My late paternal grandmother Roselle, or “Sabta’”as I called her, never really talked to me about her life. I would see her once a year when she came to visit my family in Toronto from Cardiff, Whales and she would bring me a giant Galaxy chocolate bar (much to my mother’s chagrin). We’d go on day trips, or just sit together and read, but we never discussed her past.
She wasn’t the stereotypically warm and bubbly Jewish “Bubbie.” There were no Yiddish exclamations of “oy vey!” or “kanayna hora!” There was no face pinching, or chicken soup, but even though she had a subdued way of showing it, my siblings and I knew she loved us. I didn’t question my Sabta’s sternness and introversion, or think about what may have led her to be this way. I never thought about her childhood; grandparents are the oldest people you know, so it’s not always obvious to us that they were once young.
In January of 2007 my Sabta died of a heart attack. It wasn’t until several months later, when the Globe and Mail published her obituary written by my dad, that I actually took time to think about my Sabta as Roselle, a woman with a history of displacement, loss, and struggle.
Born in 1923, Roselle grew up in Nazi Germany in Dusseldorf. At the age of 14, she was kicked out of her public school and forced to attend a Jewish one, and at 19, her father was killed in the nation-wide pogrom Kristalnacht. After the loss of her father, she decided that her time in Germany was through. She led a group of Jewish children to find refuge at a Polish kibbutz (a communal farm settlement). On the journey to Poland she was struck in the face with a rifle butt by a Nazi officer leaving her with a permanent scar on her jaw.
After spending extensive time with Roselle’s younger sister Dvora and her family while attending Tel Aviv University in Israel, I discovered more and more about my Sabta’s past. By 1939, she had been separated from her remaining family, but somehow found her way to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine on her own. By 1941, she had helped found two kibbutzs, and in 1942, Corporal Roselle Moritz wore two stripes as a volunteer for the British army – all of this before she was even 20. Because she had married my grandfather and moved to Whales, my Sabta didn’t see Israel’s creation in 1948. But, she was very much a part of the struggle to create a homeland for the 7-million Jews who live there today.
My Sabta’s story may not be unique among the millions of Jews displaced during the Holocaust. She didn’t suffer the hell of the concentration camps, and she could have been considered lucky to have her mother, brother, and sister alive by the time it was all over. But for me, writing this article isn’t only about her survival. It’s about the need to learn about our families’ pasts and to remember what they endured. I didn’t know about Roselle’s life until she was dead. Though the well-known cliché “better late than never” undoubtedly holds true, I know there was much more to discover about her life – if only I had asked. It is crucial to ask questions about the past to ensure that heroes and heroines like my Sabta are never forgotten.