We met our daughter-in-law Ashlee over margaritas in a tiny storefront Mexican Restaurant in Oxford, NC. She was self-assured and Southern with a side of sassy. She was a head taller than our son Adam with a voracious appetite for books. An army brat from a small Alabama town, she traced her lineage to the Daughters of the American Revolution. Ashlee and our Adam, a Jew raised in a suburb of Washington, DC, were exotic animals to each other and both were fascinated by the contrasts.
She studied us, and we studied her. My mother’s words about marrying a non-Jewish person rang in my head. Almost all my family lost their lives during the Holocaust. We never spoke of these individuals. Ever. I thought, we cannot lose another one to marriage. So, since she already had a boyfriend, we didn’t stress over the relationship. Our son had a history of many good female friends.
“Your grandmother Bertha’s sister Joanna was married to Levie,” my daughter-in-law tells me via text. I can trace her date of death on the Dutch index for married women but not for the men.” She goes on, “I found your grandfather Jacob’s family, parents, sister Rachel, brother Levie and another brother Samuel. His mother and sister were killed in Auschwitz on the same day, most likely the day they arrived. Rachel’s husband was also killed there, but a couple of months before.”
Ashlee is an amateur genealogist. She is also a Jew now. And the mother of two of my grandchildren, her oldest has my mother’s Hebrew name because my mom died a few months before her birth. Ashlee is the only member of the family who has participated in the womanly ritual of bathing in a “mikvah.” She knows all the Jewish holidays and lights the candles on “Shabbat,” acknowledging the most sacred of all Jewish commandments. My mom’s namesake, three-year-old Maggie Jane, attended a Jewish preschool before Covid-19 and celebrates all the holidays.
Both of my parents fled to New York City with their own parents to escape, in 1939 and 1940. My dad left Amsterdam, Holland and my mom fled from Vienna, Austria. They found each other at a 1948 community dance welcoming returning service men from WWII. My mom, hair upswept in waves and red lips, was a hostess and she urged my dad, sporting his air force uniform, dark, sloping eyes and broad smile to dance with the other girls there. He looked her in the eye and said, “But, I want to dance with you.” Standard 1940s romantic movie line, but once they learned a bit about each other, they knew their meeting was “beshert,” or meant to be.
The people they left behind in their exodus, extended family members who meant so much to my parents since both were only children, met many different fates. Some scattered across the world, but most were stuck in place and went through the horrors of Holocaust nightmares. Their names were names I did not learn as a child, because they were not spoken in our home.
As a child in the 1950s and 60s, I didn’t ask many questions, perhaps I sensed the pain attached to these names. Or I might not have wanted to see the strain on my parents’ faces if they spoke them. I looked away and stopped paying attention. Children crave shelter from the world’s cruel possibilities.
I did hear the name of my daughter-in-law frequently many years later, much before she became part of our family. My son Adam met her on the first day of training for Teach for America. And he thought there was something special in her. She was not Jewish. It is true Jews want their kids to marry other Jews and the Holocaust intensified that desire. But the heart wants what it wants.
My parents were not religious. Growing up in culturally Jewish households in different countries in Europe, they may or may not have observed any Jewish holidays. Many secular Jews of Europe at the time identified as citizens of their nation first and foremost. And the betrayal of this trust in their homeland as Jews and the loss of their extended families destroyed my maternal grandparents. Both died shortly after arriving in US, my grandfather of a stroke and my grandmother in an insane asylum. My paternal grandparents adapted, compartmentalized, and moved on.
My son had always embraced his Jewishness. He and his sister went to Hebrew school and became bar and bat mitzvah. High holidays were always observed. Adam’s public school experience leaned heavily on a shared Jewish identity with many of his friends, but his identification as a Jewish person receded a bit in college. As college graduation approached, and the 2008 recession deepened, his dad and I suggested he apply to Teach for America, volunteer program, hoping he would find life experience. As it turned out, he found his wife.
A few years after our first meeting with Ashlee, both myself and my husband accepted the realization that this deeply proud, original Baptist-reared woman may have a future in our family. When we started to understand her desire to become a Jew herself was sincere, we were pleased and grateful. We weren’t losing a member of the “tribe” we were gaining one. I wanted to tell my lost family members that we were not subtracting, we were adding.
Ashlee’s conversion process was led by a rabbi from our synagogue. Their wedding ceremony was presided over by our congregational cantor. They had written their own vows and Ashlee’s included a quote from the bible. the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman and great-grandmother of King David who married a son of the Jewish Naomi and who converted to Judaism. Ruth says this to her mother-in-law after the death of her husband, Ruth’s son; but Ashlee directed the quote to her new husband, my son. “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16).
I could hear the gasps and sniffles from the wedding guests as I wrapped my brain around this declaration.
And Ashlee says the names. She researches what can be found of the lives they led and the deaths they suffered. She keeps the names and the family members the names belonged to alive…the names that my family should have been saying all along to keep their memories alive. She is the one who will certainly make sure these names live on.