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Growing Up Catholic and My Grandmother’s Hidden Past

January 17, 2022 | by Donna Pellar

During WWII my European grandparents heroically fought against evil. My spiritual search would reveal my family’s shocking past.

When I first learned of the monstrosities of the Holocaust in my Roman Catholic grade school, I had to rush to the bathroom and vomit.

While the rest of my class were upset, they recovered by recess. I did not. I went home after school that day and began questioning my mom about our family's role in the war. I knew my grandfather had served, but I wanted to learn more.

A devout Catholic, my grandfather felt it was his duty to fight against evil.

In her thick Luxembourg native tongue, she detailed how her father had joined the Resistance to fight along with Americans and civilians as part of the American Underground in an effort to defeat the Nazis. Living in the small village of Koetschette, Luxembourg, my grandfather was the only man who could speak English, a language he learned while traveling to Canada some 20 years earlier. He was able to secretly gather information which he’d relay to the Americans. A devout Catholic, he felt it was his duty to fight against evil.

My grandfather's Resistance I.D. Loosely translated, it reads "Luxembourg's movement of the resistance".

My grandmother, alone most of the time with her three young children, would hide Jewish families in the cellar of their home in Koetschette. A series of raps on the back door would signal more people were coming. Tapping in rapid succession on the living room window meant everybody needs to quickly get to the woods. Each night, she would put her children to bed in their warmest clothes, in case they would have to quickly run in the middle of the night.

She spoke about the fateful day the sound of motorcycles on the cobblestone streets outside their home broke the midday silence. Nobody in their tiny Luxembourg village had motorized vehicles. They must be Nazis.

There was a loud pounding on the front door. My grandmother bravely opened the door just a crack. There stood two Nazi soldiers, demanding to speak to my grandfather. No doubt they had received information that he was working with the Americans, a crime punishable by death. Clinging to my grandmother's long skirt, my mother watched in sheer terror.

My grandparents

In a firm voice, my grandmother informed them that my grandfather was not home and they would have to come back another day. As she began to close the door, one of the soldiers put his boot in the door. He insisted they come in and look for themselves.

With a shooing motion, my grandmother replied that by doing laundry of the German soldiers (forcibly) and caring for her own children, she had no time to entertain such foolery. With that, they unexpectedly turned and left.

Days later, frantic tapping on the window let my grandmother know they were in danger. She got her children and those hidden in the cellar out in the nick of time. Running under the cover of night, they made it safely to the secret bunker in the woods where they stayed for two nights. They had another near miss when Nazi soldiers could be heard talking just near the hatch of the bunker. My grandmother held her hand over her baby's mouth to prevent her from making even the slightest sound. Nobody breathed until they were gone.

That night, my grandmother led their escape to the home of distant relatives where they hid in the cellar. My grandmother then learned that the Nazis had burned their house to the ground. My grandfather was a wanted man and her family was in grave danger.

My grandparents and aunt outside the house in Luxembourg to which they escaped during the war

My grandfather, receiving word of what had taken place, continued his fight with the Resistance and sent letters to my grandmother in code. He was unable to visit for fear of his entire family being killed. Their time in the cellar felt endless. The ever-present sound of bombs exploding made sleep impossible. With only burlap bags to cover themselves with, it was cold, dark, damp, and musty. My mother recalls thinking about her dolly, her only toy, burned up in the house. People would come and go, but she never knew where they came from or where they were going. Sometimes there were many others and sometimes it was just the three of them, and the mice.

After the war ended, the entire family immigrated to America. They traveled third class on the Queen Elizabeth. They settled in Mt. Vernon, as this is where my grandfather had a sponsor, a requirement to come to America at that time. This was the small town that I grew up in.

Attending a private Catholic school as a child, we held a Passover seder every year in commemoration of The Last Supper.

Attending a private Catholic school as a child, we held a Passover seder every year in commemoration of The Last Supper. I regarded this with a reverence that was beyond my years.

Time passed and I became a wife and mother. While most of my friends were deciding what they wanted to do with their lives, I was busy raising a family.

We were Catholic and we sent our kids to the same Catholic school I went to as a child. In fact, it was the first school my mother and one of her sisters attended upon their arrival in America. It was at this school I had the honor of meeting Naomi Ban, a Holocaust survivor. She came to speak at my son's class. Parents were offered the opportunity to attend and I did.

My grandmother on the tractor in Mt Vernon

When she spoke, the hairs on my arms stood on end. The silent tears fell without stop and my soul cried out in grief. She impacted me in a way I will never forget.

At the time my marriage began to crumble, and I too felt like I was crumbling. Not just because my marriage was over – I realized that needed to happen.

But because I was beginning to listen to a tiny voice inside of me, a voice that was questioning the very center of my faith. Silently I prayed and asked the Almighty for guidance.

As if my Devine intervention, I found I was like a sponge, soaking up every bit of Jewish wisdom, history, and tradition I could. I read stories, incredible stories of survival, bravery and unending love. Stories proving that by simply existing, the Jewish people defeated those who would seek to destroy them.

I also read stories that contained surprising bits of familiarity. I learned how observant married women covered their hair in public – something my grandmother used to do. I learned about latkes. My grandmother taught me how to make latkes. I learned about kosher foods and realized that my grandmother had taught me how to separate meat from milk. She also made matzah ball soup, an old family recipe.

How could this be? It hardly seemed possible that she had learned these things from the people she encountered during the war.

My grandmother in Luxembourg

The voice inside of me grew louder. I even made a Jewish friend. She had come to America to date more seriously a man she had met online, and that man just happened to be my regular haircut client at the salon and day spa I owned and operated. We became fast friends. I asked her to teach me about her religion. Seeing her hesitation, I told her that my feelings were deeply rooted and not merely superficial. And for the first time in my life, I put words to my inexplicable yearning and told her I could not shake the inner desire to convert.

I'd actually said it: I wanted to convert to Judaism.

She told me that I needed to dig deep and seek my truth, that the decision to become a Jew cannot be taken lightly.

I mulled over my feelings. How could something that felt so right be so complicated? How would this impact my family? My life?

Arriving at the clarity that I did indeed want to convert, I announced my intentions to my friends and family. My mother was shocked – horrified might be a better way to describe it. She protested that our family was Catholic and always had been, that this was the equivalent to betraying our ancestors.

At that moment, I realized that by converting I was not betraying my ancestors – I was honoring them!

I thought of my grandfather, a man I'd never had the honor of knowing, who risked his life to fight for freedom.

I thought of my grandmother who risked her very life to hide Jewish families. At that moment, I realized that by converting I was not betraying my ancestors – I was honoring them!

Without support, and without my dear Jewish friend, who had since moved back to Israel, I embarked on my journey.

I ordered a copy of the Jewish bible and began reading. Many of these stories I already knew, but they were also different in a way. They rang true to me, and I felt the connection grow deeper. I knew I was making the right decision.

Time passed, and my son, seeking information for a family history report at school, requested my mother to give a DNA sample to further explore our family tree.

As many families do, we had stories about our ancestors and knew they had fled their native Austria n the 1800's to avoid persecution. The reason had been lost to history; we only knew that they had settled in Luxembourg.

Surprisingly, she agreed. When the results were not what anyone was expecting. The test revealed our Ashkenazi Jewish heritage! Immediately, I recalled all the Jewish things my grandmother had taught me. I remembered reading stories about Jewish people who, in fear of their lives, converted to Catholicism, at least outwardly in the hopes of survival.

It occurred to me that perhaps this was the very reason our ancestors had fled Austria – they were fleeing religious persecution, and perhaps as a ruse at first, they had converted to Catholicism. As the danger persisted, the truth of our family's Jewish lineage became hidden, and all that remained was a few precious traditions.

That moment solidified what my heart already knew: we were, in fact, Jewish.

I will never know where along the way we lost ourselves, but I am beyond thankful to have found my way back.

I continued my online conversion classes, desperate to somehow connect to my roots. My father, who had moved back to his home state of Alabama after my parents divorced, accepted my news with love. He told me that all that mattered to him was that I believed in God. My mother, who refused to believe the DNA results and the fact that my grandmother's family name is listed under Jewish families living in Austria during the time our ancestors fled, met me with open hostility.

Since then, my father has passed away and my mother has come to accept my decision, though she still does not support it.

Fast forward eight years, I am now happily remarried and our family has grown. My children have embraced their Jewish identities, and one of my sons even works at the Catholic school we all once attended proudly wearing his yarmulke!

Living in a small community, we are definitely the minority, we are proud to be part of the Jewish people, an eternal nation that cannot be extinguished. As we light the Shabbat candles and recite the prayers of our ancestors, I feel truly blessed.

I will never know where along the way we lost ourselves, but I am beyond thankful to have found my way back.


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