Holocaust survivor shares her story of faith and courage

By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer

FAYETTEVILLE — Suzanne Davidson, parishioner at Immaculate Conception Church, thought the presentation she had just heard was especially inspiring and relevant for today’s troubled times. She, along with over 100 other people from the community, had come to hear Holocaust survivor Eva Grace share the story of her life and the development of her faith at Dwyer Hall at Immaculate Conception on April 20.  “It was interesting to hear her story and her faith perspective,” said Davidson. “It was great the way she talked about how the Eucharist helps us to maintain hope through difficult times and strife, especially in times such as these.”

Eva Grace’s presentation was hosted by AVOW — Advocating the Vocation of Women. AVOW was founded as an extension of the initiative begun by the diocesan Commission on Women in Church and Society to share a new understanding of the dignity and vocation of women inspired by the teachings of John Paul II.

Karen Stein, founder and executive director of Avow International Center, joined the Commission in 1999 and was inspired to promote feminism when she participated in the Jubilee at St. Peter’s in Rome. As a result, a program for women which includes a speaker series, seminars, forums and study groups on contemporary topics was developed in 2000. AVOW’s events and programs are designed to promote an authentic feminism and to facilitate a woman’s recognition and an acceptance of who she is called to be, enhancing her personal happiness and fulfillment.

Those in attendance sat in rapt attention as Grace told her remarkable story of how she navigated the Holocaust with great courage and immense faith.

Grace explained how the topic of her presentation, The Way of Providence: Story of a Life during the Holocaust, was inspired by a book written by a Jesuit priest she knew when she attended Fordham University in Bronx, N.Y. The book, He Leadeth Me, was written by Father Walter Ciszek, SJ, and chronicles his life after he left Fordham University with the intention of converting people to Catholicism in communist Russia. Captured by the Russian army during World War II and convicted of being a “Vatican spy,” Father  Ciszek spent 23 agonizing years in Soviet prisons and the labor camps of Siberia. He found the courage to endure the situation  through prayer, a reliance on God’s will and spiritual contemplation. “He let providence determine his life — he learned how to listen,” said Grace. “We need to listen to our inner voice — it’s the most important thing we can do in our life.”

Even though Grace wasn’t sent to prison or labor camps, she was transplanted many times from her home and family before settling in the New York City area. She now lives in Staten Island. Grace was born into a Jewish family and lived most of her childhood in Hanover, Germany. Due to many influences, Grace eventually converted to Catholicism. Grace remembered how, at age 10, in 1938, she traveled with her mother by train to Hildeshein, a neighboring town in northern Germany. Grace’s mother was interested in archeitecture and they attended high Mass at St. Michael’s, one of the rarest churches in Germany, built in the Romanesque archeitectural pattern. Grace was impressed when the bishop raised the host.

Grace wasn’t able to complete the upper grades in the school in her hometown due to the Nazi influence, so she was separated from her family and was transplanted to West Berlin. Grace was enthralled with the culture and beauty of the city. She had an affinity for music and was thrilled by the musical concerts she attended.

She stayed in West Berlin only eight months because her parents learned that Hitler would be sending children to concentration camps. She and her sister and brother were transplanted again this time to London on the Kinder Transport. Grace remembered waiting for the train. She said she had to hide a new ring she had received as a reward for earning good grades on her report card. Young Grace hid the ring in a banana she was taking with her on the trip. The children weren’t allowed to take jewelry with them. Grace was 15 years old at the time.

“I didn’t realize the horror of this,” said Grace. “I thought it was just another vacation for me.”

Grace and her sister lived with several Austrian doctors in London and enjoyed the experience very much because the doctors treated them well. Before long, some distant relatives arranged for the two sisters to live with a Jewish family. The girls ran away from the home the first night, returning to the doctors’ home.  After that, they were sent to a Jewish Orthodox boarding school. “I didn’t like the school,” said Grace. “I felt suppressed and I rebelled. During that time, I used to visit a Catholic church. I just sat there in silence. I enjoyed it very much.”

In 1941, she was evacuated from her school during the London Blitz and settled in Wales, only returning to London for three days in order to complete exams in order to graduate from high school. She remembered how the windows in the classroom shattered due to the bombs falling and the constant air raids every night.

At 18, Grace returned to London, attended the School of Pharmacy and Bacteriology, graduated and worked as a pharmacist in London. While living in London, Grace said she met and enjoyed people who were interested in theology and Shakespeare. She was very impressed by a course she was enrolled in — The Confessions of St. Augustine. “I found the peace and happiness I was searching for,”  said Grace.

Grace began to attend Mass at a chapel and eventually took instruction at a Spanish church in London and then was baptized. “I was deeply impressed with the philosophy, the theology and the strength of this faith,” said Grace.
Eight years later, Grace and her sister left London to live with their parents who had settled in Manhattan. When she arrived in New York, her father said he didn’t approve of Grace’s conversion to Catholicism, but eventually came to accept it.

Because Grace’s interest in music was so strong, she enrolled in a music course at the Manhattan School of Music. While there, she was encouraged by a fellow student to enroll at Fordham University. “I did and was amazed by my English teacher,” said Grace. “I admired him. I lived through his teaching — he inspired me to open up. He later became my husband. We had six children.”

Grace earned a teaching degree from New York University and has taught music and languages.

Grace said that as she has grown older, her faith has gotten deeper. “We are made in the likeness of God,” said Grace. “We have God in us but we don’t realize it. We are so beloved by him that we can look forward into infinity with hope because God loves us so much.”

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