Carolyn Enger still doesn’t know what prompted her to tell her teacher that her family baked matza—on rocks. It happened in Sunday school at the Methodist church she attended each week. The lie landed her in big trouble when her mother, a devout Christian, learned about this bizarre prevarication. Some Jews would say the cause was “dos pintele Yid,” the Divine spark that resides in every Jew as a reminder of her or his Jewishness.
It wasn’t until she was in her teens that Carolyn realized that she was, in fact, descended from Jews. It happened after her father, Horst Enger, returned to his native Breslau (Wroclaw after World War II) for his father’s funeral. One of two sons of his Jewish mother, Charlotte Poppelauer, and her Christian husband, Horst was born in 1921. By his seventh birthday his mother had died. His father’s second wife was Christian and Horst, his younger brother, Dieter, as well as another son born to his father and stepmother were raised in the Protestant faith.
That his biological mother was dead coupled with being raised as Protestant since childhood may have saved his life. When the Nazis came to power, Horst and Dieter were classified as Mischlinge, the term for the product of a mixed marriage. The word implies a less-than-human being, similar to “half-breed.” The Nazis were stymied about how to handle these Mischlinge. They couldn’t kill them outright because precious Aryan blood also coursed through their veins. African Germans, the products of unions between German women and African soldiers who had come to Europe to fight in WWI, were subjected to sterilization so that they wouldn’t “contaminate” future generations of the herrenvolk (master race.) However, as Jews were in a class by themselves, and “Jewish blood” was considered highly poisonous, the Nazis couldn’t quite resolve this “Jewish problem.”
They came up with a series of degrees of Mischlinge. The worst were the products of Jewish and Aryan unions who were raised as Jews, even if the Christian parent was a convert to Judaism. Religion had little implications for Hitler’s racist policies. Horst was drafted to a forced labor brigade, doing physically demanding and dangerous work. Whether Horst would have survived a Nazi victory is a matter of conjecture. Some historians believe that all Mischlinge would have been exterminated.
Horst was in a work camp near Auschwitz when the war ended. He and the other prisoners fled. As was common, he married another Mischling and they had a baby daughter, Isola. In 1947, the family emigrated to America where Horst became Horace. On a visit to Isola’s kindergarten, for open school night, he fell in love with his daughter’s teacher. After the divorce, the two married and Carolyn was born in 1958, the first of three more children. Having been raised a Protestant, Horace was quite happy that his wife raised their children in her Methodist faith. He himself embraced Christianity but did not attend church services except at Christmas and Easter. He founded a successful commercial art business and moved the family to Tenafly, New Jersey.
Enger was aware that her paternal grandmother was Jewish. By third grade she was reading a child’s version of Anne Frank’s diary and becoming increasingly interested in the Holocaust. A Jewish friend, Karen, invited her to her family’s Seder, and Carolyn found the experience moving. Years later, while at Vassar as a music major, planning to continue her studies with her piano teacher, she opted out of the prestigious college because it refused to credit the lessons from someone not on their faculty. Enger moved to Molloy College, where her beloved teacher taught. Paradoxically, it was at that Catholic College, with its required nine credits in theology, that she decided to pursue conversion. That choice did not sit well with her father. “In all my adult conversations, no matter the subject, he would say, ‘Don’t be Jewish.’” He also urged her, “Don’t be on any list,” and constantly reminded her that “it can happen again.” He had suffered greatly for a religion he had never learned or cared about and did not want his children to experience the kind of degradation, shunning and brutality he was forced to endure. But Enger was, by her own admission, “…rebellious. He never wanted me to be a concert pianist.” She became both a concert pianist and a Jew. Her first marriage was to a Greek Orthodox man who was supportive of her religious choice. However, the marriage ended in divorce and, during a trip to Israel, “someone said to me, ‘You know you’re not really Jewish.’”
She was shocked and hurt. It had hardly been a conversion of convenience, as it is for so many people who fall in love with a Jewish person. It was not a conversion for the sake of career opportunity. Nor was it a spur-of-the-moment flirtation with an exotic religion. Enger’s had been a sincere and considered decision. She had ignored her father’s protests and abandoned her mother’s faith. She had left the comfortable majority to become part of a historically beleaguered minority. She had listened religiously to Rabbi Sobel’s Friday evening WQXR broadcasts from Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El. She had studied Judaism and had gone before a beit din. Her certificate of conversion was signed by two highly respected rabbis. That Israeli, however, as so many other Jews in Israel, respected only Orthodox conversions.
Most converts would have been justifiably offended and just walked away from a demanding yet unwelcoming religion. But that spark within her still burned. “I just wanted to get rid of this schism or anxiety and be able to say “‘I’m Jewish’ … so I went through an Orthodox conversion.” Under the auspices of Rabbi Goldin of Englewood and Rabbi Pruzansky of Teaneck, she became an Orthodox Jew.
Enger is now happily married to a very supportive Syrian Jew “who doesn’t have any Holocaust PTSD.” Unlike her very deliberate practice of Judaism, being born and raised as a Jew makes it possible for her husband to practice Judaism holistically, without worrying about all the details of Halacha that are ingrained in him. “It bolsters me in my identity to have him so comfortable and unquestioning.” Her acceptance of both Judaism and her family history has propelled her to delve into the history of Mischlinge. She has combined her knowledge of that with her musical background to create a phenomenal program, “Mischlinge.” The fusion of historical facts, culture, music, film and her narrative that she delivers flawlessly makes one of the lesser-known areas of the Holocaust fascinatingly vibrant. When she presented it on February 22, 2017, at a the UJC Holocaust Council of Greater Metrowest Lunch ‘n Learn program, the audience was mesmerized.
How lucky are we, as a people, that Carolyn Enger did not allow herself to be driven from Judaism by one person’s extremely insensitive comment. What a joy to learn that a woman of such spirit, determination and talent has joined the tribes and become a beacon of light for us and the nations. And how wonderful to contemplate that one of her brothers, also a convert, is the father of a daughter named Charlotte, after her Jewish great-grandmother. Dos pintele Yid continues to burn and enlighten the world.
By Barbara Wind
Barbara Wind is the director of the Holocaust Center of Greater MetroWest.