During the eight-day-long holiday of Hanukkah this week, Jewish families in Nashville are retelling the story of the holiday: the Maccabees fighting against a ruler that was persecuting Judaism, an oil lamp that burned miraculously in the Temple for eight days.
Ultimately, says Frances Cutler Hahn, it’s a story of religious freedom. And Hahn knows too well what it’s like when that freedom is taken away.
She was a child survivor of the Holocaust whose Jewish parents saved her life by sending her away to live in a Catholic children’s home, and then a Catholic family’s farm on the outskirts of Paris. She was 3 years old when she first left her parents.
“The farm I do not remember as a happy place. I felt abandoned. I missed my mother, and I was angry. A 3-year-old without her mother is angry,” she said. “And that was a difficult thing for me to understand as an adult, because you know that my parents had done the right thing and saved my life.”
Hahn was one of thousands of children during the Holocaust who were hidden in an attempt to stay alive — either in attics or cellars, like Anne Frank, or with Christian families, like Hahn. Many children in Hahn’s situation never reunited with their parents or were even told about their previous identities,
according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Hahn did reconnect with her father shortly after the war, she said, but he died soon afterward. She never saw her mother again. Later, she received documentation from the Red Cross that showed her mother had been deported to Auschwitz and gassed.
Hiding Her Religion
When she was in hiding, Hahn says she didn’t realize she was also hiding her identity as a Jewish girl.
“At that age, I didn’t know I was Jewish, and I think the Catholic family on the farm may not have known I was Jewish,” she said. “It would have been to their advantage not to know.”
She does remember one difference between her and the others around her: “The children giggled at night when they prayed to the statue of the Virgin Mary because I didn’t know the prayers.”
After her father’s death, Hahn was adopted by her aunt and uncle in the U.S. and was, once again, raised in a Jewish family. She now lives in Nashville and lights the Hanukkah candles with her husband — who was making latkes in the kitchen — and daughter.
But Hahn doesn’t participate in one Hanukkah tradition: Many Jewish families light their menorahs, the candelabra with nine candles, in their windows as a public display of the holiday.
“I am not comfortable doing that,” she said. “It’s not that I’m uncomfortable about being Jewish, but I am not comfortable showing that I’m Jewish because I am still more fearful.”
Especially after recent anti-Semitic incidents in the United States.
“The massacre at the Tree of Life — that was extremely scary. The incident in Charlottesville, Va., and seeing swastikas and the hate messages, not only against Jews but against many minorities,” she said. “I find it a scary time.”
Still, she said, Hanukkah is a happy holiday for her. “To me, it’s a family gathering. And I am so thankful to have a loving daughter and a loving husband. I feel very lucky to have the life that I have.”