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Giving Up the Past to Preserve the Future
September 25, 1940 - Kiel Germany
The night Adali’s parents dropped her off at the convent was silent and still. The autumn air was warm, and the sun lingered just over the horizon. Adali was twelve years old, and as she bid her parents goodbye, it still hadn’t sunk in that she would probably never see them again. Adali’s parents were not trying to rid themselves of her; they were sending her to the convent for her own protection. As Jews in the midst of Nazi Germany, they were only trying to do what could save their daughter by erasing her past. It was because of this, too, that Adali’s mother muffled her tears, and that Adali’s father kept turning his back to scan the surrounding streets. With a final goodbye, Adali’s parents shuffled down the street, away from where they had come. The only signs left behind were the mother’s damp handkerchief and the child on the street, now being herded indoors by a nun.
Inside the convent, Adali was led down a long, dark, hallway. Lining the walls were images of men eating supper around a table, or praying together, and some of a single man nailed to a cross. These images were not foreign to Adali. She had seen them before in the stained glass of the church by her old house, or even in friends’ houses when she had been younger. Still, the images did not feel right to her, and she could already tell that things would be much different than they had been at home.
Finally, Adali was brought into a room. The nun exited, and Adali looked around. The room had two beds, a wardrobe, and a desk with a single lamp. There was also a window in the room, and, perched on the bed nearest it was a girl who looked a few years older than Adali, reading a thick book. Looking up, she saw Adali and offered her a smile. It was the first welcome sign that Adali had received that night, and immediately she felt connected to the girl.
“My name is Kathe,” she said, again exhibiting her warm smile.
“I’m Adali,” she flashed a shy smile in return.
As Adali unpacked her few belongings, she could feel the girl—Kathe—watching her. So Adali sat down on the bed across from Kathe, in the hopes of starting a conversation and to rest from the physical and emotional fatigue that had come from her transition.
“What are you reading?” Adali shyly inquired of Kathe.
Before Kathe could reply, a bell tolled out.
Kathe jumped up from the bed. “That’s dinner,” she told Adali. “Follow me.”
Adali and Kathe walked down another long hallway. It was much like the first, lit with lanterns on either wall and the same paintings, which Adali had remembered to be Christian images, as the only decoration. Adali could tell that Kathe was leading her further into the center of the convent, and as they continued on, Adali began to smell food. Finally the two girls entered the dining hall. There were already several nuns seated around one table, and three boys were at another. Following Kathe, Adali greeted the nuns politely and then headed to the table with the children.
“This is Adali.” Kathe introduced her.
The boys nodded their heads and did not ask questions about Adali’s past or why she came to the convent. A hasty round of introductions revealed the three boys to be Jakob, Erich, and Otto. Otto and Erich were brothers, and had been at the convent since 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht. Like Adali, Jakob had only joined recently, and Kathe had also been there for about a year. While no one stated the exact reason why they were all there, Adali had a feeling that their reasons were similar to hers.
Adali soon learned that the convent was to erase the last connection she had to her parents: Judaism. In her first few weeks at the convent, Adali struggled with this concept, and was taken aback at how easily Kathe and the brothers had given up their beliefs. While Adali did grow close to Kathe, and strived to learn everything the nuns were teaching her about Christianity, she felt a strong connection to Jakob, who was also tentative in going against what he was brought up to believe. While Adali knew that the threat the Nazis posed was very real, and realized the importance of converting to the new faith and hiding her past, Adali was just too naïve to fully imagine the risks, without having experienced them herself.
All this changed on January 12, 1941. At three in the morning, the children were awakened by a pounding from somewhere near the front of the convent. Adali and Kathe both climbed out of bed, already fearing the worst. Grabbing her robe, Adali crept closer to the older girl and together they left their room.
In the hallways, the two girls ran into Sister Sofia, one of the nuns.
“What is happening?” whispered a fearful Kathe.
“It is the worst.” replied their teacher. “Whatever they ask, you are not Jewish.”
Leaving the girls with those haunting words, the Sister headed off to another part of the convent.
Adali and Kathe, in a fog of fear, went towards the boys’ room. However, to do so, they first had to approach the main entrance. Heavy footsteps stopped both girls in their tracks, and around the corner came a worried looking nun, along with two soldiers in full uniform, swastikas adorning their breast pockets. Adali froze, but Kathe suddenly kicked into character, like an actress.
“Good evening,” she addressed the nazis, putting on an act of childish innocence that even Adali found hard not to believe.
The two men ignored her, instead turning to the nun. “Are these the only children here?” one man asked. Before she could answer him, the three boys, also looking tired, came around the corner, and his question was answered.
Again turning to the nun, the soldiers told her to bring all five children, along with any other nuns, into the sanctuary; they were suspicious that the Sisters were hiding Jewish children, and wanted to question everyone.
Adali was terrified, and she huddled close to the others as they were herded into the church. Once they got there, the Nazis pulled them apart and began to question each child separately.
When her turn came, Adali was surprised at how easily the lies flowed. She denied being Jewish, and spoke freely about the Holy Trinity and her savior, Jesus Christ. By the end, she had convinced the Nazi that she was a Christian, and was sent to join the other children. Her relief was short lived, however, for when she returned to the group she noticed one child was missing: Jakob. Pushed back to her bedroom by the nuns, Adali did not get to bid him goodbye, and it was not until later that she heard what had really happened to Jakob.
May 21, 1999 - New York City
After the war, Adali was lucky enough to be included in the ranks of Jews who survived Nazi Germany.
However, Jakob was not as fortunate as Adali had been. After doing much research about her past and World War II, Adali was able find Jakob’s name on a list of people admitted to Auschwitz on January 20, 1941.
Knowing the cruel conditions of the Nazi concentration camps, Adali was saddened to realize that there was no chance her friend had made it out alive. Looking back on those times, Adali realized how much she had lost. First she lost her parents, who gave her up in hopes that she would survive, and then her friend Jakob, who had been brave enough to stand by his cultural identity, but had sacrificed his life to do so. Even so, the pain that stayed with Adali the longest was the internal loss of her culture and of herself. By saying one sentence to a Nazi, Adali had given up everything she was taught. She had given up her past in the hope of saving her future.