Interview with John and Jean Rosenberg, July 1, 2016

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries

 

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00:00:00 - Family background in Magdeburg, Germany and the importance of Judaism in his early life

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Partial Transcript: Okay. It’s July 1st, 2016. I’m Arwen Donahue. And I’m with John Rosenberg.

Segment Synopsis: Born in Magdeburg, Germany on October 7th, 1931, John Rosenberg begins the interview by discussing the importance of Judaism in his family's life growing up. His father was a Jewish schoolteacher and assisted the local rabbi while his mother kept a kosher household. He notes that although they were not an orthodox household, they still kept traditions and religion played a significant part in their lives. His father's grandfather and great-grandfather were both rabbis, therefore Judaism and keeping Jewish tradition played an important role in his family's background as well. John Rosenberg's father, Rudolf, was raised primarily by his mother after his father died at a young age. Rosenberg's father also completed his Jewish education at seminary before becoming a Jewish schoolteacher and assisting their local community's rabbi. John Rosenberg's mother, Gerta, lived in Idar-Oberstein, Germany where her father owned a non-kosher butcher shop. Rosenberg's parents met in Idar-Oberstein after his father moved there to be a religious schoolteacher. His mother was a student of his father's. Lastly, John Rosenberg briefly mentions his siblings, Harry and Teresa-Joan, who both live in Raleigh, North Carolina today.

Keywords: Butcher shops; Family; Fathers; Germany; Idar-Oberstein (Germany); Jewish; Jewish education; Jewish practices; Jewish tradition; Kosher; Magdeburg (Germany); Marriage; Orthodox Judaism; Rabbis; Raleigh (N.C.); Schoolteachers; Synagogue services

Subjects: Families.; Family histories.; Genealogy; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

GPS: Magdeburg (Germany)
Map Coordinates: 52.1205, 11.6276
00:08:56 - Earliest memories of the rise of the Nazi regime in 1933

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Partial Transcript: And would you describe your memories of the--the Nazi regime came to power in 1933, when you were very--too young to remember.

Segment Synopsis: Although too young to remember much of the rise of the Nazi regime in 1933, John Rosenberg notes that his strongest memories are of his parents and from photographs that he has seen. When he started school in the first grade, Rosenberg remembers Hitler's decree that Jewish students would be separated from Aryan children. This decree led to his father organizing a school for Jewish schoolchildren where he attended first grade in Magdeburg, Germany. He briefly discusses his nephew, Dan Rosenberg, and his research of the "Magdeburger Jews" who migrated primarily to Australia. He notes that many of the people interviewed during his nephew's research describe their experiences in schools as very negative and were relieved to see segregation, which was surprising to him. Rosenberg then recalls the night of Kristallnacht on November 11th, 1938, which he remembers very clearly. He remembers gathering with his family in the courtyard and watching the Nazis burn all of the Torahs and prayer books and eventually dynamiting the interior of the synagogue. He recalls his father's arrest and his mother making a sandwich for his father before the Storm Troopers took him away.

Keywords: Adolf Hitler; Germany; Jewish schools; Kristallnacht; Magdeburg (Germany); Magdeburg, Germany; Memories; Nazism; Segregation; Torah (scroll)

Subjects: Anti-Semitism; Antisemitism; Discrimination.; Family histories.; Hitler, Adolf, 1889-1945.; Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945); Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion

GPS: Magdeburg (Germany)
Map Coordinates: 52.1205, 11.6276
00:18:12 - Immediate and extended family's oppression during Nazi regime

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Partial Transcript: And you mentioned that much of your extended family that you were with in Frankfurt were later killed.

Segment Synopsis: John Rosenberg begins by talking briefly about his extended family's ancestry in Friesland, Germany, naming his grandfather's sisters and their husbands. He then focuses on his family's oppression during the Nazi regime, including his time in a detention center for Jewish refugees in Rotterdam, Holland. He mentions that some of his extended family were sent to Auschwitz concentration camp where they were then murdered. Fortunately, his mother and father's immediate family made it to the United States in 1936 before they faced that kind of oppression. While in the Jewish detention center, John Rosenberg's father started a school for the Jewish children. During this time, the Dutch government heard that his father was conducting this school and wanted him to relocate to a transit camp in Westerbork, Holland. His father knew, however, that this is where Jews went before they were taken to Auschwitz and turned down the offer. He speaks of his father seeking out a Jewish committee with whom he had connections for help with getting out of the country and relocating his family to the United States.

Keywords: Auschwitz (Concentration camp); Concentration camps; Education; Family life; Frankfurt (Germany); Frankfurt, Germany; Jewish education; New York; Rotterdam (Holland); Rotterdam, Holland; Segregation; Trains

Subjects: Anti-Semitism; Antisemitism; Discrimination.; Emigration and immigration.; Family histories.; Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945); Immigrants; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion

GPS: Auschwitz concentration camp, Poland
Map Coordinates: 50.0274, 19.2020
00:29:20 - Family's immigration to the United States in 1940

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Partial Transcript: So you came on a ship--you left on a ship in 1940. It was one of the last ships to leave Holland before World War II?

Segment Synopsis: John Rosenberg and his immediate family immigrated to the United States on one of the last ships leaving Holland in 1940 before World War II broke out. He recalls how his uncle and grandmother did not make it out of Europe before the war started and were relocated to a concentration camp. His uncle, Zemi, died in the concentration camp and his grandmother was relocated to another concentration camp where she was killed in 1944. Rosenberg reflects on his time on the ship where he saw his first colorized movie, "The Wizard of Oz", even though he could not speak English. After arriving in New York, he and his family moved into his mother's family's apartment in Washington Heights. He describes the name-changing process when they arrived at Ellis Island where his German name, Hans, was changed to John. His middle name was also changed back to its original name before Hitler's decree to give Jews the middle names of "Israel" and "Sarah." His dad, however, felt strongly about the country of Israel and wanted to keep the middle name for himself.

Keywords: Adolf Hitler; Concentration camps; Ellis Island (N.Y.); Holland; Holland America Line; New York; Nuremberg Laws; Washington Heights (N.Y.); Washington Heights, New York; Westerbork; Wizard of Oz; World War II

Subjects: Anti-Semitism; Antisemitism; Discrimination.; Emigration and immigration.; Family histories.; Hitler, Adolf, 1889-1945.; Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945); Immigrants; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; World War, 1939-1945

GPS: Ellis Island (N.Y.)
Map Coordinates: 40.6995, -74.0396
00:38:52 - Transition to Spartanburg, South Carolina's Jewish community in 1941

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Partial Transcript: I'm just gonna summarize a little bit, in the interest of time, since, uh, the--you have such a rich life story...

Segment Synopsis: Due to the vast amount of immigrants in New York at the time, John Rosenberg's father moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina to conduct services at the local synagogue. He also conducted services in Gastonia, North Carolina on the weekends because neither place had a rabbi. John and his family moved to Spartanburg shortly after in 1941. He enrolled in school there. He recalls picking up English easily while he was in New York though his parents struggled to learn the language as quickly.

Keywords: Assimilation; English language; Gastonia (N.C.); Gastonia, North Carolina; German Jews; Jewish businesses; Jewish communities; Public schools; Rabbis; Religious practices; Spartanburg (S.C.); Spartanburg, South Carolina; Synagogue services

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Family histories.; Immigrants; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

GPS: Spartanburg (S.C.)
Map Coordinates: 34.9496, -81.9320
00:46:45 - Early non-Jewish experiences and thoughts on anti-Semitism

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Partial Transcript: So you were f--you went to a public school and your fr, your friends were not necessarily Jewish.

Segment Synopsis: John Rosenberg discusses his experiences at a predominantly Christian scout camp where he served as camp chaplain. He participated in prayers and sometimes he sang Christian hymns, recalling that it did not bother him much. As he discusses other experiences in the non-Jewish community, he reflects on his views on anti-Semitism and the fact that he hasn't faced any overt prejudice during his time in the scouts or since he came to the United States. He then talks about his life today and how he and his wife have good relations with the local Christian community, volunteering at the Presbyterian church's service ministry programs.

Keywords: Baptists; Boy Scouts of America; Civic scene; Congregations; Gastonia (N.C.); Gastonia, North Carolina; High schools; Israel; Jewish communities; Jewish organizations; Prejudice; Presbyterian churches; Public schools; Quakerism; Racism; Religious practices; Social scene; Tyron (N.C.); Tyron, North Carolina

Subjects: Anti-Semitism; Antisemitism; Discrimination.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion

00:58:41 - Jewish identity in the United States

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Partial Transcript: So going back a bit, to when you arrived in the United States and your, your education had been interrupted by Nazism and war and coming, uh, overseas and being, being a refugee...

Segment Synopsis: John Rosenberg reflects on Jewish history, noting the resiliency of the Jews even after thousands of years of oppression. He describes the rituals that his family tried to continue when they came to the United States such as keeping Sabbath and going to the synagogue. Because they lived in the south, he admitted that it was harder to keep traditions the same. Jewish merchant stores were open on Saturdays which led many of the local congregations to become Reform congregations. He discusses the congregation at Temple Emanuel in Gastonia, North Carolina and how he attended Sunday school there. He received instruction every week from the rabbi at the same temple in Gastonia leading up to his Bar Mitzvah. Although not the most important thing in his life, Rosenberg says that his Jewish identity has been a very big part of his life. His family kept the High Holidays and he has kept those traditions going in his house today.

Keywords: Bar mitzvahs; Congregations; Conservative Judaism; Culture; Gastonia (N.C.); Gastonia, North Carolina; High holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur); Jewish Family Services; Jewish communities; Jewish history; Jewish identity; Jewish tradition; Kashrut (see also Kosher food); Nazism; Orthodox Judaism; Passover (also Pesach); Reform Judaism; Religious services; Shabbat (also Shabbos, Sabbath); Sunday school; Synagogue services

Subjects: Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

GPS: Gastonia (N.C.)
Map Coordinates: 35.2621, -81.1873
01:09:08 - Thoughts on the notion of justice in Judaism and continuing Jewish tradition

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Partial Transcript: I guess I’m wondering what about that you have carried with you, over the course of your life?

Segment Synopsis: John Rosenberg begins by quoting Isaiah in the Old Testament, "Justice, justice shall you pursue," when asked about the notion of justice within Judaism. Although he has spent time on many civil rights projects, he doesn't believe he does those things because he is Jewish, but because it is the "right thing to do." He transitions to a discussion on the congregation he and his wife attend today in Huntington, West Virginia. He also carries on traditions at home such as abbreviated, Friday night services called "Kiddush" that they do today.

Keywords: Civic involvement; Congregations; Eastern Kentucky; Family values; Huntington (W. Va.); Huntington, West Virginia; Jewish communities; Jewish identity; Jewish religion; Jewish tradition; Judaism; Prestonsburg (Ky.); Prestonsburg, Kentucky; Synagogue services

Subjects: Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

GPS: Huntington (W. Va.)
Map Coordinates: 38.4192, -82.4452
01:15:37 - Family's transition to Eastern Kentucky in 1970

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Partial Transcript: So this is a, this is a big leap but since we’re focusing, in this project, on Jewish communities in Kentucky, um, I want to ask about your decision to move to Kentucky, in 1970.

Segment Synopsis: John Rosenberg and his wife, Jean, were in the Civil Rights Division during the Nixon administration. In a search for something different, John founded the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund in Eastern Kentucky in 1970. This business was involved with legal issues such as mineral rights and black lung, as well as serving underrepresented people in Appalachia. He describes how he was attracted to the interesting legal issues such as welfare rights and problems involving strip-mining. He decided to take the opportunity to help underrepresented people in the area.

Keywords: Appalachia; Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky, Inc. (AppalReD); Charleston, West Virginia; Civil rights; Coal mining; Eastern Kentucky; Jewish communities; Lawyers; Mountain People's Rights; Segregation; Welfare Rights Organization

Subjects: Charleston (W. Va.); Poverty--Appalachian Region; Prestonsburg (Ky.); Social reformers--Appalachian Region; Strip mining--Law and legislation--Appalachian Region

GPS: Prestonsburg (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 37.6657, -82.7715
01:32:41 - His children's lives today and the purchase of David, Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: So you have two children, Michael and Annie. Right? And, um, where are they now?

Segment Synopsis: John Rosenberg's son, Michael, currently lives in Northern Kentucky with his wife. His daughter, Annie, currently lives outside of Corydon, Indiana with her husband but she is a social worker in Louisville, Kentucky. Before getting her master's at the University of Louisville, Annie went to The David School, a former coal camp in David, Kentucky. John Rosenberg did a lot of the legal work that went along with purchasing the town and joined the Community Development Corporation which helped secure funding for the newly purchased town. The David School was formed in the community and it focused a lot on one-on-one education, which was why Rosenberg's daughter left public school to go there.

Keywords: Ashland (Ky.); Ashland, Kentucky; Child-rearing; Cincinnati (Ohio); Cincinnati, Ohio; Coal mining; David, Kentucky; High schools; Louisville (Ky.); Louisville, Kentucky; Marriage; Morehead (Ky.); Morehead, Kentucky; Newport (Ky.); Newport, Kentucky; Prestonsburg (Ky.); Prestonsburg, Kentucky; The David School

Subjects: David (Ky.); Education--Kentucky; Families.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Social reformers--Appalachian Region

GPS: David (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 37.5995, -82.8907
01:38:42 - Experiences in various Jewish communities

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Partial Transcript: How did you and Jean negotiate--so you talked about how you have--you worked out, uh, going sometimes to someone’s home for a Quaker service and sometimes to, uh, when it existed, the services in Williamson, West Virginia, at the synagogue.

Segment Synopsis: John Rosenberg begins the discussion talking about his wedding to his wife, Jean, who is a Quaker. He recalls that the ceremony was a Quaker meeting with a rabbi. As their kids were growing up, they attended the Reform congregation, Adath Israel, in Lexington, Kentucky for the holidays and periodically throughout the year. In the late nineties or early 2000s they started going to the congregation in Williamson, West Virginia. Because his wife is a Quaker, they joined local Quaker families in Eastern Kentucky for Quaker meetings in their homes.

Keywords: Ashland (Ky.); Ashland, Kentucky; Child-rearing; Coalfield Jews; Congregations; Conservative Judaism; High holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur); Intermarriage; Jewish Family Services; Jewish communities; Jewish tradition; Lexington (Ky.); Lexington, Kentucky; Marriage; Orthodox Judaism; Quakerism; Reform Judaism; Synagogue services; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue); Williamson, West Virginia

Subjects: Holidays.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Quakers.; Religion; Williamson (W. Va.); Worship (Judaism)

GPS: Williamson (W. Va.)
Map Coordinates: 37.6743, -82.2774
01:45:46 - His children's past and present spiritual lives

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Partial Transcript: Uh, the kids--I think I spent more time with Michael, probably, as he was growing up, in terms of being Jewish.

Segment Synopsis: John Rosenberg recalls that he spent more time with his son, Michael, in regards to Judaism. However, he says that his daughter, Annie, is a very spiritual person. He discusses his children's current spiritual lives, saying that if they remembered their Jewish heritage that that would be good enough for him. John believes his daughter, Annie, spends a lot of time thinking about the spiritual life today because of her cancer episode a few years back. As his children were growing up, Rosenberg taught his children from Jewish Sunday school books and took them to synagogue services. However, neither of children had bar or bat mitzvahs.

Keywords: Child-rearing; Coalfield Jews; Eastern Kentucky; History; Jewish; Jewish history; Jewish tradition; Judaism; Passover (also Pesach)

Subjects: Families.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

01:51:48 - John discusses raising children in a non-Jewish community

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Partial Transcript: Was it challenging at all to, to raise children in a small, predominantly Christian town and have them not be, uh, strongly identified with one particular religion?

Segment Synopsis: John Rosenberg begins by discussing the difference in his children's personalities, Annie being more social and Michael being more intellectual and reserved. He relates this with how Michael was treated in school by his teachers, having some negative experiences in the classroom regarding his religion. Before describing the situation, his wife, Jean, enters the interview.

Keywords: Bar mitzvahs; Bat mitzvahs; Books; Child-rearing; Christian religion; Congregations; Family life; Hanukkah (also Chanukah and other spellings); Jewish education; Memories; Prejudice; Religious life; Sunday school; Teachers

Subjects: Anti-Semitism; Antisemitism; Discrimination.; Families.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

01:56:26 - Jean and John discuss raising children in a non-Jewish community

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Partial Transcript: It just seems appropriate, since you were involved in--

Segment Synopsis: Jean Rosenberg begins by discussing her relationship with Judaism as a Quaker and how she has studied Judaism and the similarities of the two religions. She believes both traditions emphasize "tzedakah," healing the world, and giving to others. She notes that the religions just take a different approach on this principle. Returning to the situation with their son, Michael, and his teacher, Jean describes the scenario where his teacher laughed at her son for singing a Hebrew song and saying it sounded like "baby talk" to her. She does not mention that much confrontation was involved, but that she did have as strong presence in the school system so it was not unusual for her to be involved. They then discuss the dynamic of an interfaith marriage, saying they always celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah. They note that their interfaith marriage may have been hard for John's father to accept, but ultimately they loved Jean and were very tolerant of the situation. Jean Rosenberg feels that two traditions feed each other and that it's a continuum of history.

Keywords: Child-rearing; Education; Family life; Hanukkah (also Chanukah and other spellings); Holidays; Intermarriage; Jean Rosenberg; Jewish holidays; Jewish tradition; Prejudice; Public schools; Quakerism; Religious practices; Teachers

Subjects: Anti-Semitism; Antisemitism; Discrimination.; Families.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Quakers.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

02:06:10 - Connections with Jewish community in Eastern Kentucky / Appalachian Research and Defense Fund

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Partial Transcript: What about Jewish community, living in a, in a small town in eastern Kentucky?

Segment Synopsis: John and Jean Rosenberg discuss their relationship with the Jewish community in Eastern Kentucky. They note that their involvement in the synagogue was motivated largely by tradition and ritual and that sometimes relationships were a byproduct of their involvement. Because they don't live in a large city with a larger Jewish community, they haven't been able to be as involved in the social fabric aspect of the synagogue. In their hometown of Prestonsburg, they are the only Jewish family. John discusses his involvement in the local schools and churches where he talks about his faith and his personal history involving the Holocaust. John and Jean transition into a brief discussion on the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund (AppalReD), a legal aid program that John Rosenberg founded.

Keywords: Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky, Inc. (AppalReD); Civic involvement; Congregations; Eastern Kentucky; Intermarriage; Israel; Jewish communities; Jewish friends; Jewish tradition; Lawyers; Prestonsburg (Ky.); Prestonsburg, Kentucky; Stores; Synagogue services; Williamson (W. Va.); Williamson, West Virginia

Subjects: Families.; Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945); Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Social reformers--Appalachian Region; Worship (Judaism)

GPS: Prestonsburg (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 37.6657, -82. 7715
02:18:54 - The importance of Israel / Closing remarks

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned Israel. What is--what are your feelings about Israel?

Segment Synopsis: John and Jean Rosenberg discuss their trip to Israel in 1969 and John's cousin who still lives in Israel today. They think that Israel is an amazing country and wonder if there will ever be peace between Jews and non-Jews. They end the interview with closing remarks.

Keywords: Jewish education; Jewish persecution; Military service

Subjects: Israel.; Jewish families.

GPS: Israel
Map Coordinates: 31.0461, 34.8516