Tinas story

It was a sultry day in the town of Jindabyne, a small village nestled in the foothills of Mt Kosiusko. As the suns rays cast long shadows, the little party of 7 chatted comfortably. Tina, the host of the event, served homemade boiled chicken, exactly the way her grandmother made it back in Austria.

She glanced at her guests with pleasure. Dr. Klein, who had recently retired to nearby Thredbo had come with his wife Marina. Her friend Dianna sat nearby, ready to help. At the far end of the table Rabbi Yossi Rodal was talking. Together with his wife Malki and 1 year old son Yitzchok, they had come to spend a night of Chanukah with the few Jewish locals.

The Rodals direct Chabad of RARA, the organization which travels throughout rural and regional Australia, connecting with Jewish people and arranging programs, Holiday events, online education, home visits and more. Because the continent is so big, it takes a lot of planning, manpower, and hundred of thousands of kilometers to reach everyone.

Chanukah is one of the busiest times of the year for RARA. With 6 of the nights occuring on weeknights, they coordinated 14 events throughout the country. With teams of volunteers travelling from city to city, each night hosting an event in the area, there is a lot going on.

The Rodals had driven a long way, having hosted a Chanukah party the night before in Albury- Wodonga. The quaint town of Jyndabine is quite out of the way, but as Tina had been asking for a visit for a while, Rabbi Rodal figured that Chanukah was the perfect opportunity.

As the smell of the latkes warming in the oven wafted through the house, and the sparkle of Tina’s finest china shining brightly, the Rabbi asked Tina what had led her to request a visit. During a previous phone conversation, 91 year old Tina had admitted that she was born Jewish, but had been a practicing Christian her entire life.

“Ah,” Tina said. “I am not even sure myself. I was and still am a devout Christian. About two years ago, around my 89th birthday, I suddenly felt stirrings deep within me, prodding me to reconnect to my Jewish faith. I fought these feelings strongly, to the point that I became suicidal and had to resort to medication to control my impulses. Eventually I gave in and asked to connect to a Rabbi, but I am not sure what I want from you.”

Rabbi Rodal asked Tina to share more about her life so that he could get an understanding of her background.

Tina then kept everyone spellbound with her courageous and amazing story.

She told of how her mother had passed away when she was a girl of 8, and how her grandmother had adopted her as her own. Grandma Marie, as she called her, converted to Christianity and was shunned by her Jewish family, effectively barring her from shtetl life. She packed up, took Tina with her, and settled in the mountainous region on the border of Austria and Yugoslavia.

She still had fond memories of her childhood, frolicking in the forest, and she vividly recalls her family friend Sigmund Freud paying house visits. She developed a relationship with Hans, a local schoolboy who was a few years her senior, and she secretly hoped that they would marry one day.

But abruptly her peaceful life was shattered. The war had reached her doorstep, and as a young girl of 15, her life would never be the same.

Grandma Marie passed away around this time, and she moved in with Mia, a friend from school. Mia’s father was an outspoken communist, and was soon deported. Although Tina did not support communism, she was horrified by the Nazis and everything they stood for. Soon enough, she was able to fight against them.

The leader of the Austrian underground contacted her and convinced her that she would have the perfect cover to smuggle people over the border to safety. As a young girl picking berries, coupled with her vast knowledge of the terrain, she was the ideal candidate.

During this time, she had a close brush with death. She had stolen her boyfriend Hans’s gun in order to provide the underground with much needed weapons. Hans, who had been promoted to the chief office of the SS in the region, told her that he had to break off their friendship for the safety of them both.

Already under suspicion, Tina was brought into SS headquarters for questioning. With an imperceptible nod, Hans indicated that she dare not show him any sign of recognition. Hans told her later that her quick thinking had saved her life.

Over the next few years, she smuggled over 70 people over the border, most of them Jews, along with other political prisoners. She couldn’t risk taking more than two people at a time and had to make over 50 trips, guiding both at night and day, hiding in caves like hunted animals. Even after her marriage, and through her pregnancy and nursing days, she still acted as a guide to those more unfortunate than herself.

Many times she was almost caught, and she exhibited tremendous courage under pressure. She once threw a Nazi guard into a vat of butter after he displayed interest in her, while her charges were waiting for her outside. On another occasion, she had no choice but to shoot an informer on his way to give her up to the authorities. Although she merely wounded him, the news got around and she had to desist from her underground activities.

It was on one such trip that she recalled an event which left an indelible mark on her. In the dead of winter, she was taking a young Jewish couple to freedom. Snaking through the frozen trees, she led them into her hideout, a small cave dug out in the mountainside. The husband asked for her permission to light the small menorah that he had managed to take along with the rest of his meager possessions. She refused, as the light might attract unwanted attention.

After much pleading, and having elicited a promise to cover the flames, she acquiesced. With heartfelt longing, the couple fulfilled the mitzvah and lovingly sang the Maoz Tzur. This was one of Tina’s only Jewish related experiences.

Many miracles and incredible experiences later, the war was over. She eagerly awaited news of her husband who had been sent to the front to fight against Germany. Unfortunately, his commanding officer came bearing the terrible news. Her husband has perished, and all that she had left of him was his coat which his comrade had collected.

Heartbroken, and nursing her one year old daughter, Tina started rebuilding her life. She remarried, again to a man who happened to be Jewish, and fell pregnant a short while later.

Shortly afterwards, her first husband returned from the dead. He had lent his coat to a freezing soldier, who then died on the battlefield. Assuming that the deceased was him, the well meaning commander had misinformed Tina unwittingly.

After a gut wrenching decision, she stayed with her second partner. But alas, this too was not to last, as he demanded that Tina give up her daughter to her first spouse. She refused, and the issue resulted in divorce.

Now laden with two young children, and a double divorcee, Tina finally met her destined one. Arthur, who also happened to be Jewish, respected her devoutness to Christianity and felt that showing any signs of Judaism would only breed anti-semitism. Together they raised another 3 children in addition to her other two. In search of a better life, they emigrated to Sydney, where they lived for 40 years.

After Arthur passed on, a series of unfortunate developments caused her to lose her income and home. She relocated to rural Jindabyne, where housing was more affordable, and the climate reminded her of the Austrian mountains.

“So”, she concluded, “ I still consider myself Christian, and have raised my children as such. It would be an affront to Grandma Marie, to say that I am not. She has sacrificed so much to retain her faith. And therefore, as I said, I am not sure what a Rabbi can do for me.”

“Well”, replied Rabbi Rodal,” First of all, you are a heroine of the highest order. The Talmud states that one who saves a single life is considered as if they have saved the entire world. How much more so when dealing with tens of saved lives.”

Regarding her claim of being a Christian, the Rabbi explained how the Jewish Neshama (soul) is invincible and unmoved by actions on the lower worlds. Yet it always ebbs and throbs, and this would account for Tina’s sudden stirrings of discontentment.

Tina was quite interested in the theological discussion and soon the entire table was engrossed in heated yet respectful debate. Needless to say, everyone present was quite aware of the poignant moment.

On Malki’s suggestion, the menorah was set up. “Would you light for me?” asked Tina. “I would like to participate in this mitzvah, but I am not yet feeling able to perform it myself. Can you please have me in mind?”

The atmosphere was electric as Rabbi Rodal’s clear voice rang out with the brochos (blessings), and following that, the Maoz Tzur. Tina’s eyes clouded with tears, and she was clearly very emotional. After a few moments, she remarked how this moment had transported her back to the cave on that fateful night when she experienced Chanukah for the first time.

She insisted that the Rodals stay the night instead of checking into a motel as they usually did. They agreed on the condition that they could supply her with their “extra” kosher meat and cheese from Melbourne.

Dr Klein, who had been a bit antagonistic at the onset of the evening, was quite affected by the experience, as well as by the pleasant demeanor of the Chabad couple. He went so far as to offer his house for the next event that RARA would want to host in the area. He also expressed interest in hosting Tina for a Shabbos meal which they would make in her honor. To this end, the Rodals provided him with a few precious shabbos table guides from New York. They bid farewell, promising to keep in touch, a promise which has been fulfilled since.

In the morning, Tina was feeling exceptionally happy and peaceful. There was a spring to her step as she greeted the Rodals happily. She bustled around the kitchen, delighting in chatting and asking all sorts of questions about Judaism.

Her son Fred stopped by from the other side of town to check on her. It happened to be his 72nd birthday. Striking a conversation with him, Rabbi Rodal discovered unsurprisingly that he did not identify as being Jewish.

After a bit of convincing, Fred rolled up his sleeve and put on tfillin, effectively celebrating his bar mitzvah. To mark the occasion, all present ate half stale donuts and chocolate coins,. The table, resplendent with colorful Chanukah candles, and the remains of last night’s feast, seemed to join in the jubilation.

Fred departed, and the Rodals, having a few hours until that night’s event in Wollongong, and upon Tina’s insistence, stayed for a few more hours. They were able to record some of her war experiences, which the family would later ask for. Her children had never heard her talk about her past and they only knew sketchy details.

Tina stepped out for a moment to answer the telephone. Speaking loudly, her voice could be heard in the other room.

“Regina, you missed it!” she was saying. “ Last night was the best night of my life! I now know that my “Jewishism” is who I am. I am sure that Grandma Marie is looking down from heaven and smiling at my choice.”

The Rodals were dumbfounded. Tina was in essence debunking the beliefs that she had held dear for her entire life! She was now embracing what had been laying dormant for all those years. Her essence had won out.

After putting up a mezuzah and leaving lots of Jewish material, they now turned their attention to a sensitive topic, Tina’s after death plan. The current cost efficient solution, as written in her will, was cremation. Now, after hearing about the importance of Jewish burial, she wanted to change it. Her only inhibition was the prohibitive cost. Rabbi Rodal promised to cover the expenses, and to arrange for kaddish to be recited after her.

There was a tearful farewell, and the Rodals continued on to meet a Jewish lady in Cooma, some 2 hours away.

In the months since, arrangements have been put in place for Tina’s will to reflect her Jewish views, and Tina has officially reclaimed her ‘Jewishism’, as she calls it. Many of her friends have cut off all ties with her as a result, but this does not deter her.

She has contacted Rabbi Rodal many times since their meeting, across a wide spectrum of topics ranging from gefilte fish recipes to advice on sleeping better. She constantly demands that the Rodals take a skiing vacation in Jindabyne, of course staying in her house.

Dr. Klein has hosted a wonderful Shabbos meal together with Tina and her daughter, and remains close to her.

Tina’s children and grandchildren have been contacted, and it was discovered that one of her daughter’s children is a famous Australian TV anchor. While most of them insist on their departure from Judaism and their fervent belief in their ‘other religion’, this story highlights the power of the Jewish soul: there is no such thing as extinguishing a Jewish Neshama. It may be hidden, dormant and covered, but like a small flame, it is always flickering in the heart of a Jew, hoping for a burst of oxygen to allow it to ignite the heart of its beholder. Sometimes, we are even lucky enough to bear witness.