By Dinah M. Mendes
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of a moving tribute to Rosa Strygler written by one of her close friends.
Rosa Strygler, a child survivor of Auschwitz, who died this past January at the age of 89, was a leading member of New York’s Holocaust Memorial Commission, which oversaw the design and development of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. She lent her unique blend of social charm and business acumen to the ambitious fund-raising campaign that turned the project into a reality, and the Museum finally opened in 1997. But long before that, beginning in 1985, she had begun inviting young adults in their 20s to a Holocaust discussion group held in her apartment. They were almost all children of survivors – second generation – and they were the core of what would become the Associates Division of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. In November 1987, Rosa led 700 young people in a Kristallnacht Remembrance March, and in 1988 she organized and led one of the first Holocaust memorial trips to Poland.
In the same time period of activity but in a personal vein, in 1987 Rosa published her personal story in a memoir entitled Rosa: A Story of Two Survivals, as told to Abraham Shulman. Her account reveals the inescapable intersection of two traumatic periods of her life, separated by time and place and radically different from each other: the destruction of her family and life in Poland, and the tragedy that came to infiltrate her newly established life in America. In grappling with these agonizing ruptures, Rosa emerged with a voice and a narrative that enabled her both to assume a public role as an activist – spearheading educational and institutional commemoration of the Holocaust – and to write her own story. Holocaust stories are at once intensely personal and, in their function as testimonials, part of the public domain. Rosa’s story is both familiar in its through-line and punctuated by unique twists and turns.
Holocaust survivors evoke an almost instinctive veneration by virtue of their emergence alive from a genocidal plot and in their capacity to withstand incalculable loss and suffering. For Jews in particular they embody Jewish perpetuity and the inextinguishable Jewish spirit. Holocaust survivors (perhaps survivors in general) are ourselves writ large: they stir us to question whether we, exposed to such eradication of our worlds, repeated extinguishing of our spirit, and demonstration of human evil, could have endured and found the strength and courage to live on and start over. Notwithstanding the very broad spectrum of life experience, in the end, we are all survivors of one kind or another because no one goes through life unchallenged by obstacles and setbacks, as well as choices about how to meet them.
Rosa survived the camps and was fortunate to live most of her adult life in comfort and even luxury. But this does not obscure or even lessen the strength of her battle to survive life-shattering loss and destruction and her determination to put something good in their place. With courage, grace, and optimism, she inhabited beauty in place of ugliness and brutality and chose to foster her own life spirit and that of others.