in with regard to the Jews. In my time with this family, the matter was never mentioned. But I learned the nature of that Nazi movement from their faces when I was at table with them for my meals. That was my unforgettable experience in July, 1935: taking my meals with that Jewish family in their home.
Out into the city to begin seeing the sights, I returned that first evening in time for dinner. The man of the house had returned. He greeted me warmly, said he was glad to have me, and asked me please to go back to the Sisters with his special thanks. That dinner hour set the pattern of my experience. I recall little else of my stay in Munich, nothing about the room I lived in, not even the name of the family. It is in my travel notes somewhere; but where, after 48 years? What I recall indelibly is the dinner table.
Dinner in that home was a religious exercise. The man was obviously the head of the family. He had his place and his responsibility. He knew what they meant. His wife was truly his helpmate, and above all in the religious aspect of the meal. The children were marvels of behavior. Quiet. Thoughtful. Prayerful faces. For them, the mealtime prayer was the same as living and breathing. This family was devoted to God. It possessed a heritage which it was living.
Thinking about it in the years since, it occurs to me that the Nazi shadow was already across that dinner table, causing them to pray the prayers more carefully, with greater devotion, with an urgency of appeal and a depth of trust that perhaps was greater than ever before. But it was the customary Jewish family life of prayer which supported them in the face of what unmentioned frightful thing coming toward them.
The days went by. Out in the city, going about with my classmates from Rome, I became daily better informed about the National Socialist movement. As yet no one dreamed of the Holocaust. But looking back, I know now that family saw something coming. Every evening, returning for the dinner hour, I understood the secret of this family more clearly. The strength of this Jewish father, mother and children was visible in that marvelous life of prayer and religious conversation so admirably interwoven with the evening meal. I came to know better the source of the unique expression on those faces, the same expression on them all, even the youngest. Trust in God. Abandon to His Holy Will. Unshakable determination to remain faithful to Him. And with it all, a certain indefinable calmness, good humor, mutual closeness, and obvious love that bound them together. These children really loved their parents.
It grew upon me: this is a holy family. It is already suffering in a way I could not understand. But I could see that it had what it needed to face this awful coming thing without flinching and with never the slightest sign of complaint to God. Just quiet acceptance, and ongoing fidelity to the prayers.
My mind could not but return frequently to this quietly prayerful home in my later studies, when I encountered for instance this teaching of the Talmud: “If we do not keep our children to religion when they are young, we shall certainly not be able to do so in later years.” Philo describes accurately what I saw in Munich. “Jews esteem their laws as divine revelation,” he writes; “they are taught from their swaddling clothes by their parents to believe in God, the one Father and Creator of the world.”
“In no other religion”, I read in Isidore Epstein, “has the duty of parents to instruct their children been more stressed than in Judaism.” All my studies of Jewish continuity across the centuries have opened my eyes to the great fact of Jewish religious education in the home, and always I have been reminded of that family in Germany of 1935.
Professor William Barclay gives this summary of his own research into Hebrew education: “There is a fact which is at the center of the whole situation. However high the Jewish ideal of the school, the fact remains that to the Jew the real center of education is the home.” Somewhere along the line he had come to learn what I saw in Munich.
But the family of my experience in 1935 was not responding to learned research. Each of them, father, mother and children, were living the life enjoined upon them by the prophetic Word of God. “The very basis of Judaism,” writes Rabbi Leo Baeck, “is to be found in the conception of holiness.” It has been the destiny of the Jewish people to be different, and holiness defines the difference. I think that is what I saw when staying with that Jewish family in Munich. I saw the well-known words of Deuteronomy, chapter 11, alive and functioning in the inner life of that home. Hence they are my conclusion.
“Therefore shall ye lay up these My words in your heart and your soul … And ye shall teach them to your children, talking of them, when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down … teaching them to love the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave unto Him.”