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A Heritage Revealed

The skeptics will have their say, but it's not that surprising that Sen. George Allen would learn late in life that his mother is Jewish. Many Holocaust survivors hid their heritage for fear their children would be persecuted.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Our daughter's Chinese class is cancelled tomorrow because of the Jewish holiday. Only in America. That may sound odd, but Jewish families with Chinese children, like ours, is one of the new demographic groups in the United States. An old childhood friend who's a rabbi says that in just a few years there'll be a tide of little girls were born in Nanjing and Guanjo(ph) getting bat mitzvahed in New York and Chicago. They already sit around the Seder table saying next year in Jerusalem.

When you read the Seder story of Moses, the baby cast by his crying mother into the bull rushes, and look at the faces of those children brought home from China or Kazakhstan or Ethiopia, the story has never seemed more beautiful or real.

Senator George Allen of Virginia has been chided this week for insisting that his mother only recently revealed his Jewish heritage to him. Secretary of State Madeline Albright was similarly mocked nine years ago for saying that she'd just learned that her parents were Jewish.

Mr. Allen's mother is a Tunisian Jew whose father was imprisoned by the Nazis. She came to the United States when she was 11 and converted to the Anglican Church when she married. Secretary Albright's parents were Czech Jews who fled Prague in 1939 when she was two. Came to London and became Catholics.

After the war, they found that their family that remained were all killed in concentration camps, so they never disclosed their ancestry. Senator Allen says his mother never told her children about their Jewish heritage because she was afraid they were going to put gold stars on us all.

I do not find it incredible that their parents wouldn't reveal their Judaism. The memories of genocide survivors are harrowing. There is a remorseless embarrassment, almost a shame, that so many perished while they, more by chance than courage or persistence, somehow survived.

I think I understand why survivors who came to prosper in London, Los Angeles, Dallas or Boston would still fear that being Jewish could make their children vulnerable. After all, Jews once live freely in Berlin and Prague too. There is always enough anti-Semitism around to make that fear believable.

There are cemeteries in New Mexico in which conversos are buried, people who fled the Inquisition, came to Spanish America and kept safe by converting to Catholicism. Centuries later, some families are just beginning to discover their heritage. I once talked to a man named Amado who said, in a totally friendly way, being Hispanic is tough enough, and now to find out that we're Jewish?

I live with a father's dread of that day some fool will hurl a racial insult at our daughter on the soccer field. But if and when that happens, I hope she'll score a goal and turn around and shout, And you know what? I'm Jewish too!

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small