Road Scholar, the not-for-profit leader in educational travel for adults 50+, offers many learning adventures on religion and culture, and for the past few years has offered a program called New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews to explore the history of Jews who were forced to leave Spain in the 14th and 15th century because they refused to convert to Christianity.
Much has been written about the Conversos (The Road Scholar recommended reading for the program lists 18 books!), however in April 2019, a group of Road Scholars traveled to Albuquerque to learn first-hand about what brought the Conversos to the New World and the American Southwest. The program attracts a diverse group of participants, drawn to learning about the Conversos who settled in New Mexico, and how their traditions managed to survive against the odds.
First-time Road Scholar participant Isabel Green, 81, originally enrolled in this program because she wanted to learn more about the heritage of one of her in-laws. She was thrilled to realize that she also may have connected friends who lost touch during the Holocaust.
Isabel lives in a Northern California retirement community, and often shares meals and conversation with others in the community. Isabel describes one of these friends, Helga, as an elegant, beautiful woman who enjoys sharing her stories.
“Many of the people at my retirement community have incredible stories of their experiences during the war,” Isabel said. “But my friend Helga’s story is particularly compelling. One day before my trip, I spoke with her at length, and learned that she was born in Berlin, and that her family escaped through Italy to Shanghai, China, during the war. She and her family eventually made their way to San Francisco after the war and settled there in 1947.”
While on the program, Isabel and the Road Scholar group visited the Holocaust and Intolerance Museum in Albuquerque. The docent Camilla mentioned that one of the founders of the museum, Werner Geller, lived in Shanghai during the war. Isabel thought that was an amazing coincidence.
“When I returned home, I shared my experience with Helga and she remembered Werner,” Isabel said. “I originally went to learn about Conversos and Crypto-Jews, and ended up connecting two people whose paths may have crossed more than 60 years ago. I feel like I brought home a piece of Helga’s childhood and history. Road Scholar is life changing!”
Since returning home, Isabel has kept in touch with the docent from the museum, sharing pictures and memories that Helga has shared with her. She’s hoping it will lead to a meeting between Helga and Werner, and she’s thrilled that her first Road Scholar program was so instrumental in potentially bringing them together.
Road Scholar offers several Jewish Studies programs in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. These programs run year-long, and include lectures from experts in Judaism and Jewish heritage. To learn more, please visit www.roadscholar.org