Mother Myriam And Emma Szentes
A Nun Discovers Her Jewish Mother
by Ramon Sender Barayon
It takes courage to live the truth, but thirty-four-year-old
Myriam Szentes learned her lessons well from her mother Emma. Founder and
Mother Superior of a French order of nuns, Mother Myriam has initiated
a campaign to bring greater understanding between Christians and Jews.
Her fight against centuries of entrenched anti-Semitism springs from her
own personal odyssey and no one who hears her can doubt the sincerity of
her convictions. This girlish crusader evokes in her listeners a mixture
of laughter and tears that melts even the hardest of hearts. An inner light
bathes her face while she speaks, yet every step brings her closer to the
ultimate confrontation: will the Roman church embrace its girlish light-bringer
or reject her as it did so many of its saints and martyrs?
Mother Myriam hopes her message will be understood, but never before has there been an order of Catholic nuns who also profess and practice Judaism. This evening she is dressed in a flowing red caftan rather than the powder blue habit of her Catholic sisters. She is not here to gain converts but to reach out to her brothers and sisters for understanding.
"If you are Catholic, remain Catholic. If you are Jewish, remain Jewish," she advises her listeners. "I am both."
Herein lies the remarkable story of a woman discovering her true heritage. Born in post-war Budapest, she was baptized Catholic and as a small child alarmed her parents by her devotion to prayer. Such behaviour would only cause her trouble in a communist state. When her first grade teacher asked the class to draw pictures of their fondest dreams, Tunde handed in a drawing of a nun standing before God to offer Him her heart in flames. The drawing was not returned and became the first item in a file which the authorities began to keep on little Tunde Szentes.
She was seven years old during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and remembers police boots thudding on the floorboards at two in the morning. Heavily armed men ransacked their home in search of the guns they believed the family was hiding. Also that was the year she was attacked by neighborhood roughnecks, the same ones who often jeered at her. 'Bible daughter!' they would taunt. Her mother found her naked in the freezing snow, bleeding and bruised. She brought her home delirious with a high fever which developed into pneumonia. Tunde hovered between life and death until a Jewish doctor found her some penicillin, rarest of items in those days.
"You saved my life. Now I save your daughter's," he said to her mother Emma.
Emma's story is also unique. She, a Jew, and her aristocratic husband were well-to-do Hungarians when World War II began. Unlike so many who could not comprehend the horror of the coming holocaust, Emma understood. She decided to receive baptism for the purpose of helping her people. In the guise of a non-Jew, she began to save as many Jews as she could. On one occasion, her husband noticed many Jewish families who lived in their building being taken away. The Hungarian Gestapo were marching several hundred people to a temporary jail. He quickly dressed in his World War I army uniform with its many medals and covered an official-looking document with stamps from the grocery store. He had come home a hero in 1919, but when he was called up by the Nazis in World War II, he had deserted. With an air of great authority he confronted the Gestapo leader.
"I have orders to take these people immediately for forced labor!" he shouted, waving his document. "You must hand them over at once!"
He convinced the officer and brought all the families back to the building. The Jewish community began to regard the Szentes as guardian angels and turned to them when there was trouble.
In the 1950's, Hungarian schoolchildren often visited her mother to hear a 'Hero of the War' tell of her exploits. Many times Tunde heard of how, at the height of the Jewish persecutions in 1944, Emma met Raoul Wallenberg, the famous Swedish envoy. After many heroic acts on behalf of the Hungarian Jews, he was arrested by the Russians and now has disappeared forever behind the Iron Curtain.
Emma had gone to the Swedish Embassy to ask for protective passports for three families. She was told that a new diplomat named Wallenberg had arrived to head that department and she went to speak with him. The courage and determination - and beauty - of the woman must have created a strong impression because two days later Wallenberg sent a delegation to her with his invitation to join his staff. Her husband at first was hesitant because of the many dangers to which she would be exposed.
"He loved her very much," Mother Myriam explains. "Also, my older brother and sister were already born and their safety had to be considered. But my mother was adamant. She convinced my father she had to accept."
"Mrs. Szentes, your name will be inscribed in gold in the annals of history," one of the visitors commented.
"I don't accept for that reason," she replied. "I accept in order to save my people."
"That was in spite of her baptism," Mother Myriam adds with a wistful smile. "Although I did not know this until recently, she always considered herself fully Jewish."
Emma received a Swedish Red Cross uniform and a special passport of which Mother Myriam owns a rare photocopy. The photo displays the profile of a dark beauty with high cheekbones, her hair pulled back in a bun. She is staring down with a bashful smile, as if embarrassed at having her picture taken. She was in her mid-thirties, the same age as her daughter today. Unbeknownst to her, during the first few days on assignment she was followed by a Swedish agent on Wallenberg's orders. He did this for two reasons: to protect her and also to see how well she would carry out her difficult tasks. At one point she was walking by one of the protected houses which the Swedish goverment had set up, places where Jews could find refuge from the SS and Gestapo. On the sidewalk she saw a Hungarian Nazi arresting a Jewish woman and her children. Moving quickly, Emma pulled the mother and her children into the protected house. Slamming the door, she leaned against it.
"This is Swedish territory and you cannot come in!" she said to the Nazi. "I am with the Swedish Embassy and have been asked to find precisely this person because she is under Swedish protection. You have no right to touch her!"
It was part of Emma's job to make sure that Jews who had been formally issued Swedish passports were aware of these safe houses. However this particular mother had not been placed under Swedish protection. Emma had claimed to recognize the woman but it was not true. She only recognized the yellow star sewn to her blouse.
The Swedish agent following her witnessed the incident. When Emma returned to the embassy that evening, she was greeted with champagne and a party in her honor. Wallenberg came up to her and said, "Mrs. Szentes, how would you like to become my personal collaborator? I need a person just like you."
Working with Raoul Wallenberg, she invented two new programs that enabled them to save tens of thousands of Jews. She extended the principle of protected houses to include a whole block and finally a whole quarter. The Hungarian Nazis had arrested entire buildings of Jews and placed them in ghettos, shabby apartments where many families had to share the same quarters. She recommended to Wallenberg that these now-empty buildings be purchased one by one and placed under Swedish protection.
The second scheme was even more useful: she invented a simplified provisional passport. It was printed with all the necessary signatures on very thin paper and did not require a photo or a physical description. The person's name could be added in just a few seconds with a special Swedish pencil which, when moistened, wrote like a pen.
Whenever Wallenberg and Emma learned that a train filled with Jews had left Budapest in the direction of Auschwitz, they drove to the border station. It was an easy matter to arrive first because these trains moved slowly, sometimes taking several days to reach the checkpoint. Wallenberg would take the officer in charge aside and begin a long conversation. He advised him in a friendly manner that a mistake had been made. There were many Jews on board the train who were under Swedish protection. He kept the man occupied while Emma walked by herself from compartment to overcrowded compartment. Even the Hungarian Nazis refused to enter this living hell of distraught, anguished people who had given up all hope of salvation. Her pockets and purse were stuffed with temporary passports and hundreds of pencils.
"If there is anyone here who hasn't lost his mind, I want to talk with them," she announced. "You can only be saved if you do exactly what I tell you!" Quickly she handed out passports and pencils with further instructions. "I will be back soon."
In this manner she went from car to car before retracing her steps to collect the prepared documents. Then she returned to the border patrol office and handed over the whole packet to Wallenberg. He then repeated to the official that a monumental mistake had occurred because all the detainees were under Swedish protection. The train would have to return to Budapest.
"Here are their papers," he said to the Nazi officer. "Go check for yourself."
Incalculable numbers of Jews were saved in this manner. At one of Mother Myriam's lectures in the Bay Area, a man stood up and told how his mother had been aboard one of these trains. He himself survived because as a child he had been placed in one of the protected houses.
Emma also used the provisional passports to move Jews out of the ghettos into these protected buildings. It was a very dangerous task and many times she barely escaped arrest. Her maiden name was Jeremias, a Jewish name. It would have been easy for the Nazis to find out she was Jewish.
Finally they must have found out because she was arrested and 'interrogated' in the usual Gestapo manner. Although she never admitted to her family any experience of physical torture, she was left in freezing cold rooms without adequate clothing and contracted pneumonia. The methods used put her under severe psychologcal stress, but never once did she give them information. During one period of questioning, she overheard a conversation in the next room regarding the planned arrest of 360 ghetto children on the following day. They were destined to a fate worse than death: they were to be used by the Nazis for medical experiments. When Wallenberg secured her release late that afternoon, she insisted that the rescue of these children be given top priority.
"It's impossible," Wallenberg insisted. "We have only a few hours and besides, we can't take children without their parents. Who will care for them?"
Emma burst into tears. "If I don't try, I will never know another moment's happiness! They are blood of my blood! How can I look at my own children's faces knowing that I did not do everything to save these others?"
"I'm sorry, it would compromise my whole program," Wallenberg insisted. Moved by her tears, he suggested one possibility. "I'll take you immediately to the International Red Cross. They might provide you with a way to save these children. But you're on your own."
The International Red Cross also insisted they could not assume responsibility, but they allowed her the use of three buses with drivers. Also they provided her with a document identifying her as a member of their organization. In spite of her shattered physical condition, Emma set out at once by herself. At the ghetto, she confronted the Nazi guards.
"I have been sent by the International Red Cross to take charge of these children immediately," she announced, showing the document she had been given. With all 360 children in the buses, she distributed them among a number of convents and monasteries with specific instructions: the children should not be given Catholic religious education nor converted.
"Just care for them until it's safe to return them to their families," she pleaded.
The children's parents were placed under Swedish protection. At the end of the war, all the families were reunited without exception.
"Brothers and sisters, these stories are also very moving for me," Mother Myriam tells her electrified listeners. "Because now I am in a better position to appreciate the heroic acts of my mother. All in all, she was arrested three times by the Nazis and her health never recovered."
When the Soviet armies were at the gates of Budapest, Emma understood that Adolf Eichmann would escape with the Hungarian Nazi government towards the west. She also realized that he would exterminate every Jew he was holding in his basement jails before he left. She would have to confront him herself to save them. Her family pleaded with her to no avail while she gathered all the jewels and money they had saved. Dressed in her Red Cross uniform and wearing a small fortune in necklaces, rings and bracelets, she set off to see the man responsible for the largest number of murders in the least length of time throughout all of human history. Meanwhile, her family mourned her as one already dead.
"I know you are planning to leave Budapest," she told Eichmann, placing the money and jewels on the table. "You may need these. On the other hand, you don't need the Jews you are holding in various basements and ghettos. I'll give you all this money and you give me the Jews I need. Just write out a document to seal our agreement."
"I don't understand why you caee at this exact moment," Eichmann said. He shrugged. "It's true I need money and I'll take it. And if you really need those Jews - " He scrawled a few lines on a piece of stationary. "Here - take them."
She was able to find trucks and moved the 440 Jews to the Swedish protected houses. Emma Szentes was thus the last person to see Eichmann as Eichmann until he was arrested many years later in Argentina and taken to Israel to be tried. She refused to testify at the his trial when she was asked because she did not want to relive all the sad memories of those years.
"Whatever happened, happened," she said.
Within days the Russians entered Budapest and a few months later Wallenberg mysteriously disappeared. Over the years, reports trickled back from Russia that he had been spotted in various prisons. Then nothing more.
Myriam was grew up a Catholic and took her First Communion. In spite of the persecutions she suffered from other children, she continued to spend hours praying. A second violent incident occurred at a youth camp. She was surprised in prayer by two counselors who grabbed her and began to swing her, as if to throw her into a nearby well. The one holding her under the arms dropped her suddenly and the force of the fall broke one shoulder bone and fractured the other.
"My breathing was paralyzed," she explains. "I was in great agony, clawing the ground with my fingers, but I kept trying to get to my feet, and by the grace of God I finally made it. My attackers fled and suddenly I could breathe again. The doctor told me that I had survived by a miracle because my lungs almost collapsed."
Frustrated in her desire to pursue a religious career - there are no convents in communist Hungary - she turned to music. The famous composer Zoltan Kodaly had heard her sing in the park as a child and invited her to study with him. Later she learned to pour all the ardor of her soul into her music and became a gifted concert pianist. In 1968, the signing of a cultural agreement between Hungary and France allowed her to travel to Paris at UNESCO's invitation to give concerts and expand her repertory. Free at last to return to her first love, she gave up music and consecrated her life to God. She attended the Catholic university in Fribourg, Switzerland, where she received high marks and the commendations of her professors for two theses: ìResearches into Causality In Aristotleís Metaphysicsí and ëMarxísí Ideas Así Found In German Ideology.î At the same time, she spent much time each day in prayer.
The urge to devote herself to her true vocation was irresistible. She petitioned the Vatican to allow her to found an order, The Little Sisters of The Immaculate Mother of The Church, Mediator of All Grace, and received prompt permission. As Mother Superior she took the name Mother Mary Catherine and defined the order as 'contemplative and apostolic,' partially in the world and partially withdrawn. The sisters would dedicate themselves to prayer and to rescuing society's cast-offs, alcoholics, prostitutes and drug addicts. In October of 1982, they moved the Mother House to Rimont in Bourgogne, some 200 kilometers southeast of Paris, a tiny village which contained not much else except a seminary across the road from the hilltop convent.
Today there are about one hundred sisters, most of whom work outside the convent as doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers. A dozen or so live at the Mother House with their spiritual preceptor. A person who benefitted greatly from the work of the sisters invited Mother Myriam as an expression of gratitude to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
"We left last November," she says. "As the plane approached the Tel Aviv airport, a strange new feeling filled my heart. I thought it must be the same love Jesus and Mary felt for their people. And when I breathed the air of Israel..." She pauses to smile at her rapt audience. "I felt like an exile returning to my homeland, although I had never been there before."
A great sympathy for the Jewish nation welled up in her. During the days that followed it grew to such an extent that when she visited the tomb of Rachel she could no longer hold herself back. She broke away from the Christian pilgrims and crossed the space that separated her from a group of Jewish women praying beside the sarcophagus.
"A mysterious force in my heart attracted me across that No Man's Land towards the Jewish women. I did not know what it was - it was an inexpressible feeling of - of - love."
She stood with the Jewish women, pressing her forehead against the blue velvet covering the cold stone. Her prayer was for the well-being of the Jewish people and for God's blessing on the nation. When she opened her eyes, the women were smiling at her as if they approved of her presence in spite of her being dressed in a nun's habit and wearing a cross.
"There could have been trouble," she admits. "The Christian tourists could have held me back out of fear of my causing an incident. The guards could have warned me to stay with the others or the Jewish women might have prevented me from joining them. I could have been a terrorist ready to throw a bomb or something."
It is doubtful anyone there suspected Mother Myriam intentions. Even as she retells the incident, her face glows with religious fervor. Exalted mystical states are as communicable as other intense emotions. No one at the tomb could have doubted her motives for one instant. Her lack of awareness of her spiritual aura is a great part of her innocent charm. And how symbolic her crossing of the space separating Christians and Jews! Those few steps were to become the most important ones she had ever taken.
A similar experience overcame her near the western wall in Jerusalem. A Bar Mitzvah was being celebrated, the father carrying his son on his shoulders, surrounded by women singing and clapping their hands. The Christian tourists remained discreetly at a distance while Mother Myriam moved up to congratulate the boy. She clasped her hands over her head in the gesture of a winning prizefighter. One of the women embraced her saying in English, 'Good, good!'
A third experience occurred on another day at the wall itself. Once again she joined Jewish women in prayer and was given an extraordinary welcome. The intensity of these three incidents deepened in an unexpected manner the religious emotions which these historic sites evoked.
In direct contrast, a few days later she was set upon and beaten while walking through a village. She had fallen behind the group on their return from the Desert of Judah and looked up from her silent prayer to find herself surrounded by young Arabs. They asked for 'baksheesh,' 'a gift,' but she had nothing in her pockets. When they pointed at her rosary inquiringly, she held it to her mouth and kissed it. They grabbed for it and she hid it in the folds of her cloak while she invoked the name of Jesus. This provoked some of them to react angrily.
"I held it against my heart," she tells us. "Some of them wanted to spit on it and started hitting me. I closed my eyes, happy because I would die because of my love for God. But then an old Arab came by and drove them away. I was covered with black and blue marks and contusions. From this experience I learned that in Israel there are people who are welcoming and warm as well as those who are violent and fanatical."
On the way back to France, she visited her seriously ill mother in Switzerland and told her how impressed she had been by her stay in Israel. "It's an amazing country and I love it just like it was my own." She described her experiences at the tomb of Rachel and the western wall. "It must have been because of everything you did for the Jews. Now I understand why you risked your life with such love for these people during the war."
Tears streaking her face, her mother Emma replied, "No, daughter, it's not only because of what I did. It's your heritage. It was an atavistic call you felt because you are Jewish and I am Jewish too."
"I felt such great joy!" Mother Myriam exclaims. "I asked Mama why she never told me. 'Because I was afraid there might be another Auschwitz one day,' she replied. 'Then you would have cursed me for the Jewish blood I had given you.' On my knees beside her bed, I kissed her hands. 'No, Mama. Even at the doors of the crematory I would bless this blood I received from you.'"
This meeting meant a great deal to Emma also. Her daughter had absolved her of the secret burden she had carried through all the years. As for Myriam, now she understood her mother's deep suffering and why Emma had come out of the war with so many phobias. As a young girl, Myriam had found Emma's fears incomprehensible. Instead of remembering the eighty to one hundred thousand Jews she had saved, Emma constantly mourned the six million exterminated by the Nazis. She became a shell of her former self, traumatized by the scenes she had witnessed and what she herself had undergone.
"I never could understand why my mother became so upset or acted so strangely," Mother Myriam tells us. "But since I have learned I am Jewish, I feel so much closer to her. Now I realize how great a woman she is, what a true hero." She pauses, overcome by deep emotion. "Now I am willing to do everything my mother did, if it ever was needed again." She glances at her audience. "I did not mean to talk like this to you, but I would like to ask you to pray for my mother. She is very ill at this very moment."
Many names of heroes have been sung. Raoul Wallenberg has become an international celebrity, honored by Congress who awarded him American citizenship. The tragedy of his disappearance and probable death in a Russian prison can never be forgotten nor forgiven. But there was another who worked in his shadow advising him, an unknown woman who set an equal example of courage. The dangers she faced were greater because she lacked the shield of diplomatic immunity which Wallenberg's nationality and position afforded him - at least until the Russians arrived. Now her daughter wants to do everything in her power to help her mother gain the recognition due her.
"And I have a lot to do," she admits.
Inspired by Emma's revelations and her Israel sojourn, Mother Myriam returned to the convent for Christmas. Should she publicly reveal her Jewish heritage? She asked God for guidance and one day in prayer received His answer: she, a Jew, must live in solidarity with her people.
"I felt in communion with Queen Esther, the great Jewish heroine of the Old Testament. I understood that the Roman church should assuage the wrongs done to the Jewish people over the past two thousand years. Then I fasted for a day to obtain success in revealing everything."
The sisters were electrified by her pronouncement. Mother Marie Catherine petitioned to change her name to Mother Myriam and the name of the Order to The Little Sisters of Israel, Daughters of The Immaculate Mediator of All Graces.
"Are you ready to give your lives with me to save our Jewish brothers if they are persecuted again?" she asked the assembled sisters. "Are you ready from this moment to lose your reputations with me for our Jewish brothers?"
"Yes," they all replied.
"We are Jews for our spiritual mother," one of them explained.
When permission was granted for the name changes, Mother Myriam attached a Star of David to the cross which hung from her robe and began to observe Jewish precepts and holy days. The seminary students across the way no doubt listen in wonder to the Hebrew chants drifting from the convent. She began to attend synagogue on Friday night in the nearby Jewish community of Chalon-sur-Saone.
"She ought to go to Israel," says the president, Raphael Naman. "With her energy and intelligence, she could go far in politics."
"She ought to get married and go live in a kibbutz," one of the Jewish matrons comments.
Others of the congregation feel that she is fulfilling an important role and is in a position to perform valuable services for Jews from within the Roman church. Already she has written a sharp letter to the local newspaper protesting the anti-Zionist graffiti on Chalon's walls. They were quickly erased and the mayor published an apology.
Whenever she attends a Jewish service or gathering, she wears her civilian clothes. People often ask her why.
"Because I do not attend synagogue as a Christian missionary," she replies. "I go as a Jew to be with my people."
Arriving early in Paris one evening for a Jewish conference, she met Rabbi Leo Abrami, a frenchman living for some years in Berkeley, California. She told her story, confessing her ignorance of Judaism. He was profoundly moved and offered to instruct her. He also invited her to accompany him on this West Coast speaking tour during which he has acted as her translator with great elan.
She now spends Friday night with a Jewish family in Chalon, returning to the convent Saturday evening. On Good Friday she fasted all day and some of the sisters begged her not to go to the synagogue, fearing she was too weak.
"No, I'm going," she insisted. "The Virgin Mary would have gone too. But I go not only for that reason, but because I am a Jew."
On Yom Kippur, she fasted in the synagogue and the sisters fasted voluntarily at the convent in atonement for all the sins against the Jewish people. They have dedicated themselves not only to fighting anti-Semitism but also the many false teachings that have grown up regarding the Jews. The convent meals are strictly kosher, there is a mezuzah on the door and a torah on the chapel altar. They recite Hebrew prayers and sing the Hatikvah at the end of meals. So far, there have been no objections from the church hierarchy.
Mother Myriam has been embraced by the world Jewish community with much warmth and understanding. Towards the end of the evening, Rabbi Abrami describes how the Talmud speaks with love and tolerance of the Jewish child who grows up 'a captive among the gentiles.' Perhaps that same spirit of acceptance and reconciliation is blossoming like a wildflower within some crevice in the Vatican's walls.
Beneath the soft-spoken demeanor of this young woman there exists someone undergoing an intense personal transformation. Somehow she must reconcile a lifetime's dedication to Christianity to her newly discovered Jewishness. What form will this take?
"Not proselytizing, not converting others to Judaism or Catholicism," she repeats once more. "I am constantly amazed how most people want everyone to be like them, how determined they are to change others to their point of view. There are so few who have respect for the consciences of others."
In a world where religious intolerance may well tilt the Middle East into World War III, every effort to increase tolerance and understanding must be respected and nurtured.
Mother Myriam radiates an idealism, a quality of childlike determination which reminds one of Joan of Arc, or, as befits her heritage, of a warrior for her people in the tradition of Queen Esther. The honesty and strength of her purpose demands at the very least admiration if not emulation.
How will the Roman church react? This is the question in her brothers' and sisters' hearts. Will centuries of anti-Semitism and intolerance prevail over this God-sent opportunity? Will the Little Sisters be allowed to continue spreading their message of peace and tolerance?