When I spoke on Yom Kippur evening with cousins in Israel, where Auntie Rosie spent many of her retirement years, the reaction was how fitting it was that, after a long illness, she had died on Judaism’s most holy day – an appropriate passing for a tzedek or righteous person.
Rose was born a Brummer, one of 11 siblings, in 1926 in the town of Vylok (Tisza-Ujlak), close to Berehova on the Czech-Hungarian border. The family enjoyed a peaceful life before Hitler uprooted their existence.
Her testimony and that of those like her is why I believe strongly in the value of Holocaust education in spite of the debate that has erupted among intellectuals, sparked by a critical article by former Harvard professor Ruth Wisse in the magazine National Affairs.
It also is why I find the recent attempts to block the national memorial to the Shoah, on Victoria Gardens adjacent to Paliament, so unbecoming. Britain needs a prominent reminder of the industrial killing of Nazism and racism.
Over the years, talking to my courageous late aunt and other family members and when visiting the family home with my father Michael, I was able to get a glimpse of their lives. Rose was a skilled seamstress who worked with families in her hometown. The image that sticks in my mind is of my grandfather, Rose’s father Sandor, under a peach tree outside the Brummer house on a Shabbat afternoon learning the biblical stories with the children.
The peace was disturbed as the Hungarian fascists the Arrow Cross, allies of the Nazis, took over in 1940. Three brothers Danny, Ference and Ignatz, disappeared, never to be heard of again. Then, in 1944, my grandparents and the three young women were rounded up, packed in a cattle train and sent to Auschwitz. The horror of the separation of parents who went to the gas chambers was bad enough. But the cold, filth and brutality of the camps was a permanent scar.
The older siblings settled in Brighton before the Second World War. Philip Brummer was the chazan at the historic Middle Street Synagogue. My father returned to his roots as a farmer and Auntie Yita (Shindy’s mother) ran a boarding house on Cannon Place. It was assumed that Rose, her younger sister and Yita’s daughter, suffered the fate of their parents. But in 1947 there arrived a telegram from the Swedish Red Cross saying they had in their care three women with the name Brummer, who claimed relatives in the UK.
The three women would find work (and husbands!) in the Cannon Street kosher boarding house. It was here that Rose encountered a talented Hebraic scholar Tony (Tovya) Rafalofwicz. Soon after marriage, they moved to Edinburgh, where Tony served as an assistant minister and lectured at the university.
He worked for his semicha at Jews College (now London School of Jewish Studies).
From Edinburgh, Tony and Rosie took the call from the Sydney Jewish community to be director of Jewish education. Once he obtained his semicha, Tony, Rebbetzen Rosie and their two children, Ruth and Eli, moved to Adelaide, where they were the rabbinical couple for several decades. On retirement, they fulfilled a dream to move to Ramat Gan, in Israel, close to Rose’s brother Martin (also a survivor). To escape hot summers, they established a second home in Hove. The scars of Auschwitz never left Rosie. She had an obsession with cleanliness and a loss of smell.
The abiding memory of Rose is her fighting spirit and an ability to overcome adversity. Rabbi Tony fought a long battle against heart disease, her daughter Ruth tragically predeceased her and she had her own later battle with cancer.
All of these traumas were met with inner strength, stoicism and a devotion to Judaism that never wavered.
If you can survive and defy the horrors of the Shoah, then tragedy is placed in perspective.
In her final years, Rose would join her cousin Shindy, visiting Brighton and Hove schools to impart their story as living witnesses to Holocaust education. As the survivors become extinct, a stark memorial, close to Britain’s most cherished sites, would keep the flame of remembrance burning.