Commemorating Rita Rosenbaum

Commemorating Rita Rosenbaum

George Washington would have been 286 years old today. My mother would have been 105. The robbing of George (and, to be fair, Abe) of his own holiday in the face of the national commerce fest called President’s Day happened in 1971 but for the rest of her life, my mother was annoyed that her birthday was no longer a cause for national celebration. 

So I offer her today her personal commemoration–and tearful thanks to the three people who made my life possible. They weren’t generals or presidents, though my grandfather was a sergeant for a country that proved far worse than ungrateful. Nevertheless, all three made the ultimate sacrifice.

Rosenbaum family, Summer 1938, probably the last family picture taken together

After the Anschluss

Imagine that it’s 1938, and the Nazis have stormed into power. They start systematically taking everything from you– your property, your possessions, and of course your dignity. But that’s the least of it. At this point you’re fighting for your lives. Maybe, because you never imagined something like this could happen, you haven’t hidden enough money away. Maybe you never had very much to begin with. And maybe you can’t find anyone to vouch for three people.

So you opt to send one, the pretty young seamstress, age 25. True, she doesn’t speak English, she’s rather shy, and she has never lived anywhere but her parents’ home. But she’s your only hope. She’ll go to America, she’ll earn money, and she’ll send for you. You’ll all be together again in a new country. 

Struggling in America

Heaven knows my mother tried to follow that program. In my post about sponsorships and family rifts, I talked about how my mother lived with a distant relative in New Jersey and subsisted on pea-and-mayonnaise sandwiches to save money to bring her parents over. Here’s proof:

An organization called the Jewish Transmigration Bureau was established by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (also called the JDC) to help refugees send for European family members. The relatives would deposit money, the organization would use it to get passage to the appropriate people. My mother finally saved enough to get her parents over — but it was too late. 

My mother must have been devastated to receive this refund from the JDC:

She had sent her last payment to them —  a total of $350 — on 9/11/42 (I just now realize the double horror of this date). News reports about Nazi atrocities were sparse in 1942, so my mother did not realize this had happened:

Both Ernestine and Hermann Rosenbaum were on the neatly typed list of 1500 Jews — all given the middle names “Sara” for women and “Israel” for men to indicate the reason for their deportation — who were transported from Vienna to Riga. It took them five days to get there. There were several concentration camps in the Riga area, several ways of dying, none of them good. My mother never knew precisely what happened to her parents; she was adamant about not wanting to find out. She just surmised from that refunded bank account that she would never see them again. 

But I’m sure that, when it came to her parents’ birthdays — December 20 for my grandmother, April 23 for my grandfather — my mother was bereft, remembering them.

As am I today.

5 Responses to Commemorating Rita Rosenbaum

  1. Karyn Zoldan says:

    I’m sorry for your loss, your mother’s loss and your family’s loss. So eloquent. So devastatingly sad this happened to millions of Jews.

  2. Elaine Schmerling says:

    Heartbreaking. May their memories be for a blessing. You have brought them back to our thoughts, and are upholding our tradition of honoring them.

  3. Sharon says:

    I will always remember your Mom fondly….how smart she was…I still
    think of her when I watch Jeopardy…..
    Happy Birthday Rita……you are your mothers’s legacy…..a loving tribute to her..

  4. Julie McDowell says:

    So sorry. Keep telling these stories and keep the memories alive.

  5. Elaine Schmerling says:

    so beautifully said…heartbreaking.

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