October 31, 2010

My family and religion

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.



10 Responses to “My family and religion”

  1. Rick on October 31st, 2010 2:37 pm


    First, I am so sorry to read about the difficulty you have been going through in the past week. I’ve enjoyed reading your column for years now, and I’ve heard you speak at conferences. I hope your time of healing arrives quickly and your family memories bring you peace.

    I lost my father over 20 years ago. I was fairly young at the time– in my early 20s– and I had lost a brother just a year before. Times like these will bring your mind around to matters of religion and our own mortality.

    I’d like to not proselytize, but I will say this– in your moments of searching, if the need to look for a higher power occurs to you– I urge you to follow the urge and see where it leads you.

    May peace come your way quickly.


  2. Curt Monash on October 31st, 2010 6:06 pm


    Thank you for your kind words!

    As for the religion thing, personally — thank you, but no thank you. I can’t even formulate a coherent concept of afterlife that doesn’t seem absurd in view of what we can see about people’s personalities and characters being tied to their neurophysiology. And of course I don’t put much weight in the supposed miraculous evidence supporting the claims of any one religion or sect over the other.

    There are people who believe as I do and still follow the religion of their childhoods. Their drive to do so is powerful evidence that ritual has its merits. But even so, I’ve never felt a pull to give primacy to some particular set of myths or other and then go through a lot of fuss to claim that I actually, truly believe in them.

  3. Where I’m going with these obituaries | Software Memories on November 1st, 2010 6:15 am

    […] Religion and the Holocaust in the lives of Peter Monash, Anita Monash, and my grandparents. […]

  4. Randolph on November 2nd, 2010 9:00 pm

    I have followed your blog for a long time and appreciate your insights into the industry.

    It is with interest that I read about you family’s war and post war experience’s as they have significant parallels to my own family.
    My grandfather also lied about his religion and ancestry for exactly the same reasons (and went to a Lutheran church for exactly the same reasons also – haha). To the point that I can’t tell my children which precise combination of German, Polish, Dutch, Czechoslovakian, Jew we descend from. My Grandfather simply changed the story every time he was asked.

    Here in Melbourne, the name Monash is very well respected indeed. We have a freeway, a city council, charities and medical centers bearing the Monash name and the Monash University is the biggest in the country spawning a plethora of academic and research institutions that extend as far as Mumbai, India.

    My condolences for your recent loss.

    In a while I hope to tell you about a disruptive, new and extremely fast, game changing, hybrid column, MPP solution based on existing supercomputer architectures and the LibDrizzle API that we are about to release (possibly open source).

    We expect to be out of stealth mode shortly. I look forward to being able to discuss more details then.


  5. Curt Monash on November 3rd, 2010 2:57 am


    It’s always good to hear from Melbourne!

    One thing, however, that the admirable Sir John Monash got wrong — he pronounced his name with a short “o”. In the original German, the “o” is long, and that’s how we generally pronounce it in the US as well. 😉

  6. Randolph on November 3rd, 2010 4:41 am

    During the war, many German sounding names were often changed to sound more ‘local’. (e.g. Schmidt to Smith). This happened even where my family came from in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, where most of the locals were in fact of German descent.

    Of course, what you Americans do with your vowels is another matter entirely ☺

  7. For those who cared about the late Peter and Anita Monash | Software Memories on September 28th, 2012 4:59 pm

    […] Religion and the Holocaust in the lives of Peter Monash, Anita Monash, and my grandparents. […]

  8. Roy Fischer on March 9th, 2016 9:56 am

    Hallo, Ihre Großeltern, Alfred Monasch und Hedwig Metzge, lebten bis 1938 in der Lutherstrasse 9 in Rudolstadt, Deutschland. Dort habe ich selbst viele Jahre gelebt. Bei meiner Suche zur Geschichte des Hauses fand ich als Einwohner in 1936 Ihren Großvater. Er könnte auch der Eigentümer gewesen sein, nur wurde das Haus bereits um 1906 errichtet. 1938 jedenfalls wurde eine Frau Hilde Schulze Eigentümerin, die 1989 verstorben ist und deren Erben es Rückübereignet und es gleich danach verkauft haben. Ich denke Ihr Großvater war für die ISOLA Rudolstadt tätig, da er in Berlin bis etwa 1904 studiert und ein Patent für die Herstellung von Isoliergefässen gehalten hat. Zu dieser Firma ist nur wenig bekannt. Das Gebäude steht aber noch!! Ich selbst habe als Schüler dort in den Ferien gearbeitet.

    Ich freue mich, dass trotz des Unrechts und des Leids das Ihrer Familie in Deutschland widerfahren ist, diese eine neue Heimat gefunden haben.

    Mit den besten Wünschen aus Rudolstadt

    Roy Fischer

  9. Curt Monash on March 16th, 2016 2:08 pm

    Vielen dank fuer Ihre Information!

    Ja, ISOLA war mein Grossvaters Firma. Meine Familie zog into den Haus ungefaer in 1920.

  10. Curt Monash on March 16th, 2016 2:12 pm

    Wait. It just occurred to me that you can read English well, or else you would never have left that comment. 🙂

    My Aunt Lottie told a story of moving into that house that I think occurred when she was 7 years old; she was born in 1920. The neighbor girl Sanni came over with a ball to meet her and play, and became her best friend for life.

    At some point my grandfather had to share ownership of ISOLA with a Nazi. Long afterwards, the DDR paid a small amount of compensation for the land on which the ISOLA business stood — and it was shared between my family and the Nazi’s. Oh well.

    There were also stories that he eventually lost the firm altogether, and then worked to get around his own patents, but I don’t know how far that effort got.

    I do know that he had about 30 court cases with patent fights against the Thermos corporation, and won almost all of them.

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