OUT OF DARKNESS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FRANKLIN LAKES, N.J. - Bathed in circles of golden light, the congregants join their voices with that of their new rabbi in an incantation to God.

"Help us to order our lives by your counsel and lead us in the paths of righteousness," they recite. "Be a shield about us, protecting us from hate and war, from pestilence and sorrow."

They have intoned this prayer in countless services, but never with this elderly rabbi, who sways on the bimah before them, a gentle smile on her lips. Her very presence tonight in this sanctuary is an insistence that they consider anew these familiar words.

For where had God's protection been for her?

Where was God when she was dragged off to the camps, a wisp of a child with curly hair and terror in her eyes? Where had he been when her father and grandparents were fed to the gas chamber? Where was his mercy when she was raped before she even knew what the word meant?

Perhaps such ruminations drifted among the pews of Barnert Temple during that Friday evening Sabbath service. They did not occur to Rabbi Helga Newmark.

She had long ago worked out her relationship with God. She knew what she expected of him and what she did not. Her days of forsaking him were over.

After all, hadn't he brought her to this night, when at age 67 she was installed as the new assistant rabbi? Hadn't he been with her four months earlier when hundreds of people stood, many with tears on their cheeks, to celebrate her ordination at Hebrew Union College, the oldest graduate in its history, the first woman Holocaust survivor to become a rabbi?

Why, God had always been with her. Always. Even in the darkest night. God had been with her even there.

'God totally disappeared'

No modern event created more atheists in its wake than the Holocaust. Beyond the destruction of millions of innocents, the gas chambers represented a theological calamity for many millions more left to grapple with its meaning. For if such monstrosity existed in the world, how could God exist as well?

If those untouched by the tragedy themselves were asking such a fundamental theological question, what of those who had actually borne the horror, those such as a young girl named Helga Hoflich? The answer is simple. She survived the Holocaust. Her faith did not.

"I believed strongly in God before I went to camps," she says now. "I prayed to that God at night and believed that God was all-powerful and all-caring, that he cared what happened to me.

"That God totally disappeared for me and a lot of other people."

She is a small woman, slightly hunched in the shoulders, with faded auburn hair and pale, penetrating blue eyes. It is only late in her life that she has spoken of her experiences, more out of obligation than therapy. "This is not pleasant for me," she says at one point in her office at Barnert Temple.

She was the only child of German Jews who had the foresight to flee to Amsterdam when Hitler came to power in 1933, a year after Helga's birth. They didn't go far enough. Newmark remembers her childhood home as tense, crowded not only with her immediate family but with her mother's parents and her father's mother. The house also had to double as site of her father Ernst's struggling business. Forced to abandon his successful shoe-making company in Germany, he now manufactured leather cufflinks.

Plenty of other German-Jewish refugees were in Amsterdam, including Anne Frank and her family, who lived several houses away. Their parents socialized. Three years younger than Anne, Helga did not have a favorable impression of her doomed neighbor. "She was a bratty kid who talked a lot and ordered people around," recalls Newmark.

Like the Franks, the Hofliches were not religious, although Helga attended temple with her father. After the Germans invaded Holland in 1940, their degree of religious activity did not matter. As Jews, they faced ever more restrictions. Ernst could no longer employ non-Jews. The family could not use public facilities. Helga had to leave her school. All had to wear the yellow star.

Each day, another Jewish family disappeared, presumably either leaving the country or going into hiding. Newmark remembers when the Franks vanished, though she knew not to where. After the war, she met Otto Frank, Anne's father and the only one in his family to survive. He told her he had discussed going underground with Ernst. Like, so many others, Helga's father could not fathom what was ahead.

Newmark's memories of Ernst are blurred. "I remember he was tall and liked soccer," she says. She recalls him kicking a ball around the house with her once and how her errant pass broke a mirror. He beamed with pleasure. "Goal!" he yelled.

In 1942, the arrests began. Helga packed a bag and waited for their turn. It came in May with sirens outside her house. Her family was ordered onto a truck, driven to a train depot, and transferred into cattle cars. They disembarked in Westerbork, a transit camp in Holland through which the Franks would pass after the raid on their secret annex two years later.

In Westerbork Helga developed her life-long terror of German shepherds and of going hungry. Years later, her children say, their mother hoarded food in three refrigerators in their American home.

The Nazis put Ernst to work making cufflinks for their uniforms. When done with him, they put him and Helga's grandparents on a train. Helga begged to go with her father, but her mother Hilda held back. After the war, Helga learned the transport had taken them to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

In 1943, Helga and her mother were herded onto another train to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in northern Germany, where Helga was separated from Hilda. Later, Helga would be sent to another camp, Terezin in Czechoslovakia, where she and her mother found each other again.

Helga was 10 at the time of her arrest but was put to work making parts for German airplanes. Everyday she witnessed atrocities. She was herself near starvation and compelled to eat dog feces. "I learned quickly that I could not attach myself to anybody because it hurt too much when they disappeared." She also learned the trick of invisibility, of keeping her head down and eyes averted. "Better not to be seen or heard. To draw attention to one's self was never good."

But she was visible. One day, a guard pulled her behind a barracks and raped her. It was years before she understood what had happened.

"What was ingrained in me, if you'll pardon the expression, is that I was a piece of s---. I was a Jew. I didn't matter. Nobody cared if I lived or died."

She remembers taking comfort in words recited nightly by a pregnant young woman named Beatte in a bunk underneath hers. "It was like a lullaby for herself and me. It made me feel not as alone."

Only decades later, when she was studying for the rabbinate, did Newmark realize Beatte had been reciting the 23rd Psalm: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me."

The Nazis aborted Beatte's pregnancy. She told Helga the guards had played soccer with the fetus. Beatte didn't last long after that. "She willed herself to die," Newmark says.

Some of the Jews in the camp clung to their faith. The Jewish people would be redeemed, they'd say. The Messiah was coming. "I was aware of those people. I envied them. But I couldn't understand them. They might as well be speaking a foreign language."

Yet, even in the camps, she encountered miracles, like sunlight shining through roiling clouds into this hell. Within her prison were moments inexplicable to her. Once, her feet were so blistered from ill-fitting shoes, she could barely move. She expected a bullet. Instead, her guard stayed with her uncomplainingly until she was able to catch up with the others.

Helga was 12 when the Russians liberated Terezin. She and her mother returned to Holland in hopes Ernst would find them. After three years of fruitless waiting, they moved to America and settled in Manhattan. Helga still held out hope that Ernst had survived. "I vividly remember being in the United States and looking at faces for my father's."

But her mother was resolute about turning a page in their lives. She forbade discussion of what happened. As for being Jewish, she insisted that was no longer part of their identities. "My mother told me to forget about being a Jew. We were going to pick up the pieces, but that there was no God. What did being Jewish ever get us? I don't believe she ever went back into a synagogue again."

Helga also banished God from her life. "I was angry. I didn't want to believe there was a God because if there was, why had he let this happen?"

For a young girl trying to start life in a strange country, there was plenty else to occupy her. She went to high school and then got a job in the garment district designing clothes. At 17, she married another Holocaust survivor, Eric Newmark.

She dates the stirrings of her spiritual awakening to her first pregnancy. In the camps, women had been given drugs that blocked menstruation but caused infections. In surgically repairing the damage after the war, a doctor had removed one of Helga's ovaries and told her she might not be able to conceive.

So the birth of daughter Debbie, the first of her three children, struck Helga as another miracle. It also prompted her to anticipate a child's questions about God. "I couldn't bring myself to tell her there was nothing."

She explored Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and was moved by their traditions. But they weren't hers. She joined a small synagogue in Ridgefield Park, N.J. The synagogue needed someone to teach the kindergarten class. The rabbi asked Newmark.

"I said I couldn't, that I didn't know Hebrew, that I didn't know one holiday from another, and that besides, I didn't believe in God."

But the rabbi persisted, assuring her she could learn as she went along. She took the job and then another and then another until she found herself director of education for a large suburban temple.

"She's probably one of the most amazing teachers I've encountered anywhere," says Rabbi Neil Borovitz, who once taught with Newmark. "Not only does she have a keen mind but a very caring soul. Helga possesses an ability to make everyone who listens to her make them feel she's speaking directly to them, whether in front of a congregation or one-on-one. She is really a person who is present."

The reawakening of her faith came gradually, but insistently. Even she finds it hard to explain. Living without God was too taxing, went against her nature. "I became convinced that there's more to life than living without God."

Despite her experiences, she was taken by the wonder of life. "I believe there are miracles around us that have no easy answer, like my daughter being born, like that guard staying back with me when I had blisters."

But her reawakening was not complete until she visited Auschwitz, site of her father's murder. The emotional journey was revelatory. "I realized that God had been present at the camps, that he had been there when people prayed and cried.

"I realized that to blame God is ridiculous. It was people who allowed that to happen just as it is people who allow it to happen today. Look at the violence today. Do we blame God for that?"

Never did she accept Anne Frank's youthful proclamation that "people are really good at heart" (a sentiment Anne herself later doubted).

"I believe we're born with the capacity to do good or evil. It's a free choice," Newmark says. "It's important to admit that all people are not good or we set ourselves up for violence and crimes and evil deeds. If we are aware of that capacity, we can be on guard against it."

Her mother, who died in 1987, was bemused by Newmark's return to faith. "She lived her life in isolation," Newmark says regretfully.

Rigorous training

Toward the end of the 1980s, Newmark began thinking seriously about becoming a rabbi. She felt it was a calling, a logical extension for someone who had spent decades teaching Judaism. "I wanted to have an impact on people who have lost hope."

The road was long. At 55, she went back to school to earn her B.A. Then she applied to Hebrew Union College, the divinity school for Reformed Judaism. She was rejected.

Carol Ochs, a professor of comparative religion, says the rejection was the college's failure. "I think it's hard for schools, particularly schools trying to shape people for a particular profession, to shape someone who has already been shaped. They needed to recognize that they couldn't form her but to respect the gift she'd be giving us."

Instead of rabbinical school, Newmark entered Yeshiva University in social work. Two years later, in 1991, she reapplied to Hebrew Union. This time, she got in.

So began the truly arduous part, a year of study in Israel, mastering the Hebrew language and undertaking the rigorous academic workload entailed in becoming a rabbi.

All of this was hard enough for her fellow students, some as much as 30 years younger than Newmark. But Newmark also had to contend with severe health problems, including her heart disease and diabetes and her husband's Parkinson's. Many times, she considered dropping out. But by then, Hebrew Union was a strong backer. The college gave her extra time to finish the normal five-year course. Last May, Newark, by then a grandmother of nine, did.

"I underestimated her perseverance," says Rabbi Charles Kroloff, a leader of Reformed Judaism in the United States and Newmark's longtime mentor. "I knew she was strong, but not that strong."

Kroloff calls her ordination "a theological shot in the arm. It lifts up her fellow clergy."

Others recognize something unusual about her, an aura of holiness. "You can feel God's presence in her," says Rabbi Borovitz.

During her installation at Barnert Temple this Friday night, members of the congregation unspool the Torah, the repository of Jewish law and learning, and symbolically surround her. It is a symbolic welcome to their new assistant rabbi. "You are Torah," says the temple's chief rabbi, Elyse Frishman. "The words of this parchment come alive in your teaching."

Standing before the congregation, a white tallis draped around her shoulders, Rabbi Newmark, a child of the Holocaust, beams. "I don't know where to begin to share the feelings I have," she says. "I feel awesome, awesome gratitude to God who brought me here, who helped me to survive.

"The fact that I can stand before you today is a miracle."

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