Columbus State professor no longer 'a Jew in hiding' after adult bat mitzvah, sharing family's Holocaust story

Editor's note: This story is based on the Ledger-Enquirer's interview with Barbara Chesler in February and her January presentation at Temple Israel.

While the world commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, a Columbus State University education professor celebrated liberating herself from feeling like "a Jew in hiding" as she shared her story in January at Temple Israel.

Nazi Germany's plan to destroy the Jews killed approximately 6 million of them from 1933 to 1945. About two-thirds of European Jewry was wiped out in the genocide known as the Holocaust, and it decimated Barbara Chesler's family, whose roots were planted in Lithuania and Poland.

During an interview in her Columbus home, Chesler leafed through the pages of the genealogy a cousin produced on her father's side of the family tree. Asked how many of her relatives died in the Holocaust, she shook her head and said, "I'm too afraid to count."

But she is finished with fearing her Jewish identity.

Bat mitzvah

According to Jewish law, girls enter religious adulthood at age 12 and boys at 13, meaning they are considered mature enough to be responsible for complying with God's laws. A girl becomes a bat mitzvah (Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments") and a boy becomes a bar mitzvah ("son of the commandments") even if they don't have a ceremony marking the rite of passage. Jews can have such a ceremony beyond the traditional age, whenever they and their rabbi deem appropriate.

That time came last year for Chesler. She joined four other women at Temple Israel for about six months of studying with Rabbi Beth Schwartz, culminating in their December b'not mitzvah ceremony, plural for bat mitzvah.

"I always wanted to have my bat mitzvah," Chesler said. "To me, that really shows your commitment to Judaism. It's a step in your life. You proclaim that you really are a Jew and you are a part of that community, and I wanted to be part of that community."

'Always remember'

Chesler, 62, grew up in Garfield Heights, Ohio, a mostly Catholic neighborhood of suburban Cleveland. Her paternal grandfather, Lee, settled there after immigrating to the United States in 1903. He was expelled from rabbinical school in Lithuania because he was accused of being a socialist.

Each school year, Chesler and her brother were the only Jews in their grades. Whenever she asked her parents why they couldn't move to a Jewish neighborhood, she was told they lived where they lived so her father could be closer to his job as a chemist.

That meant Chesler couldn't attend the weekday bar/bat mitzvah classes after school at their synagogue, 12 miles away, because her mother didn't drive. But her father drove her to Sunday school. So although she didn't have a bat mitzvah ceremony at the traditional age of 13 for Jewish girls in the Reform movement, the most progressive and largest branch of American Judaism, she did participate in the next Jewish rite of passage, a confirmation ceremony, marking the graduation from Sunday school with her classmates at age 16.

Rabbi Philip Horowitz gave a personal blessing to each of the confirmands during the service at Congregation Brith Emeth in Pepper Pike, Ohio. When the rabbi reached Chesler, he cupped her cheeks and told her, "Now, Barbara, you've had a different life, but you must always remember you are a Jew."

Different because she didn't have a bat mitzvah ceremony. Different because she didn't live in a Jewish neighborhood. And different because of the baggage she carried from her family's Holocaust legacy.

"Now, as an adult looking back," she said, "I think we were living in Garfield Heights because my parents were still hiding."

Finding family

Chesler's parents met in England during World War II. Her father, Bernard, was a U.S. Army pilot; her mother, Mary, was a British nurse who converted to Judaism. After the war, while Mary went to Cleveland to stay with Bernard's family, Bernard heeded his father's plea and went to Europe to find relatives who might have survived the Holocaust.

He found three.

Chesler, born in 1952, doesn't know how or when or where, because her father refused to discuss the mission, but at 23 years old he managed to locate his 48-year-old aunt, Shifra, and her teenage children, Bill and Paula. Bernard also obtained the proper immigration papers for them, so Chesler grew up knowing them as the beloved relatives fortunate enough to live in the Jewish neighborhood of Cleveland Heights.

There, she felt more comfortable being Jewish. The streets were filled with the sounds of Yiddish, a mix of German and Hebrew, which some relatives spoke whenever they didn't want her to understand their topic of conversation.

Such as her family's history. She was shushed whenever she asked her father or his side of the family. Thankfully, her mother absorbed the stories while she taught English to Shifra, Bill and Paula. Then she passed them down to Chesler and her brother so they wouldn't be forgotten.

They include eyewitness accounts of Holocaust horrors. Among them are the monstrous murders of two relatives during 1943 in the Kovno ghetto of Lithuania:

The youngest son of Chesler's great-aunt Shifra was ripped from her arms by a Nazi, who smashed the boy's head on the sidewalk.

Another Nazi poured gasoline on Chesler's great-grandmother, Cheina Segalovich Chesler, and set her on fire.

"And so I grew up scared to be a Jew," Chesler said, "worrying that it could happen again."

But a few of the stories are joyful, including the day Shifra and Paula sat on a curb in a displaced persons camp after the war. They looked down the street and, lo and behold, spotted Bill, also sitting on the curb.

"I cannot imagine what their reunion was like," Chesler said.

Bill had been separated from his mother and sister and put on a truck going to Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp. But an older man pushed Bill out of the truck, and he rolled unnoticed into a ditch and escaped.

'Don't tell anybody'

Compounding the angst from her family's Holocaust trauma, Chesler's mother repeatedly insisted, "Don't tell anybody you're Jewish." She kept the secret until the 10th grade, when a girl told her classmates.

"For the first time in my life, I lost friends over being Jewish," she said. "People just started staying away from me all of a sudden."

All of which confirmed her fear the same year she confirmed her faith with her confirmation class. No wonder, as a young adult, Chesler spurned organized religion, seeing it as the source of more division than unity.

"But I never thought God couldn't exist," she said. "What I struggled with is how could people who say they were religious hate other people because God tells us to not hate other people."

Now, she sees the perversion not in the religion but in the purported followers.

"I think that people have choices in their life to either be good or be evil, and during the Holocaust, there was just an awful lot of evil," she said. "People forgot about God."

Chesler often would cry when she thought about God and Judaism. She didn't understand why. Now she does.

"Because I didn't belong," she said. "I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere."

Chesler hasn't cried during those personal moments since she started her spiritual journey last spring with the adult bat mitzvah class.

"I've reached that point where, yes, you are Jewish and, yes, you are very proud of being Jewish," she said. "It's not a journey to God, because God's always been with me. It's been a journey for me to find out and to discover what it means to be a Jew."

Leading up to the bat mitzvah ceremony, Chesler took a purifying ritual bath, called a mikvah, in a temple member's pool.

"All the fear I carried all my life," she said, "just kind of left me and went into that water."

That's why Chesler now wears not only the Star of David necklace she couldn't compel herself to wear, but she bought four or five more.

"I wear them proudly," she said with a smile.

Never again

While she studied for her bat mitzvah ceremony last year, Chesler read about 20 autobiographies of Holocaust survivors.

"I wanted to find out what my father found," she said.

If she couldn't get answers from a primary source, she was determined to discover them from secondary sources. It wasn't his story, but it was history.

"Our family stories help us understand who we are," she said. "It helps you understand why you think the way you do."

Even the unspeakable stories must be told, Chesler added, "so they don't happen again,"

Just as her father honored his father by finding refugee relatives, Chesler feels she is honoring her father by finding pride in the heritage that used to haunt her.

"I cherish those stories now, and I've told them to my kids," she said. "When I was raising them, if they were bad, or if they weren't doing well in school, I would say, 'Look, my family survived and my grandfather came here, so you've got to honor them and do well.'"

They did. Her son is a lawyer. Her daughter earned an MBA.

Chesler, formerly dean of CSU's College of Education and Health Professions, is moving to New Jersey, where she will be vice president for academic affairs at Caldwell University as of June 15. When she returns to the North, she will be closer to her daughter, son and grandchild in Pennsylvania -- and she already is closer to her faith.

"I just finally am able to be who I've always wanted to be," she said. " I wish I would have done this when I was a lot younger, but I'm glad that I did it finally."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkRiceLE.