Rosa Czerniak Identified
April 3, 2012
Rosalind Goldenberg first learned of her picture on the Remember Me? website from a friend of hers who had also been a hidden child. She had never seen the picture before, and she thought at first that perhaps someone from her family had survived the Holocaust and was looking for her. She knows that the picture was taken in Belgium but doesn’t know much more than that.
Born Rosa Czerniak in 1939, she was the youngest child of Polish parents who had immigrated to Belgium. Herman Czerniak and Blima (née Sliwka) had two older children, Julius and Frieda. Her father was a diamond cutter, and her parents had two homes, one in Brussels and the other in Antwerp. Rosa was just a baby when the war began. Her siblings were deported to Auschwitz via the transit camp Malines on October 10, 1942. Her mother was deported the following year on July 31. Rosalind has never been able to learn what happened to her father, but she suspects that he may have been shot by the SS when they came to the building where he worked.
At some point before being deported, Blima was able to give Rosa to a man in the underground. His wife would not let him keep her at their home, so he contacted a family who lived in the countryside. Twelve-year-old Sabine’s mother was dead, and her father was in the army. Sabine asked her grandmother to take the child in. Rosa recalls that they were a very nice family. She was never abused and never went hungry. She does remember, however, feeling loneliness and longing. She wanted to be loved and wanted, but she doesn’t remember feeling that. Rosa was raised as a Catholic, and she made her first communion. She spoke French and went to school in the village. One day, after the war, Rosa learned from Sabine’s grandmother that her Papa was looking for her and that he lived far away. Rosa agreed to go to him. Rosa wanted so very much to have a father who would love her like the other children she knew had. She thought that parents who loved their children gave them chocolate and other sweets. She was given a cross, some beautiful dolls, and some clothes with which to start her new life. Looking back, Rosalind knows that she could have gone instead to an orphanage. She thinks that may have been better for her, as she would have been with other children who understood what she had gone through, and she might have even gone to Israel.
Aged only seven, Rosa flew by herself from Belgium to Ireland to be with her father, who turned out to be her father’s cousin, Harry Czerniak. A single man in his late 40s, Harry owned a factory. He lived in a house with a Jewish family that had two young daughters. Life at Harry’s was quite difficult for Rosa, and the language barrier between her and her new family was only part of the problem. She never got the loved she wanted from her Papa and never felt like she belonged. She felt instead like an outsider looking in. Neither Harry nor anyone else understood what she had been through. The first Friday she was there, Harry caught sight of the cross that the priest back in Belgium had blessed and given her. He took it away from her along with all the clothes she had been given. When they lit the candles for Shabbat, Rosa kneeled and crossed herself. It was clear from everyone’s reaction that she had done something wrong, but she didn’t understand what. She was later told, “Don’t cross yourself! You are a Jewish little girl.”
When Harry Czerniak married, his wife brought with him a child for whom Rosa served as a nanny. From the age of 14, she worked. She was employed in a very exclusive dress shop. Harry and his wife made her pay a large sum of her earnings to stay with them. Having had enough, Rosa decided when she was aged 17 and a half that she would go to London. Harry explained to her that she wouldn’t be able to go because she was stateless. Determined, Rosa rode her bicycle to the passport office, where she was told that she would have to go to the immigration office. There, an official took pity on her and gave her some papers that would allow her to travel.
Harry gave her a bit of money and sent her off. Her employer, Mr. Shelps, got his merchandise from England, and he gave her references in London. She never needed them, though, and was able to get a job on her own. She worked in a dress shop and shared apartments with different roommates. She went to Jewish dances and met her first husband when she was 18. Ronald Cassen was a nice man from London. Rosalind recalls how kind his mother was to her. She married Ronald when she was 20 and had two children. When she was 27, they left London for Toronto, Canada. Rosalind remembers that at the time, she didn’t know there was such a thing as a “hidden child.” She had never told anyone about her background. Her husband encouraged her to find out, and she eventually received notice of her mother’s and siblings’ fate.
Ronald and Rosalind had a comfortable life in Toronto, where he was a successful businessman. Rosalind grew restless and unsatisfied, though, and they eventually divorced. They remain on good terms. Rosalind opened a cosmetic and fashion business and was eventually introduced to her second husband, who has since passed away.
Although she remained silent for many years about her childhood, Rosalind now talks candidly about what she endured. While married to her second husband, Rosalind joined a hidden children program. It was the first time in her life that she talked openly about her experiences. She travelled with a fellow child survivor to a hidden children’s convention in Belgium. It was the first time that she had been back to the country. She went to Antwerp and found the address where her family had lived. She visited several stores with a photograph of her mother, but nobody remembered her. At a garage, though, someone recognized the picture and remembered the family who had lived there before the war. Rosalind knocked on the door and asked the man who answered if he recognized her mother. He began shouting at her to go away and then covered his wife’s mouth to keep her from saying anything to Rosalind. Rosalind thinks that someone from the neighborhood may have turned her family in during the Holocaust.
During this visit, Rosalind was reunited with Sabine, who welcomed her as a sister. Sabine has five sons, all married with children, and Rosalind took them all to dinner. After Rosalind returned to Canada, she invited Sabine to come visit and meet her family. Sabine came along with her eldest son. Rosalind’s temple gave Sabine a plaque thanking her for saving her. Sabine has visited a few times since then, and Rosalind remains in touch with her.
Rosalind has given her mother’s passport and a photograph of her to Yad Vashem, and she has spoken on numerous occasions through the Holocaust museum in Toronto. Although she has cut back on her speaking engagements, she has plans to speak at her grandson’s school and as a favor to Ronald Cassen’s wife. On November 7, 2011, Rosalind returned from her first visit to Israel. “I enjoy life,” she tells us. “I really do.”
Rosalind would love to hear from anybody who might have known her family or might know anything about their lives before or during the Holocaust.