Out Of Darkness

At 10, Helga Newmark lost her faith in the Nazi camps where she suffered the unimaginable. At 68, she celebrates her journey back to God -- and the evidence of his presense everywhere. Even in the most terrible place imaginable.

September 30, 2000|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

FRANKLIN LAKES, N.J. - Bathed in circles of golden light, the congregants join their voices with that of their new rabbi in an incantation to God.

"Help us to order our lives by your counsel and lead us in the paths of righteousness," they recite. "Be a shield about us, protecting us from hate and war, from pestilence and sorrow."

They have intoned this prayer in countless services, but never with this elderly rabbi, who sways on the bimah before them, a gentle smile on her lips. Her very presence tonight in this sanctuary is an insistence that they consider anew these familiar words.

For where had God's protection been for her?

Where was God when she was dragged off to the camps, a wisp of a child with curly hair and terror in her eyes? Where had he been when her father and grandparents were fed to the gas chamber? Where was his mercy when she was raped before she even knew what the word meant?

Perhaps such ruminations drifted among the pews of Barnert Temple during that Friday evening Sabbath service. They did not occur to Rabbi Helga Newmark.

She had long ago worked out her relationship with God. She knew what she expected of him and what she did not. Her days of forsaking him were over.

After all, hadn't he brought her to this night, when at age 67 she was installed as the new assistant rabbi? Hadn't he been with her four months earlier when hundreds of people stood, many with tears on their cheeks, to celebrate her ordination at Hebrew Union College, the oldest graduate in its history, the first woman Holocaust survivor to become a rabbi?

Why, God had always been with her. Always. Even in the darkest night. God had been with her even there.

`God totally disappeared'

No modern event created more atheists in its wake than the Holocaust. Beyond the destruction of millions of innocents, the gas chambers represented a theological calamity for many millions more left to grapple with its meaning. For if such monstrosity existed in the world, how could God exist as well?

If those untouched by the tragedy themselves were asking such a fundamental theological question, what of those who had actually borne the horror, those such as a young girl named Helga Hoflich? The answer is simple. She survived the Holocaust. Her faith did not.

"I believed strongly in God before I went to camps," she says now. "I prayed to that God at night and believed that God was all-powerful and all-caring, that he cared what happened to me.

"That God totally disappeared for me and a lot of other people."

She is a small woman, slightly hunched in the shoulders, with faded auburn hair and pale, penetrating blue eyes. It is only late in her life that she has spoken of her experiences, more out of obligation than therapy. "This is not pleasant for me," she says at one point in her office at Barnert Temple.

She was the only child of German Jews who had the foresight to flee to Amsterdam when Hitler came to power in 1933, a year after Helga's birth. They didn't go far enough. Newmark remembers her childhood home as tense, crowded not only with her immediate family but with her mother's parents and her father's mother. The house also had to double as site of her father Ernst's struggling business. Forced to abandon his successful shoe-making company in Germany, he now manufactured leather cufflinks.

Plenty of other German-Jewish refugees were in Amsterdam, including Anne Frank and her family, who lived several houses away. Their parents socialized. Three years younger than Anne, Helga did not have a favorable impression of her doomed neighbor. "She was a bratty kid who talked a lot and ordered people around," recalls Newmark.

Like the Franks, the Hofliches were not religious, although Helga attended temple with her father. After the Germans invaded Holland in 1940, their degree of religious activity did not matter. As Jews, they faced ever more restrictions. Ernst could no longer employ non-Jews. The family could not use public facilities. Helga had to leave her school. All had to wear the yellow star.

Each day, another Jewish family disappeared, presumably either leaving the country or going into hiding. Newmark remembers when the Franks vanished, though she knew not to where. After the war, she met Otto Frank, Anne's father and the only one in his family to survive. He told her he had discussed going underground with Ernst. Like, so many others, Helga's father could not fathom what was ahead.

Newmark's memories of Ernst are blurred. "I remember he was tall and liked soccer," she says. She recalls him kicking a ball around the house with her once and how her errant pass broke a mirror. He beamed with pleasure. "Goal!" he yelled.

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