Review: Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith (Abingdon Press, 2015)

[1] Readers familiar with ELCA pastor Heidi Neumark’s previous memoir, Breathing Space, know that her ministry has carried her into the heart of the paradox of Lutheran faith, to the extremes of profound, abiding grace and heart-wrenching sin. It is here at the intersection that questions of identity and faith are brought into sharp relief, and Neumark’s talent at investigating their contours is evident in her latest endeavor, Hidden Inheritance.

[2] The book begins (as books often do now) with a Google search. One night, while researching online, Neumark’s daughter uncovered startling news. Contrary to all the elder Neumark knew about her father’s family, Rev. Neumark did not descend from a long line of German Lutherans but rather from a long line of German Jews. While she might have been inclined before to look for other Lutheran pastors among her forebears, “[i]t wouldn’t have occurred to [her] that [she] should have been searching for rabbis instead,” (24). Indeed, the search that unfolds over the next 204 pages reveals at least two rabbis and several prominent Jewish leaders among her ancestry.

[3] Driven by the “perplexing and painful knowledge” of all her father kept from her and her mother, Neumark journeys from New York to Germany and, ultimately to Terezín, Czech Republic, home of the Theresienstadt concentration , where her grandfather spent his final days. Neumark invites readers to accompany her on the journey and to ponder her reflections on identity, faith and history. The book is part-travelogue, part-history, part-spiritual memoir, and in all senses showcases Neumark’s deft ability to articulate a contextual Lutheran theology that is equal parts empowering and challenging.

[4] The book is reminiscent of similar memoirs, like Helen Fremont’s After Long Silence or Bliss Broyard’s One Drop, which document searches for meaning and identity in the midst of family secrets. Unlike these other treatments, however, Neumark interrogates her distinctive identity as a leader in a religious community that so often was a source of sorrow rather than comfort for Jews. She is unafraid to look squarely at the role Christians played in the Shoah[i] and in the larger history of Jewish suffering. Her delineation of Christian contributions to the Shoah in the third chapter describes a bishop whose theology, by his own admission, was “derived from the National Socialist ideology” (103), efforts by the Eisenbach Institute to write Jews out of Christian history, and even the Confessing Church’s “limited and flawed” approach to the Nazi agenda, an approach Neumark criticizes for failing to address “the slaughter of Jews” (109). Pointedly, she wrestles with the question, “How can I embrace a faith as life-giving when it has crushed out so much life?” (76).

[5] Neumark’s experiences in ministry among LGBTQ youth lends her an interesting perspective on this question, since it has been, to some extent, a question that has pervaded her ministry. The poignancy of Neumark’s own quest for religious identity is deepened by her juxtaposition of her struggle alongside the struggles her friends and neighbors face each day in 21st Century America, where religion continues to paradoxically offer both acceptance and sometimes violent rejection.

[6] Perhaps the most profound parts of the book are the author’s excurses on the sacraments. Neumark visits St. Mary’s cathedral in Lübeck, where her father was baptized after his family left their hometown of Wittmund. At the time, baptism of Jewish children was “more an act of assimilation than an act of faith” (61), an act that was declared invalid in December 1941 when St. Mary’s was draped in Nazi flags. The site provides occasion for Neumark’s penetrating self-analysis of her own role as a pastor who has performed hundreds of baptisms: “The deep hollow of St. Mary’s bronze font has opened a hole in my heart – and in the heart of my theology” (62). What does it mean for a Lutheran pastor to consider that baptism, in so many cases, might be “a sin, in and of itself” (67)? Indeed, baptism of Jewish children provided justification for the Catholic Church in the 1940s to approve what amounts to abduction of baptized children from their parents. Far from a moment of welcome and renewal, “[her] father’s baptism was a moment of alienation and unrecorded dismemberment” from his Jewish heritage, and eventually, from Neumark’s own (68).

[7] A similar conflict emerges for Neumark at the altar of Holy Communion, a sacrament that was often used as context for vicious slander against Jews, who were accused of desecrating the host: “I’ve [said the words of institution] for thirty years without thinking of these slaughtered Jews, my namesake Jews, who died over a perversion of this sacrament” (26). Yet, she writes, “In spite of everything I now know, these remain life-giving words” (27). What emerges from Neumark’s wrestling is not a simple (even if understandable) rejection of Lutheran practices but a refined, more mature understanding of the sacraments, as acts of power that are both used and abused, to great effect.

[8] The same could be said of the portrait of Lutheran faith, in general, throughout the book. It is clear that Neumark brings a distinctively Lutheran lens to her travels, but it is a lens that is now tinted by a clearer understanding of her own history. She employs common Lutheran frames , like the communion of saints, to understand her family’s community, but these take a new shade as she follows their footsteps. Neumark refuses to let go of her Lutheranism, but writes, “It is no longer possible for me to gaze at a painting of Luther preaching on the cross, however crucial much of his understanding has been for my own faith, without seeing the blood of millions of innocent Jews” (101).

[9] This is no easy faith, no pie-in-the-sky quietism; it is a faith that struggles, that often raises more questions than answers, and that recognizes the power of religion to be both death-dealing and life-giving. “I find myself held in the continuity of [my family’s] love of God,” Neumark reflects, “and caught in a heartbreaking divide. I believe god is caught there, too” (87).

[10] Neumark weds the context in which her family’s faith took shape within the broader context of anti-Semitism, the national context of early 20th-century Germany, and the local context of small towns like Wittmund in a way that helps readers understand her family’s experiences as personal but not unique and as part of a larger system of anti-Semitic persecution, the kind that lays the foundation for the Shoah. Her evocative descriptions also highlight the diversity of ways people experienced the growth of Nazism, particularly in towns like Wittmund, where avoiding Jews, and especially Jewish merchants, was impractical. This context provides a rich background for interrogating the connections between religious identity and political identity, especially as these became life-threatening issues for Jews in Europe.

[11] The book is a rich reflection on one family’s flight, set in the context of a larger diaspora driven by hatred and violence. Neumark is caught in the midst of this, a Lutheran pastor wrestling with the ways her professional forebears enabled the massacre of her familial and spiritual forebears. As she admits, “I’m getting stuck here, and I wish the Church would get stuck with me” (67). Neumark’s book challenges readers to reconsider their own religious identities and challenges the Church to attend to the ways – past and present – it is complicit in human suffering.

[12] Neumark raises questions about sacramental practices, hope, family, and the ELCA’s current relationship with Jewish communities and its stance on Israel. As such, it is well-suited for both congregations and classrooms, particularly seminars and courses on identity, theology, and ethics. With Hidden Inheritance, Rev. Neumark has cemented her place as one of the most thought-provoking voices in American Lutheranism today, and as rates of anti-Semitic violence around the world continue to rise (nearly 40% in 2014, for example), one of its most important.


[i] Neumark writes, “I have chosen to use the word ‘Shoah’ rather than ‘Holocaust,’ which comes from the Greek for ‘burnt offering.’ Many have come to find ‘Shoah,’ which is Hebrew for ‘catastrophe,’ to be more accurate and appropriate” (7).

Ryan P. Cumming

Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D. is program director of hunger education for ELCA World Hunger and senior lecturer at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.