Going through old papers, I came across diary notes from a trip to NYC for Helga's ordination in 2000, and wanted to write something about her. We became friends on the day that we met, in a classroom in Jerusalem. Helga was born in Essen, as was my grandmother, and that's where our conversation began. It was a dialogue that continued for 21 years, in person and on the telephone (that quaint old way of communicating). I miss the sound of her voice: the touch of a German accent, the hint of a lisp with s's and z's, and especially the mischievous chuckle that she had. Here are a couple of memories that come to mind.
I started with a look at what is out there. If you google "Rabbi Helga Newmark" there are a few links, but very few photographs. Most of the articles refer to her being the first female Shoah survivor to be ordained a rabbi. Of all the articles to read, start with Betsy Morais in the Tablet. It makes a big deal out of Helga not liking Anne Frank, but I don't remember that at all. I was excited to learn that Helga's family lived on the same Amsterdam street as the Frank family, and of course I asked what she remembered. Helga told me that Anne was a couple of years older, and played with the older girls, and the main thing she remembered was that Anne was very bossy. I don't doubt that Helga said, more than once, that "Anne Frank was a brat." But I suspect she said it with a twinkle in her eye, if not with mischief in her voice. If you have read Anne's diary, especially the unexpurgated version, you will know how human Anne was. So she probably could be a brat sometimes, just like any of us.*
It was a struggle for Helga to get accepted into rabbinical school. Although she was well-known as an educator throughout New Jersey, she was initially rejected for not having the appropriate academic qualifications for graduate school. Nevertheless, she persisted. She went away, got the necessary certifications, and reapplied. She was warned that her age would make it extremely difficult to find employment in the field. This did not deter her. In fact, the five year programme took her eight years - she took time out to support family members in difficulty, returned, and then had to take more time off for health reasons. Nevertheless she persisted, and in May 2000 I travelled from my pulpit in the Shenandoah Valley up to Temple Emanu-El to attend her ordination ceremony.
Things had changed since my own ceremony four years earlier, and there was a new custom that when the ordinand went up for their smicha, their family stood up in the pews and applauded. I was rather dismissive of this: "you're not supposed to applaud in the sanctuary during a ritual!" I said to my neighbour, indignantly. And then it was Helga's turn. I wrote in my diary:
"Instead of being led right up to the ark, Rabbi Zimmerman took her to the podium to tell us all about her. Hypocrite that I am, I had turned to Michael (Mandel) and said, well if everyone is applauding their guys then I am jolly well going to stand up for Helga! Well, as she went up on the bima, the entire class and the entire congregation all of Temple Emanu-El rose and gave her an ovation. Yes I cried again. And then Helga was ordained."
That was an incredible moment. I remember that as she ascended to the bima, she was blowing kisses to the congregation. After she had received her smicha, I had to dash off back to Virginia to make the annual congregational meeting that evening. According to the diary:
"I had to leave early ... so I got the security lady to let me round the back and entered the other side of the sanctuary and snuck into the pew next to Helga. "Hey, rabbi," I say. "I have to go, and wanted to say goodbye." "Is it really true?" says Helga, "Am I really a rabbi?" "You bet!" I say, "and I am so proud of you!"
The community celebrated Helga's achievement as the first female Shoah survivor to become a rabbi, but was not so supportive when it came to offering her the opportunity to share her knowledge and experience in pulpit positions. Her life continued to be challenging. Nevertheless, she persisted. A few years later, I moved back to Europe, and by then Helga was dealing with several health problems. Even when she no longer remembered who I was, we still spoke regularly, and I might hear that mischievous chuckle as she told me about an incident with her carer or her meds.
After Helga died, many people shared their fond memories of her. She had been lonely and depressed for a long time, and I was rather angry and judgmental for a while, wishing more of them had spent more time with her when she was alive. Of course I was wishing that I had done better by Helga. This was pre-Internet and WhatsApp etc, and I was thousands of miles away, but I still felt guilty. But I also know that she knew I loved her, and vice versa.
Although, as chronicled by herself and others, Helga had a dark and disturbing past, I will always remember her laugh and her love. May she rest in peace.
* after writing this, I came across this article by Rachel Kadish, who tells us more about Helga and Anne Frank.