Mother Joan of Arc with her big brown eyes looked at me with great compassion one afternoon as she guided me to the almost life size Jesus hanging on the cross. Pointing to the scroll above his crown of thorns, “Look” she said, “see, it says ‘King of the Jews’, He was a Jew. Like you.”
“Then why do I have to convert?” I challenged.
“Because He is not only our Savior but yours too. If you accept him as your Lord and Savior he can take away your sins.”
Even my masturbating, I wondered? Can he stop me from doing that and going to hell? I started early. It was the perfect cure for my insomnia since the traumatic move out of the warmth of India for Japan and the nuns.
I went home and asked my dad why it said Jesus “King of the Jews” on the crucifix.
“Some of the rabbis were threatened by Jesus. He wanted to change things and he had followers. Romans who ruled over Israel didn’t like how popular he was, he could make trouble for them also. So, they were making fun of the Jews, ‘Look here’s your king’, they were laughing at us.”
Easter week was the worst time of the year for me at my Catholic convent school. We studied the Stations of the Cross. The pictures on the wall told the story of an exhausted, falling, and bleeding Jesus, as His mother watched, evoking a suffering almost too much to bear. Accusing looks crossed over to my seat in class, the whispers buzzed like bees around my head, and the eventual “You killed Jesus” uttered out loud from some girl when we stood in line.
Then one day, in seventh grade I thought I had the cure.
I was 13 and I had to find a book for our history oral book report. I stopped in several times a week at the tiny second-hand bookstore tucked in-between the sleazy bars and tearooms at the Sannomiya Train Station in Kobe. Most day I foraged through the piles of books and magazines for comic books from the American G.I ‘s. Sad Sack, Little Iodine, Nancy and Sluggo, Little Audrey, Caspar, Baby Huey, and my favorite, Little Lulu, before I graduated to Betty and Veronica and Katie Keene.
A history book report—there must be something here on the shelves. And then I found it, a paperback on Adolf Eichmann and the Holocaust.
Dehumanized emaciated Jewish men with eyes gone vacant stared out onto the cover of the book from their concentration camp bunks .
I knew about the Holocaust only in broad terms. Two families in our small Jewish community of Kobe were Survivors. I knew their entire families were killed by the Nazis. I knew about Jew hatred from what my mom went through in Baghdad, from stories of the pogroms in Eastern Europe, and what I was being taught in school.
But this was the first time I saw the pictures. The first time I read about the scope of the suffering. The first time I saw pictures of skeletal Jewish men and women lining up to be shot, Jewish skin turned into lampshades, Jewish fat into soap, piles of children’s shoes, and the gas chambers. I didn’t know hate could be so calculated, documented, and “scientific”.
My heart broke in a new way. This was different. It was no longer about me or my stubbornness and my inability to grasp the teachings.
It was no longer about my personal heartbreak about leaving India, or Richard Melson not being interested in me.
I was in seventh grade. And I was going to raise consciousness.
These were nice people, good people. They would finally realize how dangerous it was to scapegoat Jews. They would see what blame could turn into.
I gave my book report. I showed pictures. I repeated the statistics, the facts. Flushed with hope I walked back to my desk.
Before I sat down, Helga’s hand went up.
“My father told me Hitler built good roads for Germany,” she said.
I waited for Mother Robert, to respond.
“Yes” she said, agreeing with Helga, “that’s true, he did.”
My heart sank.
There was no outrage.
Immediately the conversation took on a different turn. Another classmate, a soon to be convert from a secular Chinese family, wanted to know “If Hitler repented before he died would he go to heaven or hell?”
All of us thought a lot about Purgatory in general—how bad did you have to be to go to straight to Hell instead of burning up first in Purgatory?
I thought at least this much was clear—there would be no Purgatory for Hitler.
I should have known there was no overriding the party line. Once baptized, no matter what Hitler did he was a baptized Catholic. His repentance trumped the Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist and Shinto heathens. I should have known after 7 years in Catholic missionary schools this was what it was all about. Why else would they be with us?
Mother Robert was clear, “if he repented, sincerely repented, with all his heart, if he was truly sorry at the last second before he died … if he confessed, if he was truly sincere, he would (after serving time in Purgatory), yes, he would eventually go to Heaven.”
Hitler was a baptized Catholic, you see. And me, the Jew, well, no…I would never “see God”. The best I could hope for was Limbo.
I heard Mother Robert continue, preaching as a fog of shame enveloped me: “The Jews will always be persecuted until they accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior.”
Anti-Semitism was not going to go out of style.
Rachel Wahba is an Egyptian Iraqi Jew born in India who grew up stateless in Japan. She is a psychotherapist in the Bay Area and co-founder of Olivia Travel.