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AL MARTINEZ

Her Name Is Rose

February 04, 1995|AL MARTINEZ

Rose Toren doesn't look her age. She is blessed with one of those faces that is full of life and animation, and wears an expression which, even in repose, bears the faint trace of a smile. Her manner is ebullient, her laughter quick. It's difficult to think of her as a survivor.

Survivors are supposed to be haunted and mean, living in the shadows of their past, glaring back in anger at the travails they suffered. Rose Toren, at 70, looks back, shudders and forgives.

That is not to say, 50 years later, she remembers Auschwitz with any redeeming qualities. It was a place of death and horror, and Rose Toren, a Jew passing as a Christian, lived every day in fear and shame; terrified that she would be found out, ashamed that she had to deny her heritage to live.

Today, she proclaims her identity boldly, as though to compensate for the four years she spent as a young girl hiding inside of herself.

"I can't explain how it is to be someone else," she told me the other day in her Spanish-style Beverly Hills home. The weather outside was radiant after the storms of January. Sunlight streamed through the windows.

"I could tell no one who I was, so I had no one. I would talk to the person within, to myself. I would pretend. . . ."

It was, she explains, a question of clinging to a tenuous strand of life, of visualizing a day that existed out there somewhere, when the horror was past.

*

I was introduced to Toren through her book, "Destiny." It tells of her journey out of her native Poland in World War II, her incarceration at Auschwitz as a political prisoner and her eventual escape.

Born Rosalia Orenstein into a traditional Jewish family, she became Kazimiera Lukashuk, a displaced Polish Christian, when the Nazis began their blitzkrieg of terror across Europe.

A Catholic schoolmate, Urszula Grande, whose father was mayor of a small town, helped Rose obtain the papers that established her new identity.

Only once did she tell someone who she really was out of desperation to be herself. "I am a Jew," she whispered to a woman she thought was a friend, and that brief admission sent her to Auschwitz.

But to the Nazis, she continued to maintain her assumed identity with such tenacity that, according to Toren, "They shrugged and said, 'Whoever she is, send her to Auschwitz, she'll die there anyhow.'

"They were never sure, so I was spared the ovens," she said to me, the faint smile twitching at the corners of her mouth, then fading suddenly.

"I knitted sweaters a quarter of a mile from the gas chambers. I could see the people off the train line up for 'showers.' They would push each other to be first. They thought they would be clean and report for work."

In the concentration camp, she was recognized by a close friend as Rosalia Orenstein. "I looked her in the eyes and said 'No, I'm not that person, you're mistaken' and walked away. It had to be."

She escaped from Auschwitz only days before the Russians liberated its occupants, and fled one step ahead of the Nazis.

*

"Destiny" is a trip back in time in memory and reality. Rose returned to Poland in 1985 in search of Urszula Grande, who had saved her life. She didn't find her then, but she did last August during a second trip.

What she found in Lublin, Poland, was a grave, unkempt and overgrown with weeds. Urszula had died some years before at the age of 60, and was all but forgotten in the rush of events since then. But Rose Toren could not forget.

She spent several hundred dollars for a fenced grave site and a headstone, and still sends money for flowers to be placed at the grave. She had the headstone engraved with the notation that it was from Rose.

"I could not say she had saved the life of a Jew," Toren said, "because even now they would desecrate the grave. That still goes on. But I am not saying all Polish people are bad. How could I? One of them saved my life."

A widow (her husband, Jack Toren, died in 1993), Rose recalls with clarity the terror she endured but is not obsessed by it. Survivors reach for something better, knowing that horror, even at its worst, passes.

Her most enduring memory deals with the war's end. She returned home and learned that her entire family and all her relatives, 50 of them, had been murdered by the Nazis.

She remembers hearing the news, stumbling to the nearest house, knocking on the door and saying, "I'm a Jewish girl and I want to leave this country."

Then Rosalia Orenstein, shedding forever the cool identity she wore like a mask of survival, broke down and cried.

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