I met Szira in Warsaw at Beit Warszawa. She was the temple librarian. The congregation had worked out an agreement with Alex Lauderback our neighbor in Encino, California. He is a man in his late 80’s, a Polish Holocaust survivor. Alex found Jewish books from synagogues and temples that had surplus Jewish books. He would ship the books to the temple for reading and studying. This agreement had worked out so well that Beit Warszawa had a nice size library of Jewish books for very little cost.Szira would catalogue the books and arrange them in the back of the large room we used for services. This room was filled with bookshelves that had glass doors to protect the books, and the shelves went up almost to the ceiling.
She was a very methodical little lady and the books were in perfect order. The system of loaning books was well documented and kept in a large booklet. Szira took her job very seriously.
Szira was in her early 70’s and quite short. She looked like a dependable grandmother with gray hair, a long skirt of wool in gray and usually a long plain buttoned up sweater. Szira cared deeply about her work at the temple. She wanted things done correctly and had no patience for those who were careless or irresponsible about the books.
One day I walked into the room when Szira was working in the library. She had a large roll of tape in her hands and was taping the glass doors of the bookshelves closed. I thought of Alex and all his hard work getting the books to Warsaw and l had to confront Szira. I stated “Szira, what are you doing? People will not be able to take out the books.” She answered “These books need to be in order. The congregants must come to me if they need the books.” But, I reasoned “What if you are not here and they need a book”
“They will have to wait because I am responsible for these books and I don’t want any books lost or ruined,” she explained. “These Jewish books are the heritage of the Jewish people and there are very few Jewish books in Poland anymore.”
Szira was not Polish. Her family had fled Budapest in December 1944 via Germany. They were refugees from a Calvinist Protestant family. Her grandfather was a doctor and had serviced 200 Jewish children in a DP Camp in Germany the camp was in the American Zone. Szira’s mother and grandfather were with her for five months in the DP Camp. Even though Szira was a young child at that time, today her feelings have been developed by that tragedy, she stated “I understand the many problems of people without a homeland and roots. For refugees and migrants, only family and God can provide security.”
Her family came to Poland in 1948. It took a very long time for Szira to become a Polish citizen. That did not happen until 1992.
Szira was very well educated. She had gotten her doctorate at the Warsaw University in archeology.
When she was thirty Szira began to study the bible everyday. She stated, “I was not a Christian so the Bible was a cross-road between historical science and my my personal belief in a strong monotheistic faith. When I read Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, I felt at home and I studied by myself for over ten years.”
One adult education class my husband Rabbi Allen Maller decided to teach was the Jewish view of Jesus. He was using selected verses that were from a Polish New Testament although he couldn’t read the Polish text, and could only refer to it by the chapter and verse. Joe, a young man from England, had asked if he could invite two friends who were Polish Jews for Jesus to that class. Allen, who enjoys a good argument, said yes.
The Jews for Jesus couple came, as did Szira and about 10 other members of the temple. Allen explained that as a rabbi he read the gospels differently than believing Christians. He gave examples in the New Testament which showed that Jesus did not see himself as the son of God. The Jews for Jesus couple listened, but when Allen stated that there was a great deal of Anti Semitism in the Gospel of John, the young woman got very upset and fiercely disputed what was said. Allen stated that in John it was written that the Jews were the spawn of the devil.
The couple said they knew the New Testament by heart and challenged that quote. While Rabbi Maller knew it was there he didn’t know the chapter and verse. Szira, who rarely talked in class spoke up, “I know that quote very well.” she said. She gave them the correct location; chapter 8 verse 44.
Everyone looked at the text and there the quote was as plain as day. The young Christian woman had read the gospel of John four times and swore that she never knew that verse existed.
After class Allen asked Szira how she knew the exact verse and chapter. She said that she had been studying the bible for many years. Then he asked her why she hadn’t converted to Judaism; after all she had been coming to the temple for a long time, three to four times a week and going to services.
She had seen the newspaper, an ad for the step-by-step class for converts and decided to take the it. She had felt such joy the first time she went to the Simcha Torah Service at Beit Warszawa. Szira didn’t finish the class she decided,” I am not ready to convert.”
In the spring of 2008 Szira’s mother died. When she was going through the papers in her mother’s home she discovered new documents about her grandfather’s relatives on her mother’s side. Szira stated “The brother of my Grandfather was Daranyi Kalman, the Hungarian Minister of Interior and afterwards the Prime Minister from 1936 until 1938. He had submitted to the Hungarian Parliament the first Nuremberg Laws against Jews in Hungary. Admiral Horthy, the regent of the King who was really in charge, was against the laws but they were passed.
I felt sad for Szira when I heard her story, She was living as a Jew and supporting the Jewish community, but something was still keeping her from joining that same community.
Two years later we returned to Poland and met Szira again . This time there was a joyful reunion She had decided that she was worthy and gone back to finish the conversion class she had started with Rabbi Bet Schuman in 2007
Szira chose her Hebrew name Szira Hadassa for her conversion after her loving great grandmother on her father’s side who had been Jewish. This new found history was very disturbing. “I am not worthy to become a Jew” Szira stated, “This is not just because of my family but it is connected to the painful 2000 year diaspora history and the tragic end of the Holocaust in Hungary in 1944” She converted in Krakow when we were visiting.
I felt so fortunate to be at the Bet Din with my husband and two other rabbis when they questioned Szira. With eight other women in the group of converts, I took Szira to the mikva where in cold water she emerged three times and said the prayers with me.
Her face was shining and glowing while her body was shivering. “Get out of the cold water” I said. I was fearful that being in such cold water was dangerous for her. Two weeks before Szira had a successful open-heart surgery.
“No,” Szira stated , “I have been waiting for this moment for a long time. I need to savor this moment of becoming a Jew.”