Do you ever wonder how your children (or grandchildren) might remember you someday? Today is the quarter-century yahrzeit, the Hebrew anniversary of my father’s death, and I would like to tell you about him.
Martin Rosenschein was born Meir Yisrael מאיר ישׂראל בן יהוֹשע ורבקה on March 13, 1919, five months after the Armistice which ended The Great War, in the Carpathian town of Mukačevo (Hungarian: Munkács) in eastern Czechoslovakia, a successor state of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He grew up in that vibrant town of some 20,000, about half of whom were Jews. It was a highly diverse population, ranging from ultra-Orthodox to Zionists to radical secular Communists, and he grew up in an atmosphere of intense intellectual ferment. His family (three brothers and one sister) were not well-to-do, and the children worked hard from their youth to help put food on the table.
In 1938, as a result of Chamberlain’s and Hitler’s “peace in our time” deal, Nazi Germany occupied western Czechoslovakia, and its ally Hungary occupied Carpathian (eastern) Czechoslovakia. It might have been oppressive, but the Hungarian Jews were spared for the time being the Einsatzgruppen and death camps that extinguished most of Polish and Eastern European Jewry.
My father didn’t talk about it too much but once told my brother Jeff that he was walking home one evening with his own father, when they met a group of drunken Hungarian soldiers. One of them started to strike his father, and he jumped in front of the blow, suffering a broken nose. Such was the respect he showed his own father.
Everything changed again 72 years ago, in March of 1944, when Nazi Germany dumped its erstwhile ally and occupied Hungary. A man called Adolph Eichmann realized that Hungary’s 600,000 Jews had escaped the clutches of their fate, which he acted to rectify. The Jews didn’t see it coming; they literally “could not believe” it could happen to them. On the Seventh Day of Passover holiday, the Germans announced that the Jews were to all move into a smaller neighborhood of the city, the Jewish ghetto, overnight.
A few weeks later, in the last week of May 1944, all Jews were marched through the town, to the jeers of neighbors, to a brick factory on the outskirts, to await their fate. Three days later, they were crammed into cattle cars for the 3-day airless, sanitation-less train ride to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There they experienced their first “selection” — 80% to the left [=gas chamber], 20% to the right [=starvation + slave labor].
Dad told me once that, even inside Auschwitz, he didn’t grasp what was happening. The second day in the camps, the guards gave out postcards that the inmates were commanded to fill in, praising camp conditions, for pacification of the next hapless victims. Someone asked him whom he was writing to. He said, “my mother”, at which point the man hit him in the side of the head and said, “Idiot — don’t you realize that’s your mother coming out of that chimney over there?” He was there and he still couldn’t grasp the plain truth.
He survived the torture of several camps, including the infamous Buchenwald, performing pointless backbreaking labor on a starvation diet. One group of men would carry a heavy metal rail across a yard, and the next group would carry it back. The guard once said, “Don’t you know that if I shoot any of you, they’ll give me a prize.” The cruelest humiliation was the guards throwing a little food into a circle, just to enjoy watching the men claw at each other like animals.
He was still together with his brother Shimi (later Sandor Sternberg) and brother Moshe and father Yehoshua. My uncle Moshe, who was a bigger (taller) man, had it tough. He eventually gave up — “I can’t take this anymore” — and the next day that was it, he was gone. Their father was so emaciated that his sons got him into the infirmary (if you can call it that) and convinced him to stay there an extra day. Tragically, that was a day the Nazis disposed of the “patients” of the infirmary by lethal injection. They didn’t talk about it much, but I think that the brothers never forgave themselves for that horror regarding my grandfather’s murder.
Martin escaped from a transport train with his younger brother Shimi in the final days of the war. They were rounded up by the police in a little German town, whose captain said to a row of men, “Jews step forward.” In a split-second glance between the brothers, they did not… fortunately, because those men who did step forward were taken outside and shot.
The survivors of the War (there was no term Holocaust yet) wandered towards their one-time-homes looking for any family left. They had a code word to ask a stranger if he was Jewish: “עַמְךָ (amcha)?” Imagine a crowd of wretched homeless people mingling at a train station, desperate for a tidbit of information whether a loved one had made it out alive in one piece.
He reached his hometown, now the liberated Soviet Ukrainian town of Mukacheve / Мукачеве, with two sets of documents, one saying he was from there and one (sewn into his jacket) saying he was not — so he might leave. There was nothing and nobody there for him.
He met my mother, Yolanda, whom he had known from home, at the train station in Budapest. She had stuck together through the nightmare with Dad’s sister Freda (1925–2013) — they had become לאַגער שוועסטער, “camp sisters”, and would continue to stick together for the next 68 years.
My parents were married on March 12, 1946. (A few weeks ago would have been their 70th wedding anniversary.) The other refugees got together and gave them their sole wedding gift: a cup and saucer.
Three years later, the Truman administration admitted thousands of Jewish survivors of the concentration camps into the United States. Many Jewish communities across America absorbed several refugee families, and that’s how our family arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
My father started a dry-cleaning company, to be joined by his two surviving brothers Ben and Sandy and brother-in-law Steve Lederer. It continues to this day as Quality Cleaners.
My brothers Stan and Jeff and I grew up with happy childhoods, not realizing what horrors had transpired just a few years previous. (Here’s a picture from Hershey Park from Aug-1959; I know that because, in those days, it was on the B&W print.)
Dad was a hard-working, quiet, logical, tough-minded, disciplined, and highly pragmatic man, who believed a husband and father’s primary responsibility was to support his family, no ifs and no buts. He truly appreciated and loved America as the greatest country in the world and was puzzled by the protests of the Sixties. He would smile ironically if someone used the phrase “I’m starving”. “In America,” he said, “someone is considered poor if he doesn’t own a color television set.”
Here was a man who never finished high-school, much less university, but was well-read and thoughtful, intellectually inclined, and especially proud of educating his own three boys.
Though rooted in America and its wonderful freedom, he had a love and appreciation for Israel, too. When we made aliyah, moving here, he certainly understood, and I think he was also proud. He had an unsentimental view of the complex challenges facing the State of Israel. He was not, shall we say, overly optimistic about the intentions of our adversaries.
Dad once told me, “If I could somehow transfer to you one painfully acquired lesson, it would be this. If someone ever threatens your life or that of your loved ones, JUST BELIEVE HIM! Never ever say, he couldn’t, he wouldn’t, the world would never let it happen — because if he could, he would, and it does.”
Dad / Sabba lived to see the birth of seven grandchildren. When he was feeling pains in his chest in 1990, his doctor, I believe, sort of knew what might likely happen, and encouraged him to travel to his grandson Koby’s bar-mitzvah in California. The next week he was operated on and diagnosed with an aggressive case of mesothelioma.
Jeff encouraged him in his final struggle, saying, “Dad, you survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, you can fight this cancer.” His only answer: “I was younger then.”
My mother nursed him bravely up until the end. He passed away a few days after the close of the Gulf War in 1991, on the eve of his 72nd birthday.
As I said the kaddish prayer in his memory today, I reflected on this very Jewish ritual, at the heart of Jewish remembrance and mourning. The words are יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא / Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba / May His name be sanctified. In other words, even in moments of grief, we must choose to see life as good and for life to go on. We must fill the void.
I was fortunate to receive maftir in our synagogue this shabbat, in my father’s memory. I woke up early Saturday morning to have a look through the weekly Torah portion, and I picked up off the bookshelf a gift from my father that he had given Diane and me right before we moved to Israel in 1983. He inscribed it by hand (remember that?) uncharacteristically in Yiddish — but for him this was a statement of tradition and faith, given from the heart to enter another’s.
May the memory of my dear father מֵאִיר יִשְׂרָאֵל בן יְהוֹשֻׁעַ ורִבְקָה be a blessing.
- Oral history interview with Martin Rosenschein (interview from 1987 conducted by my childhood friend Arthur Hoffman).