Paula was baptized into Christianity and hid in monasteries during the Holocaust • Now she returns to sources: "I'm going to die and want to do it as a Jew," she says in an interview with Israel Today
Paula // Photo: Courtesy of the photographer
"I'm going to die and want to do it as a Jew." Early this month, 94-year-old Paula from Venice climbed the stairs that led to the local rabbi's office with a clear goal - 80 years after being baptized into Christianity as a girl, she decided to return to Judaism.
Paula is not her real name but the name she carried during the Holocaust, so she wandered from monastery to monastery throughout the picturesque and famous Italian city. Speaking to Israel Today, she tells her story and asks not to reveal her identity for fear of returning to the persecuted girl's position, as happened to her during Nazi Germany's rule and her Italian ally.
Her roots in Venice were buried when her grandmother arrived in the city in 1870, as a newborn baby. Probably because she was born out of wedlock, the grandmother was sent by her family, from her hometown of Ancona, to an orphanage in Venice. At the age of 25 she married a local Jew and on her wedding day a delegation of attorneys representing her family came to the city and gave her a dowry in the form of a multi-story house. To this day her descendants, including her granddaughter - Paula, live in the same house.
Paula herself was born in 1925 to a Jewish family that was considered an assimilator on the one hand, but also in some way connected to the local Jewish community. According to her, her father was not a believing person, while her mother was considered a little more connected to the Jewish tradition. In the late 1930s, when the Nazi ring, in conjunction with Mussolini's fascist Italy, tightened around the necks of Italian Jews, many baptized their children with the aim of blurring their Jewishness and presenting themselves as hopeful that their lives would be saved.
And so, in 1938, while a 13-year-old girl, she was taken with her younger sister abruptly by her aunts, her father's sisters, to a nearby church where they were baptized into Christianity. "In those years," she says, "the Nazi race laws came into force and my aunts thought that if we were baptized, the Germans were no longer considered German." When her mother heard about the act her sisters-in-law did, she reacted hysterically. "Mum took us and quickly washed us. She tried to 'wash' the baptism water over us and probably also 'wash' the experience we had." The same year the mother died at an early age and the family decided to hide the two young girls in one of the monasteries in Venice so that they were not taken by the Germans and their aides from Italy.
Soldier with Jewish children after the war // Photo: Kluger Zoltan GPO
"At the convent, I was given a Christian name and there were moments I forgot my real name," she notes, emphasizing that for two full years she did not visit her home and hardly saw her family members suffering from poverty and conditions under Hitler and Mussolini's rule. "We had dresses with big pockets and every morsel we would find hidden and when the aunts would come in from time to time, we brought them the food we collected." During that time, the Allies began conquering Italy from the south, so many Italian officers and officials fled north, hiding in part in the convent where Paula and her sister were staying. As a result, fearing they might be discovered, they had to move between other monasteries in the city. During their stay, she and her sister acted as Christians for everything and even visited the church from time to time, but Paula testifies to herself that she never really connected with the Christian religion and did so only to save her life.
When the war ended, the sisters reunited with their father, who was an engineer and an officer in the Italian army and returned from a labor camp in Germany. "When my father came back, he knocked on the door and because he was thin and shrunk, I didn't recognize him and didn't know who he was." After returning to normal, she studied pharmacy, opened a laboratory at the University of Venice that exists to this day, and was generally considered a significant figure in the city's health care system. She married a non-Jewish man and they had two daughters, one died about five years ago and the other married, also a non-Jewish man. Many years ago Paula was widowed, who did not live as a Christian, but also as a Jew.
"I always identified with the story of the Anos"
"Because we were baptized at an early age and without our will," she emphasizes, "I always identified with the story of the Anos." Over the years, she maintained an informal relationship with members of the Jewish community in Venice and sometimes took part in the various activities of her friends. Her daughter even studied at a university in the Choata community - Jewish descendants are from Mallorca. Until a month ago, she decided to take action and officially state her return to Judaism.
She contacted the local Chief Rabbi and this referred her to Rabbi Daniel Toito who serves as the emissary of the Strauss-Amiel Institute of the Or Torah Stone Network in the city. Rabbi Toito heard the story of Paula and soon afterwards buried in the archives of her family's genealogies, which were miraculously not taken or destroyed by the Nazis. It emerged from the documents that she was indeed Jewish and all that remained was to hold an official ceremony marking her return to the bosom of the Jewish people. "Me and my wife," he says, "came to her house. Her daughter welcomed the mezuzah at the door and we all welcomed our lives." He said, "We were very excited about the unconventional status and Paula and her daughter cried as we gave them the return certificate to Judaism."
Paula's case is not common, but according to the Strauss-Amiel Institute Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, this is a phenomenon that raises his head. "Many who, for various reasons, have moved away from Judaism, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes raped, want to go back and search for their Jewish roots and especially to connect with their Jewish identity. It is of great importance to work with Jewish communities around the world, but we also have a responsibility and duty to work with Jews who seek their faith again and bring them home. ".
Rabbi Toito (53), who was born in France and previously held a number of posts related to Diaspora Jewry around the world, explains that the situation in Venice is difficult. "There is a lot of intermarriage. The community is aging and there are only about 450 people left. Venice today is a very touristy city and Jews feel relatively safe, but in general anti-Semitic, the situation in Italy and Europe as a whole is getting worse and there are more and more violent events." In his opinion, there are quite a few Jews like Paula and her daughter whom he calls "modern rapists. There are many lost Jewish souls in Italy".
"There are many lost Jewish souls in Italy." Rabbi Taito // Photo: Courtesy of the photographer
And what about the legacy of the 94-year-old Venice woman who wanted to die before returning to Judaism? She currently has one grandson studying in another country. However, she hopes that, following her story and the decision she made in her days, he will want to know the legacy of the Jewish people and will not wait, like her, until the end of his life to reconnect to Judaism.