my jewish journey

By Monika Sabor

My parents, Rudi and Emmi Sabor, escaped from Germany to Britain in 1939. As Jewish refugees, their losses were incalculable. Many of their relatives were murdered in concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Gurs. Those who survived were scattered around the world, fleeing to whichever country would accept them.

Because of these experiences, they were determined to hide their Jewish identity from their children and everyone else and made every effort to ‘fit in’ with their new country. I was sent to a convent school where my religious experience consisted of reciting the rosary and praying to the Virgin Mary.

I only discovered that I was Jewish in my teens and had no idea what that even was. Judaism was never spoken about in our household. All I knew was that I had no local extended family network as did my friends and that I always felt somehow different.

I had no desire to pursue anything to do with religion until my later years. I was fully occupied with my career as a probation officer, working with offenders in the community and in prisons. Much of this concerned risk assessments in the preparation of pre-sentence and parole reports. I found it hugely challenging, yet rewarding, as I shaped my opinions about those on my caseload and learned to view them as people who had committed crimes rather than to define them by the stigmatising terms ‘criminals’ and ‘offenders’.

I retired in my late 60s and now live in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, with my American partner, Pamela and our two dogs, Willow and Keelan.

I have many hobbies and interests but my absolute passion is singing. I have been in various choirs all my life but in the last few years I have discovered the joys of singing early music, composed in the renaissance and baroque periods - a rather niche market of choral music. I am happiest singing music by composers who have been dead for at least 400 years! I sing in small ensemble groups of one or two voices to a part and also in a chamber choir.

Now - to my Jewish journey. In 2017 I was contacted by a second cousin in Germany, Hanneke Schmitz, who, with her husband, Peter, has conducted extensive research into our family history. I subsequently joined them in visiting Emmendingen, a small town near Freiburg in Germany where my mother’s family had long established roots.

My great-grandfather, Simon Veit, had been the leader of the Jewish community in Emmendingen. Just before the synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis, the people managed to salvage everything from inside it and keep it hidden until after the war, where all the artefacts and documents etc. are now in a Jewish museum which is next to the former synagogue.

Standing in the place which is now a large town centre square, it was heartbreaking to see the outline of the synagogue being marked to its exact shape in black tiles.

I was welcomed on this visit by the small Jewish community who were overjoyed to meet the first descendant of Simon Veit to come to their town. His memory is kept alive by a street named after him and by so many objects and documents pertaining to him in the museum.

Simon Veit was taken to Gurs at the age of 90 where he later died.

The experience of Emmendingen was to be the first major step on my Jewish journey - planting the seed of what was - and is - to come.

I subsequently developed an increasingly strong desire to re-connect with my Jewish heritage. It occurred to me that among my many friends and acquaintances, not one of them was Jewish!

In early 2021, I turned to Google and started to explore how I might change this situation. As a result, I signed up for a Jewish learning event on Zoom and who should I discover in a break-out room, but ED TEEGER! Just the two of us and just enough time to establish why I was there and to exchange contact details.

Ed became my first Jewish friend and, over the past two years has been hugely significant in helping and guiding me on my Jewish journey.

I have been learning Hebrew, largely by myself, but with regular reading practise with Ed.

Another major event on my journey has been the discovery that I actually have relatives in this country! I was found, on social media, by a relative, Debbie Goldman, from my father’s side of the family and we recently met and spent a wonderful and quite emotional day together, sharing information and looking at pictures and family trees spanning several generations.

Coming into the present, I have thought long and hard about which synagogue I should join and even though I am in a different part of the country, Makor Hayim feels like the right place for me because of its inclusive and welcoming approach and because Ed is there.

The next step for me will be on May 28th when I will be with Makor Hayim in person and will be affirming my Jewish identity. I will take two Hebrew names which I will speak about at that event to explain their significance.

After that, the plan is to have a bat mitzvah, perhaps later this year.

Religion and a belief system has evaded me all my life until recently. I have always wanted to believe but have not known how. I have asked the question, numerous times - ‘How do I believe in God’? And the answer has always been - ‘You have to have faith’. ‘So, how do I get faith if I don’t have it?’

It turns out - and this has been the greatest revelation to me - that I was asking the wrong question all the time, which was why I never found an answer.

As part of an online Jewish learning course with Sinai Synagogue in Leeds, (thanks to Anna Dyson) we studied the story of Moses coming down from the mountain with the commandments. When he presented them to the people, they didn’t ask, ‘How will we believe?’ - they said ‘We will DO and we will understand’.

This was the moment of enlightenment for me. Here is the answer to my wrong question. It is not about searching for faith. It is in the DOING that we will gain UNDERSTANDING.

For this reason, the first Hebrew name I will be taking is Eliana - which means - God has answered me.

Although I do not know the Hebrew names of my parents, I do know that my father’s family name, going back for generations was Cohn. My grandparents were Paul and Rosa Cohn. At some point they decided that their children’s last name would be safer at that time in Germany if it sounded less Jewish so they replaced Cohn with Sabor, another former family name. I want to honour the original name by including ‘HaCohen” in my name.

My Hebrew name will be Eliana Cohn, bat Rudi Hacohen v’Emmi.

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