I had not seen Rose Toren for almost 15 years, until last weekend, when I decided that if anyone deserved tribute on this special holiday of memory and celebration, it was she.
Memorials apply to many sorrows.
She had just reached the age of 90 and, beset by failing health, seemed frail and detached, paying the price of time and grief in a prevailing mood of sadness that had deepened over the years.
But, despite that, one could also clearly discern that a spirit of defiance had remained an integral part of her cultural geometry. Rose Toren, whose entire family had perished in the Jewish Holocaust, was still here.
She was one in about a million who survived.
I first met Rose after she had published Destiny, a book of her escape from genocide. It chronicled both the will and horror of a moonlit night in 1939 when Nazis soldiers pounded on the door of their home in a village near Lublin, Poland.
They forced the family of seven to gather in a field and await their return. Rose was 14. There was her sister, Eda, 12, two other sisters, a brother and their parents.
All had been aware of Nazi atrocities and Eda decided to escape. She vanished into the night and was never seen again. The father urged them all to run, but only Rose took his advice. She left without knowing the fate of the others.
She asked for help at the home of a friend whose father was mayor in a nearby town. They not only sheltered Rose but forged papers that identified her as a “displaced Polish Christian.”
On the run, she worked where she could to survive, counting on others to help. Unable to tightly maintain a false identity, angry at having to deny her heritage, she admitted to a factory co-worker—who in reality was a Nazi informer—that she was a Jew and she was immediately imprisoned in Auschwitz.
But she was not about going quietly to her death. “Not Rose Toren,” she says, shaking her head.
She fled once more and remained free until the war ended and the death camps were dismantled. She moved to the United States, but returned to Poland twice to search for her family. She learned on the first trip that the Nazis had murdered them all. Only Eda, who disappeared into the night a long time ago, remained unaccounted for.
“I’ve always had the feeling she was out there alive,” Rose says, pondering another trip—just one more—to look for her little sister. Then, as if to admonish herself, she adds, “Don’t give up, Rose, don’t ever give up.”
I know that she never will.
Star of David photo credit: emilybean via Flickr
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