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A voyage through good and evil

Truda Rosenberg's matter-of-fact stories of the Holocaust leave the reader to ponder humanity's actions -- and wanting to know more about the Ottawa psychologist's amazing life
By Paul Gessell, Ottawa Citizen
September 20, 2009

Truda Rosenberg will launch her memoir Unmasked on Sept. 22 from 5 to 8 p.m. at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington St., Salon A. She will give "an eyewitness account of life during the Shoah." Info: 613-943-1544.

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Truda Rosenberg can still hear the voices from 68 years ago telling her to jump.

It was 1941. The first-year university student from Lwow, Poland, was riding in a cattle train to Belzec, a Nazi death camp where a half million Jews were eventually slaughtered. Two men in the rail car where Truda had been shoved offered to help her escape through a small opening by the door. Gertruda Osterman, as Truda was then known, looked questioningly at the two aunts accompanying her.

"Jump, child," one of the aunts said.

Truda jumped. She survived. All the other members of her immediate family were killed in the Holocaust or, to use the Hebrew term she prefers, the Shoah.

The story of Truda Rosenberg, now 87 and a prominent Ottawa psychologist, is recorded in her newly published memoir Unmasked (Penumbra Press).

It's a slim book of only 94 pages, composed of a series of connected stories about Rosenberg's wartime experiences. The stories are not a complete recounting of those war years. This can be frustrating at times for the reader who desires to learn more about Rosenberg's adventures between the various stories.

But there is a reason for that format and for writing each story in an unemotional, matter-of-fact manner. Rosenberg wants the reader to ponder the larger issues about good and evil contained in the stories, rather than to focus on the dilemma faced by one young Polish woman.

And yes, there is good to be found among the horrors of the war in Rosenberg's stories.

Many people, at great risk to themselves, helped Rosenberg survive after she jumped from the train.

They include a deaf-mute Polish peasant girl in the forest, a famous poet, Zbigniew Jasinski, in Warsaw and a hairdresser who helped Rosenberg temporarily change her appearance so as to look less Jewish.

But in Rosenberg's stories, there are also hate and evil.

Rosenberg assumed a new identity after her escape from the train. She became known as Zofia Wolanowska, a Polish Christian. With that masquerade, she ended up as a slave labourer for the Nazis. But a Christian slave was still treated better than a Jewish prisoner. Again, she survived.

The false identity was retained for a few years after the war, even after she moved to England and became a nurse. The war had not ended anti-Semitism. Jews still faced discrimination. Rosenberg felt the need to hide.

In a climactic scene in Unmasked, Rosenberg recalls having a cup of tea with colleagues at an English hospital in 1951.

"What a pity that Hitler did not kill all Jews," one of her co-workers said. Nobody reacted. Nobody, except Rosenberg. She challenged the hateful statement, declared her own Jewishness and then invited the group to her room. "We stopped at the door that displayed my name -- Zofia Wolanowska," Rosenberg writes. "I took the card down, turned it over and wrote -- Gertruda Osterman!"

Rosenberg reclaimed her identity that day. She unmasked herself and has not worn the mask since.

That same year, Rosenberg emigrated to Vancouver, where she became a public health nurse. In 1958, she moved to Ottawa and pursued a PhD in psychology. Later, she taught psychology at Haifa University in Israel, returned to Ottawa to open a private practice in clinical psychology and still travels internationally as a lecturer.

Rosenberg maintains an office and her psychology practice. Each time the telephone rings at her Riverside Drive condo, she runs to pick it up, in case it is a patient needing her counsel.

Despite having a big heart, Rosenberg can be crusty, combative and impatient. It can be difficult for a stranger to know when she is mischievously teasing and when she is really annoyed.

"You are lucky to have such an apartment," a visitor tells Rosenberg as he admires the view of the city and Gatineau Hills from her living room window and the many watercolours on the walls painted by her late husband, Imrich Yitzhak Rosenberg.

Luck had nothing to do with it, she snaps in reply. It was hard work and wise choices, she adds.

Another visitor, a woman, who addresses Rosenberg as "Ms.," is upbraided for failing to call her "Dr." and accused, falsely, it would seem, of thinking that women cannot be doctors.

A session with Dr. Rosenberg definitely keeps you on your toes. But she can also be generous and charming. And despite the calm, cool way in which she writes her wartime stories, the details can, when discussed 68 years later, bring her to tears.

One of the most heart-breaking anecdotes in Unmasked occurs the day after Truda jumped from the train. She encountered a boy, aged 5 or 6, in her path. She assumed the boy's parents had thrown him from a train en route to the death camp.

"Lady, please lady, take me with you," the boy said, "I have some money."

Truda did not take the boy. Instead, she directed him towards the houses of some Polish peasants.

"Where could I have taken him?" Rosenberg writes in Unmasked. "To this day, I look into the eyes of every man known to have survived the Shoah and hope that the little boy grew into one of them. Perhaps I could have taken care of him ... the memory is painful and will be as long as I live."

Rosenberg's eyes well up as she discusses this story in the book.

She never learned the fate of this boy. But she did learn the fate of another boy similarly tossed to safety.

While leafing through the pages of a photo album, Rosenberg points to a newspaper clipping about a young man in Israel. This man, when a boy, was thrown from the back of a truck by Rosenberg to escape a probable death by the Nazis.

"I gave him a life," Rosenberg says with a smile.

And before she can provide the details of this story, the doorbell rings, the photo album is shut and Rosenberg rushes to the door to greet more guests.

The story of Rosenberg saving this boy's life is not included in Unmasked. How many other remarkable stories has Rosenberg not included in her book?

A two-hour interview is over. Many questions remain. Several more hours would be needed to get all the answers about the wartime voices still heard by Gertruda Osterman.

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