My mother’s grandparents all died in Nazi concentration camps.* My father escaped from the labor camp at Zerbst the night before the inmates expected to be massacred, when an American air raid destroyed their just-completed project and, along the way, knocked out the electric fence.
*More precisely, three of them did. The fourth died younger of natural causes.
These are not things my parents often discussed outside the family, nor wished me to. Having experienced drastic anti-Semitism in their first home country, they did not want to risk even mild forms in their second. Besides, in their thinking — who knew when things could go bad here as well? When I told them I found it unworkable to conceal such a large part of my identity, and was disobeying their request accordingly, they understood. They wouldn’t have liked it if I published anything that could be linked back to them, so I didn’t. But the need for that particular form of caution ended this week.
When somebody dies, and memorial services are planned, people are naturally curious about their religious beliefs. Well, it is most accurate to say my parents each believed there was “Something out there.” This was not exactly subset-of-Christianity Deism of the sort we associate with, say, Thomas Jefferson. My mother lived 32 years in California, largely around Beverly Hills and Hollywood, and my father 13; some new-agey spiritualism seems to have rubbed off on them as a result. But the truth is, we talked about it almost not at all, by which I mean a few minutes total over the course of my entire life. Religion simply was not very important to either of them.
What was a big deal for us was Christmas. My mother’s mother — Ilse Dorethea “Ille” Jonas (nee’ Friedeberger) — was raised as an observant Jew. My mother’s father — Dr. Kurt “Kurtchen” Jonas — was of Jewish ancestry as well, but ruled that his (only) child would be brought up with Christmas trees and the like. When his parents were gassed in Sobibor, Kurt Jonas suddenly turned anti-Christian, and never allowed or participated in a Christmas celebration again. (He would not even visit our house while a Christmas tree was up.) This caused my mother quite the feelings of deprivation, and she vowed that when she had a home of her own, Christmas would be a big deal.
My father, meanwhile, had a Christian mother — Hedwig Monasch (nee’ Metzge). My paternal grandfather — Alfred Monasch — was of Jewish ancestry. (I am related both to the Monasches who published Jewish religious books in Poland in the 19th Century and to the Jewish Australian WW1 general Sir John Monash, after whom Monash University in Melbourne was named.) But as Alfred Monasch traveled on business, he found it inconvenient to cross borders with a passport identifying him as a Jew. So with his own father’s permission, he was baptized. Naturally, my father was raised as a Christian, and was happy upon marriage to have lovely secular Christmas celebrations.
But that’s as far as it went; the late Peter Monash had little use for organized religion. In the 1930s, the church he grew up in — Lutheran — took to flying the Nazi flag. In the 1950s, he found the religiosity of Lubbock, Texas to be offensive. While he occasionally attended a church to pick up girls, he never actually joined one, nor had interest in doing so.
Shortly after moving to Lubbock, he was overwhelmed with new acquaintances inviting him to join their respective churches. A friend advised him “Peter, I know this isn’t true, but tell them you’re Catholic — that will shut them up.” He did, and it worked.
And there never was any thought of Jewish observances of any kind. Neither of my parents would have had a clue how to do it. My mother’s observant Jewish grandmother did try to force-feed her religion on some weekend visits, but she was young, hated it, and forgot it as fast as she could.