By Heidi B. Neumark*
Reviewed by Gary B. Reierson
Abingdon Press, 2015, 240 pp.
I have been a student of the Holocaust, or Shoah, my entire adult life. This event tragically illustrates the veracity of Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation about human nature: human beings are a paradox. On the one hand, they have the capacity for the greatest good as creatures who are a “little less than the angels” (Psalm 8:5). On the other hand, they are sinners, as Niebuhr writes in The Nature and Destiny of Man: “The Christian estimate of human evil is so serious precisely because it places evil at the very center of the human personality.”
Heidi Neumark’s remarkable memoir, Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith, catapults us into the center of this paradox about human nature. After a lifetime of understanding one’s family and one’s self as Lutheran Christians, imagine discovering, via a daughter’s Internet searching, that one’s father and his ancestors were prominent Jews (including synagogue presidents and rabbis) in Wittmund, Germany.
Neumark learned that her grandfather and many of his family members were victims of the Shoah, and her grandmother was a survivor of Theresienstadt. This so-called “model ghetto” was in reality an elaborate hoax which led to the death of at least 100,000 Jews from starvation, disease, or deportation to Auschwitz.
In a memoir that is both personal and theological, Neumark generously shares her own journey of discovery, but she gives us much more. As a Lutheran pastor learning these family secrets, she reflects on her wrestling with Christian theology as she gained greater knowledge of her family’s history of horror. She tells, for example, of one poignant gathering with new-found Jewish family members celebrating the Passover in “the promised land of southern California, and yet I find myself unsettled still, in a wilderness that defies resolution.” Her sensitive reflections on her personal journey of faith woven amid the details of her discoveries makes for compelling reading and, ultimately, a story of redemption.
Neumark is a magnificent storyteller and writer. I made the mistake of beginning to read her book in the evening. Sometime after 2:00 a.m., I forced myself to stop and go to bed, only to rise early the next day to finish reading. Rarely have I been so absorbed by such a rich page-turner—and a story that still has not let me go.
*Heidi Neumark was a short term resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute in the summer of 2009, and attended the 2011 summer writing workshop, Apart and Yet a Part: Independent Writing in Community.