A Journey to Jewish Identity

A young refugee finds comfort and community in Judaism.

by Michael Brassloff

Comments Off on A Journey to Jewish Identity


At a family wedding after the war, Malka is the little woman wearing a hat and the author is the boy looking up at the group.

I was born in Englan d during the Second World War, and didn’t know I was Jewish for many years. My parents, refugees from Vienna, were friends in Austria who like many other young Jews, were influenced by the artistic, cultural and intellectual movements of the time. Apparently, wanting to assimilate, they repudiated their Jewish roots. My father registered with the authorities as an atheist and my mother told her mother not to speak Yiddish to her in public. And, supposedly, they made a point of going to a public cafe during Kol Nidre. They escaped the Nazis through different routes and were reunited in England in 1940. Had Hitler not come along, they probably would never have married, since they came from very different backgrounds. However, the war brought them together and they were married in 1942 in Oxford. I was born in May, 1944 in Birmingham. I was given the name Michael Stephen, after my maternal grandmother, Malka, who was missing during the war and presumed dead. However, after the war ended, she was found living in an institution for Jewish seniors in Brussels created by the Belgian Queen Mother Elizabeth. Sometime in 1939 when she was already 73 years old, Malka missed the last boat out of Antwerp and had to fend for herself. We have no idea how she survived, although she probably gained some survival skills growing up in a shtetl in what is now the Ukraine. The family brought her to England to be reunited with her two daughters and grandchildren.

My middle name, Stephen, was my paternal grandfather’s name. He was an assimilated Jew who taught Roman Law at Vienna University. Although he and his wife had affidavits to come to America, they were deported to Terezin where they died of illnesses caused by the deplorable conditions at the camp.

My parents eventually divorced and my mother and I emigrated to the United States where we first lived in Reading, Pennsylvania. It was in Reading that I started developing a Jewish identity. We joined Kesher Zion Synagogue where I attended Hebrew school and had my bar mitzvah. It meant a lot to me that the rabbi, cantor and teachers took an interest in my welfare.

I met my wife at Temple University and once we had children, we became full-fledged members of the Northeast Philadelphia Jewish community. We sent our children to a Jewish nursery school, joined a synagogue and then sent our children to the local Solomon Schechter day school. We became very involved in both institutions, feeling that we should set an example for our children. We observed the Shabbat rituals and had regular Shabbat dinners with friends and their children.

We were very active at Oxford Circle Jewish Community Centre, my wife in the sisterhood and me in the men’s club and congregation. I became men’s club president in 1983, regional president in 1990 and held various positions within the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs for over a decade. My experiences within the men’s club movement were the culminating influences on my journey to finding my Jewish identity. The sense of being part of a dynamic, innovative Jewish organization as well as the camaraderie were very gratifying and fulfilling.

Our children have found their own Jewish identities. Our son belongs to a Conservative synagogue in Florida and our daughter is connected to the local Orthodox community. And all of our five grandchildren are well on their way, each on a different journey. Some are straightforward, others more circuitous.

This is my journey and hopefully it’s not yet over!