April 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A Tale of Two Children

Renee Hano (credit: cambridgewhoswho.com)

Erika Sauerhoff (credit: Uri Abramov)

Part II of II

We begin again with the story of Erika Sauerhoff (nee Szychter) who traveled to London after the Holocaust and also spent time in Israel, trying to find a place for herself. After placing a note into the Kotel inscribed with her prayer to find her bashert, she was fortunate to meet her husband…the very next day.

Once married, the couple settled in Staten Island where Sauerhoff began her journey into the traditions of her heritage. When the family later moved to the Elizabeth community, she appreciated that some of the residents spoke Yiddish. Sauerhoff recalls that as a child, hearing spoken Yiddish had made her feel excluded, yet now it began to help her feel connected. Sauerhoff sought a meaningful Jewish education and environment for her daughter, so that she could learn about the heritage that her mother had missed. From the exposure to her daughter’s education, Sauerhoff became increasingly involved in observant Judaism and eventually adopted Orthodoxy as a way of life for her family.

While Sauerhoff moved along the path toward finding herself, remembering her story and reconnecting with a heritage lost long ago, Renee Hano took her own road from the Holocaust to the present day. An associate professor and career clinical social worker, Hano (nee Roth) described her experiences in the convent where she was hidden, and baptized, as being both “nice memories and simultaneously conflicted.” Hano was fortunate in that she was hidden with her two sisters, so at least they had each other. She also spoke of “conversations” with the statues in the courtyard garden, and wanting to believe that being with them in the garden had spared her during the bombing of Normandy on D-Day near the end of the war. The convent was destroyed but, miraculously, the three Roth sisters were unharmed. It took the girls two to three months without news of their family before eventually locating them in Paris. Hano remained in Paris until the late 1950s when she came to New York, where she ultimately settled and married. Because of her convent upbringing, being Jewish remained marginal to her at best.

Hano admitted to feeling more adept at expressing her emotions in English, which is fairly unusual as it is not her native tongue. She said she doesn’t have the French vocabulary to express terms of the heart, as those words and phrases were deliberately stifled while she was in hiding. This has left her “still hiding” behind the English she has come to use as a verbal shield. However, learning English enabled her to open her heart and mind to self-expression, leading her to write her first book, Touch Wood, which was written in (not translated to) English and tells the story of her concealment in the convent.

That seemingly happenstance meeting between the two women, at the 1994 inaugural gathering for hidden Holocaust children, has resulted in a strong 22-year (and counting) friendship that has impacted their respective lives in myriad ways. Hano said that meeting Sauerhoff has helped her to feel validated, and has made her feel more comfortable about being Jewish. Until the women met, she felt mostly ambivalent and wished that she could “find a rabbi who truly understood my conflict and could help me to re-integrate.” Hano said that she “thinks there is a God, hopes there is a God,” but mostly feels uncertain.

Sauerhoff feels comfortable in her observant lifestyle, and admires Hano’s ability to record and bring her journey together in a cogent manner through her books and public speaking. She has started to speak more frequently now, as she continues her quest to make sense of her personal history, and grows ever more comfortable addressing small groups at structured Holocaust events. At one such recent event, the students lined up to hug her and thank her for sharing her difficult and amazing story with them.

Last fall, Sauerhoff invited Hano to attend a Hachnasat Sefer Torah in Elizabeth. A Holocaust-era Torah scroll from Poland had been rescued, restored and donated to the Jewish Education Center. Hano said the event made her feel honored to be included and—possibly for the first time—proud to be a Jew. She was amazed at the joyfulness and pride of the children who were dancing and singing with the Torah scroll. She had never imagined that Jewish people could feel proud of their heritage.

The two women continue to meet at the conclave of hidden children in various cities across the globe each year. Hano’s writing and speaking have inspired and encouraged Sauerhoff, as her own past clarifies over time. Her audiences are mesmerized and awed by her story, and she has been able to piece that story together more and more with each engagement. For Hano, Sauerhoff’s long-established participation in the Orthodox community of Elizabeth has kept the flame of Jewish heritage alive—enabling Hano to internalize and adopt for the first time a measure of pride and joy in the culture and traditions that she never knew.

Two children, long ago hidden to spare their lives; two women, whose lives have converged to enrich them.

By Ellie Wolf

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