Aunt Rosa and my mother Berta were born one year apart. The two sisters lived together nearly all their lives. When the Nazis marched into Vienna, their native city, they were the ones who had children to worry about. Berta told her husband, who was planning their escape, “I’m not leaving without Rosa and her family.” And so my father did what was necessary to get papers for three more refugees.
In Vienna, Rosa and her husband Sigi had a shop where they sold creams and perfumes to the ladies. They bought from Rosa because they wanted to have the same lovely skin and hair that Rosa always had. She never used the creams at all. Rosa loved the business and her city, but, to save her daughter, she left it all.
We fled to Uruguay, South America, where she stayed at home and cooked and cleaned and took care of the three children: her daughter Edith, 11, her niece Lise, 2, and her nephew Peter, 3. She rarely left the house, never learned to speak Spanish, and had little contact with anyone outside the family. She never got along with Berta’s husband, William, and that made for a stressful household. William had an explosive temper, and Rosa always wanted to protect my mother.
Rosa was shy with strangers, but she was very strict with the children. She made wonderful strudels, which she walked around the corner to the baker’s brick oven, and they would bake her delicious concoctions. The bakers called her “the snake lady” because her strudels were long tubes and were snaked around the baking pan. I loved watching her make them. She used a floral-printed tablecloth on which she stretched out the floured dough till you could see the flowers showing through. Such a delicate process! She would then sprinkle the apples and raisins and nuts on one end of the sheet of dough, and last came the shower of sugar and cinnamon. Then she would lift the edge of the tablecloth and use it to gently roll the mixture over and over to make the layers of dough to cover it all. The ends were pinched together to hold in the filling. The last part of the process was to carefully coil it on to the pan without tearing any of the tissue-thin dough. I was mesmerized by the process and often walked with her to the bakery to watch them slide it into the huge brick oven. Even better was going with her to pick up her masterpiece after it was baked, knowing that, when we got home, I would get a hot piece of her wonder strudel.
When we migrated to the United States, she was once again on alien territory and kept to herself. Her passion was the movie magazines. She did not go to the movies much, but she loved the movie stars. I don’t know if she could actually read English, but she loved the pictures. All those beautiful people and their exciting lives captured her imagination somehow.
In Richmond, Virginia, Berta worked in her brothers’ business, the New York Delicatessen. Rosa stayed home and cooked and baked and looked after the children, since we all lived in a duplex as one extended family. She began to bake for the delicatessen, and her strudels and tortes were famous all over the city. Much later in her life, she began to actually work in the store, and she somehow regained her passion for being in business. It was the one place where she flourished, and it was wonderful to see.
Her daughter Edith married young and mothered two sons, and Rosa adored the boys. They were the only grandchildren in the family at that time. Our family was growing, and it gave us joy.
Aunt Rosa loved my six children as well, and they loved her. When we came from Chicago to visit, she cooked and baked for them while they watched and tasted. Everything was so delicious! My kids would walk with her to the corner when she left to go work in the store.
Edith and I used to say how lucky we were to have two mothers. We said that, even if we were to lose one of them, we would still have another mother. The two sisters, who always lived together and looked enough alike that people mistook them for one another, were quite inseparable. My father was always jealous of their close relationship, and animosity between Rosa and him mellowed but never ceased.
In the summer of 1973, Rosa and Berta died five weeks apart of the same illness. It was cancer that started in their lungs and traveled to their brains. Neither of them had ever smoked a cigarette in their lives. Rosa and Berta had a bond of love that is very rare, and they were not going to be separated even by death.
The two people in the world that I was sure of, that loved me unconditionally, were both gone in five weeks. I think I was in shock for a while. I was only thirty-five years old, and I felt orphaned. To this day, thirty-five years later, I cannot think of one of them without thinking of the other.
April 1, 2008