Arrivals: Two matriarchs

Arrivals Two matriarchs

November 19, 2009 14:27
Jeaninne Sternberg 248

Jeaninne Sternberg 248. (photo credit: )

'Making the decision to have child - it's momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." This Elizabeth Stone quotation hangs framed in the Jerusalem apartment of Jeaninne Sternberg. She made aliya to this flat with her mother, Elizabeth Neuman, who died in September at age 98. It is easy to understand why this imagery resonated with the two. When Neuman gave birth to her daughter in prewar Paris, it began an unusually close relationship. Whether it was Neuman finding a place to safeguard her little girl from the Nazis, or Sternberg welcoming her mother into her household 44 years ago, these women never hesitated to share heart and home. Naturally they made aliya together. LIFE IN EUROPE Born in 1911 in the Hungarian village of Monok, Neuman dreamed of life in a bigger city. In 1930, a cousin arrived from Paris on her honeymoon wearing a stunning lace dress. Neuman, already a talented designer and seamstress, was smitten. When the newlyweds returned to Paris, she went with them. In 1934, she married Jules Neuman, who'd come to Paris from Romania at age 17. In December 1938, Jeaninne was born. In the summer, the family took the 32-hour train ride once again to visit Monok after Jules finished his compulsory military service. Like many other French citizens, they had not believed the tidings they'd heard from Eastern European refugees arriving in France. But two weeks into their family visit, Jules Neuman was summoned back by the army. It would be another six years before his wife and daughter saw him again. Hitler's troops arrived on the Champs-Elysées in June 1940, and Jules Neuman was taken as a French prisoner of war. Because of his German-sounding name and fluency in German, his Jewish identity was never discovered. He was put to work in a horse butchery in Germany and remained there until the end of the war, escaping a worse fate. As life for Jews in France grew precarious and yellow stars were sewn on their coats, Elizabeth Neuman and a friend found a Catholic boarding school willing to take in their daughters under assumed names. They were allowed to visit every Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. Sternberg remembers little of those three years, aside from her mother's sanctioned two-hour visits each Sunday afternoon after the girls returned from church services. "If you can picture the Madeline books [a classic 1940s children's series by Ludwig Bemelmans about a French orphanage, in which all the girls were dressed the same], that was what we looked like," says Sternberg with a laugh. Neuman eventually went into hiding with a relative outside Paris until the end of the war. She was later reunited with Jules and Jeaninne. "Mama put me on his lap and said, 'That's your father,' and I said, 'If you say so,'" Sternberg recalls. OFF TO CANADA When she was nearly 20, Jeaninne went to visit her mother's two surviving sisters in Hamilton, Ontario. Next door to one of her aunts, she met Hungarian Holocaust survivor Zoltan Sternberg. She married him six months later and stayed in Hamilton. The next year, after wrapping up their affairs in France, her parents arrived. "I was their only child, and they wanted to be with me," says Sternberg. Daughters Shelley and Yvette were born in 1961 and 1963, respectively. In February 1963, Jules Neuman was killed in a car accident, and Elizabeth moved in across the hall from the Sternbergs. "In 1965, we bought our first house and Mama came with us," remembers Sternberg. They remained together until Neuman's death shortly before Rosh Hashana this year. THE ROAD TO ALIYA The Sternbergs sent their daughters to a small new Zionist day school in Hamilton. Both girls chose to continue at a Bnei Akiva high school in Toronto. The family first visited Israel in 1968. Neuman came in 1977 as a Hadassah convention delegate. Yvette made aliya in 1993 with her husband and three children; two more were born here. They live in Ma'aleh Adumim. Shelley followed suit in 2000 with her husband and four children, and they now reside in Jerusalem within walking distance of Sternberg. For years before making aliya, the Sternbergs flew over from Canada for every life-cycle event. "The last year of my husband's life, we were here four times," says Sternberg. Zoltan died just two weeks after a granddaughter's December 2002 bat mitzva. In early 2005, Sternberg decided it was time to live near her children and grandchildren. "When I asked Mama if she wanted to come, she said to me, 'Wherever you go, I go,'" she recalls with a smile. They bought an apartment in the capital's Baka neighborhood that spring, sold the house in Hamilton and made aliya in October with the help of the Toronto aliya emissary. SETTLING IN Sternberg, who worked for 25 years as a court interpreter in French and Hungarian, also speaks English fluently and has steadily been improving her Hebrew at ulpan, which she continues to attend. "I met such nice people at Ulpan Mitchell," she says. "I've made all my friends there." She does needlepoint, attends Judaic studies classes and keeps fit with activities including yoga and aerobics. She and her mother joined the nearby Yedidya Synagogue and would frequently entertain guests and attend concerts at the Jerusalem Theater. Sternberg hopes to resume these activities after the mourning period for her mother. LIFE IN ISRAEL Sternberg finds much to appreciate about Israel. "I love the climate and I love the people," she says. "It's never easy to make a change. But I was privileged to have the support of my two daughters, and we had an easier time adjusting than most." She takes great pride in her children and grandchildren, several of whom are serving in the Israel Defense Forces. In July, she was thrilled to watch one of her grandsons competing on the Israeli baseball team in the Maccabiah Games. "Wherever you go in Israel, you always feel that you belong, that you are a part of a whole big family," she says. "When I go to Canada I don't feel I belong there anymore. This is home!"

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