Before I became more observant of my Jewish heritage, I often had interesting encounters of the strange kind that kept reminding me of my Jewishness. You see, I grew up not only unobservant of my faith, but I rejected it; I was even ashamed of it. I rejected religion in general because as a very free-spirited liberal college graduate, I loved being able to do, think and behave by the rules that I decided. I was ashamed of my Jewish roots because what seemed to make Jews different and therefore selected us out for anti-Semitism, persecution and prejudice, frightened me terribly. If only we could blend in and be like others, then no one would single us out. Perhaps that was the protection we needed.

And so I did the best I could to blend in with the world at large, have fun, explore different cultures and make purpose out of causes that interested me.

But what was odd was that no matter how much I tried to forget about my Jewish roots, it kept emerging front and center in my life, sometimes in frightening ways.

After graduating college, I took a month-long trip to Brazil with a friend. Marie was half-German and half-Spanish, and was raised in Canada. I met her in Germany during my junior year of studies abroad. She was employed as a scientist at the German university where I was studying. As an extrovert, she easily befriended the many German Brazilians who, as a result of their dual citizenship, were able to study at the university. They warmly welcomed her to visit them upon their return back to South America, and she generously included me in that invite.

In the course of our travels around that very large country, we visited many of her German-South American friends, and I’d often be met with the question: “What are you?”

Though I would try to get away with replying that I was just American, they would question further and not be satisfied until I said I was Jewish. It was almost like they sensed it—hence the deeper questioning. And then I was surprised how often I would hear back: “Oh, my grandfather was Jewish!” or “My great aunt was Jewish.” I remembered learning in my Holocaust studies course that as the winds of antisemitism blew in before Hitler started World War II, many German Jews made their way to South American countries to seek refuge. I felt an odd but familiar connection to these new friends, ones who shared a piece of Jewish ancestral lineage with me. They were curious to know more about Judaism, but I didn’t have much knowledge to share, and so the topic was dropped.

One evening, Marie borrowed a sedan and I found myself being bumped along a dark road on a visit to the German-South American parents of a coworker of Marie’s who had recently settled in Germany. Huge metal gates and a guard greeted us upon our arrival to this very wealthy gated community outside of São Paulo. After sharing the name of the family we had come to visit, we were allowed to enter. The looming gates parted, and we continued along the road, large street lamps illuminating the finely manicured lawns of each stately home.

Pulling up to one, we parked and rang the bell of the impressive doorway, white marbled lions perched on either side. If this was the outside, I wondered what the inside would look like. I hugged Marie and said, “It’s so amazing to get such an insider’s tour of Brazil. This is like the ‘behind the scenes’ version that I never would have seen if I traveled here by myself. Thank you.”

“No problem.” She hugged me back warmly. “Gretchen will be so excited that we visited her mom and dad.”

Suddenly, the humongous wooden door opened. A gray-haired couple stood on the other side: a short, stout woman and a tall, erect man.

The woman said “Hello, please come in.” She waved us in.

Marie’s face lit up and she grasped the hands of the hostess. “Hallo! I’m Marie, and this is my good friend, Meryl. We’re so glad to visit you. Gretchen is such a dear friend of mine.”

The hostess turned and put her hand out towards me, “Nice to meet … ”

I didn’t hear the end of her sentence. My eyes were glued to a huge silver menorah that sat on a platform in the center of the sunken living room. Nine branches stared at me: four level on each side of an elevated branch in the middle. A Jewish candelabra on display, like in a museum. Why did this German couple have a Jewish article on display in their home? Either they were Jewish or, like the Holocaust stories that flashed through my mind, they were Nazis who had ransacked Jewish homes.

I froze in place. I believed it was the latter.

I ignored the hostess’s outstretched hand and looked to the man, so straight was his stance, like a soldier. I pointed to the gleaming silver structure and asked clearly in English, “Where did you get that Jewish menorah?”

He walked over to it and stood behind it. With the platform, its largeness reached up to the top of his chest.

“I’m a collector of things, and I brought this with me when I left Germany.” The floor dropped out from under me as I nodded and stared. I had no words for his simple explanation, and I didn’t have the guts to confront him on my suspicions.

He paused and then asked: “Are you Jewish?”

“I’m American, but my family is Jewish.”

I was chilled as an awkward silence filled the room like a heavy fog.

This couple had been on one side of the war, my Jewish ancestors on the other.

Lost in my thoughts, I barely heard our hostess’s invitation to the table, “Come let’s sit and eat. The food is getting cold, and we want to hear about your travels around Brazil.”

She beckoned us forward, and we sat around the elegant table laden with food. The seductive steamy aroma filled the air as the host removed the hot cover of the china dish. Doling out warm portions, the couple was the epitome of politeness. I picked at what was on my plate, having left my appetite behind at the doorway to this grand manor. The hosts and Marie babbled in German and I sat quietly, alone in my thoughts.

History had become present for me; all those stories from my high school Holocaust class flooded my mind—stories of Nazis who had run to South America to escape trial and accountability for their horrible war crimes against Jews. I had such sympathy for the few Jewish survivors who, having slipped from death’s hands, survived and returned to their homes only to find them looted by anti-Semitic neighbors. I paid no attention to the flow of the conversation. Instead, I put two and two together; some Nazis must have taken their looted treasure abroad to decorate their new homes, bringing something of the people they had persecuted with them. My stomach turned; my travels had led me to one.

I politely nodded as we took our leave. The fog of silence followed me into the car as we rode back to the city.

“Are you OK?” Marie asked.

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

Marie rambled on excitedly about her German friend’s home and parents. “They were so nice, and their home was so beautiful and huge. I loved the artwork they had; it was like being in a museum.”

Her words droned on.

A museum all right. A collection of the artifacts of dead people—people they may have even killed. And if I had lived in Europe during that time, I would have been one of their victims.

It was only later in time that I embraced my Jewish heritage and became more observant of my faith. I came to study about the Jewish soul and how deeply connected it is to G‑d, even to the degree of being a piece of G‑d. It wasn’t something that a Jew could escape from. No matter where they traveled, their Jewish soul came with them. And it prodded them to seek … to seek and find that connection. To dust off the falsities that may have covered it and to reveal its essence. There was truly nothing to be ashamed of but only light to proudly embrace.

The memory of the Holocaust menorah remained seared in my brain. It showed me that the G‑d I thought I didn’t believe in had taken me on a journey. I could travel to a faraway place—one decorated with beautiful things—but my connection to my people would be right in front of me. I would always stand apart, yet the more I learned about my G‑dly connection, the less alone I would be. I had deep roots that connected me to this world, but a soul that connected me on High.