Couvent St. Joseph was a Roman Catholic religious institution, and so the subject of religion inevitably had to come up, particularly as I had been charged with keeping an eye on my cousins should there be any attempts at baptism or conversion. There were no baptisms, actual or attempted. But as to conversions. . . albeit temporary ones, that was a different story.
It was a terrifically seductive environment for children of our age. Each morning, as we boys emerged from our communal dormitory, we came face to face with a life-size bust of Jesus as the Sacred Heart. He was depicted as a bearded gentleman of about thirty years, with chestnut hair and beard, the hair long, not unlike that worn by rock musicians today. He looked down in a very gentle manner, but what was most startling was that he was pulling his shirt and skin apart to reveal his crowned heart. Having negotiated the Sacred Heart, I could walk across the hall to the Chapel. The Chapel was a large room filled with pews on both sides of a central isle, an altar with a golden crucifix way up front, and religious statues, staring down from the walls. The statues I learned later were of St. Theresa, St. Joseph, St. Francis, the Virgin Mary, and other Catholic notables. There was a small basin filled with holy water near our entrance, and a red carpet running from the entrance down the isle and up to the altar. While initially strange, the Chapel became quite comfortable, particularly during mass when the smell of burning incense wafted through the room.
Besides the nuns there was also a priest on the premises. I’m not quite sure of what he did, besides officiating at mass and taking confessions. He had the reputation of having a rather heavy hand, but that was not that unusual in those days of corporal punishment. I never had any trouble with him. He never hit me, or any of my cousins. He was just there, in his black cassock. When he officiated at mass he was impressive in his vestments. Each morning they were of a different color, but always beautiful, and there was an order to which vestment he wore on any particular day, possibly related to which saint’s day it was, but I could never figure it out. I don’t think the mass was celebrated for the benefit of the children in the orphanage, but as there were several nuns in attendance. . . The mass was also celebrated in Latin, which I think no one in the chapel understood, but that added mystery and magic to the whole thing, and made it that much more enjoyable.
After some time had passed, my cousin “Marcel” was the one swinging the censer. What with his red cheeks, blond hair and blue eyes, in his red cassock looked positively cherubic as an altar boy. He was the only one of us Jewish boys who actually rose to the position. Besides swinging the censer and standing near the altar, I have no idea what it was his job entailed. All I sensed was that somehow the family wouldn’t be thrilled about his new position. Should I tell my mother next time she came to visit? Or should I just skip it, particularly as on a previous visit she had told me that both of his parents had been taken by the Gestapo?