In this excerpt from his autobiography, “Jump! How I Rose from Poverty and Anti-Semitism to become a Tech Sector Pioneer and a Mensch” (Amazon), Jack Roseman reflects on a seminal development in his life — the Nazis’ killing of his brother and other family members in their native Ukraine.
The Ukraine long has been a geographic and political prize in the wars of Europe, the sort of place where it was a good idea to keep multiple flags in your closet because you never were sure which country was the ruler du jour. It was part of Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution, then was controlled at various times by German, Ukrainian, Bolshevik and Polish forces. Between the world wars, it was part of Poland, much the worse for it when Germany overran Poland. Even today, the Ukraine is struggling to retain its independence in the face of Russian threats.
As an important Ukrainian town, Rovno (now known as Rivne) experienced all this buffeting yet managed to support a Jewish community that, in 1940, was estimated at 25,000, roughly half the town’s entire population. Among Rovno’s Jews were Bessie Guz Roseman and Abraham Roseman, my parents. I was born Yonkil Roseman in 1931 in Lynn, Mass., where my parents settled after they immigrated. I know little of their lives in Rovno, except that my father was a tailor and my parents already had three children in Rovno — my brothers Leibel and Hyman and my sister Lena — and that my mother had two sisters.
In Rovno, my parents may have grown and produced as much of their own food as they could. On several occasions, when times were particularly tough for us in Lynn, my mother lamented: “I should have stayed in Rovno. At least we had a cow.”
Poverty and anti-Semitism were the twin drivers in their immigration to America; as so many others, the Roseman family had a plan. My father would come first, settling with his brother Louis in Boston. Then, as he saved enough money to pay for the trip, he would send for each member of the family.
Abraham landed in the mid-1920s, although he didn’t stay long in Boston with either brother, settling instead in Lynn, about eight miles north of Boston. Next, in 1930, came my mother with Hymie. Lena made the trip alone in 1934 when she was 13.
That left only Leibel who, by the late 1930s, was a grown man with a wife and two children. But money to finance Leibel’s exodus was harder to come by than it once was for my father, who now had with him a family of five to shelter, feed and clothe. Plus, if Leibel were to bring his family, the cost would skyrocket. My parents were making progress and staying in touch with Leibel by letter. Finally, they had enough money saved to finance passage to America for Leibel and his family, and they communicated the good news. Neither that letter, nor any subsequent correspondence to Leibel, was answered. My mother’s letters to her sisters? Also unanswered. My parents were frantic with concern that was very much justified.
We know now that, as part of the conquest of Poland, the Nazis occupied Ukraine, including Rovno. Their plan for Rovno’s Jews was simple — eliminate them. They did this in two great waves. In November 1941, the Germans marched more than 15,000 Jews to a pine grove in Sosenki Forest on the pretext of giving them new work assignments. There, the Jews were shot. The town’s remaining Jews, still more than 5,000, were herded into a ghetto, where they were left to eke out a meager existence . . . but not for long. In December 1942, Rovno’s remaining Jews were forced onto rail cars and taken to the forest near Kostopol, about 40 miles north of Rovno, where the Nazis executed them.
I can’t begin to describe for you the sense of loss I feel for the brother I never met … and never would meet.
I wanted to find some way to express those emotions and provide a fitting memorial for all the victims and serve as a reminder that we could not let such a thing happen again.
A few years ago, I was introduced to Michael Kraus, a talented sculptor and fellow congregant at Temple Ohav Shalom in Pittsburgh’s North Hills. The temple had been planning a Holocaust memorial, and I agreed to underwrite the work Michael would design, sculpt and install. The initial sketches Michael shared with me didn’t evoke a sense of horror. I challenged him:
“Create something that people will go out of their way to see. Create something that will hit them in the heart.”
The statue he ultimately designed and crafted, which now stands in the temple’s Holocaust Memorial Garden, is vastly different. We see a man, face invisible, hooded by his tallit, his prayer shawl. His shoulders are bent, perhaps in prayer, perhaps in pain. The tzitzit, the fringes of the tallit that emerge from his sleeves, aren’t made of cloth. They’re barbed wire, much like manacles, suggesting the fences enclosing Nazi concentration camps. It’s stark, moving and unforgettable. Once when I was contemplating the memorial, the shadows and light were wavering in such a way that I imagined I saw silhouettes of Nazis on the temple walls. I felt my eyes tearing.
He hit me in the heart.