Toward the end of her life, my mother partnered with a man named Max. The intimate relationship only lasted about a year because Mom was cascading downhill with Alzheimer’s. But our family liked Max a lot and even after Mom died, we stayed in touch with him.
When Max died, his daughter asked me to perform the hosting function for his memorial service. Max was an atheist, but also a proud Jew and active Yiddishist. I agreed to do the hosting and led about 50 people in a principally secular service. But I did ask if it was ok to include the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer that is said when remembering the dead. The family agreed to that.
After the memorial, an older woman came up to me and said, “thank you for leading this event, I haven’t been to anything like this in a long … long time.”
I replied, “you are most welcome.”
But then she didn’t walk away. She just kind of quietly, nervously, stayed next to me. It felt like she wanted to say something more, so I stayed quiet.
“Yes…. I hadn’t thought about…” her voice trailed off. “Well, when you did that prayer… you know…. I was once….”
She couldn’t finish her sentences. I then asked, “are you Jewish? Your accent sounds German.”
The woman was silent for a bit, but then replied, “when I was a girl, I was from a German Jewish family. During the war, we went to Amsterdam.”
“Oh,” I said, “that must have been an extraordinarily difficult time for you.” Again, she paused for a moment in what seemed like she was preparing herself for something emotional to say.
“I have never told anyone about this. Never. But after the service today, I will tell you.”
I stood next to this older woman – later finding out she was 86 at the time – prepared to hear about the Holocaust. I was not prepared to hear what came out of her mouth next.
“I was best friends in Germany with Anne Frank. This was before her family went to Amsterdam and before mine did too. We didn’t know each other in Amsterdam, but after the war and when her book became famous is when I found out about what happened to her.”
Upon hearing that, I was stunned. And a little disbelieving. That’s when I asked her age. She also told me that she didn’t want to admit to anyone after the war that she was Jewish. Her parents were killed. She was raised by others – non-Jews. Eventually she came to America and didn’t want her past to define her future. But finally, as an old woman, she felt safe enough in Seattle, at Max’s memorial, to tell someone, a stranger, about her childhood secret 80 years later.
I thanked her for sharing that information with me and we said goodbye.