Roland Rich describes his survivor mother as someone who was "never in denial about her Holocaust experiences," but as someone who "refused to be defined by them." Her vivaciousness and unquenchable zest for life and for joy could not be destroyed by her Holocaust experiences. Her example inspired Roland in his life and his successful diplomatic career. Roland's story follows:
My mother, Babette Rich (née Straussman), survived Auschwitz. My father, Herbert Rolleder, fought for the British Army in North Africa in WWII. The war deeply impacted their lives, but they tried their best to minimize its impact on the lives of their children, me and my older brother Georges.
We know a lot about my mother’s life because she used to tell us stories. We have had to piece together the facts of my father’s life because he died when his sons were young, and he kept much of his past to himself. What we have learned comes from meagre documentary evidence such as his military service documents, and from snippets we picked up from people who knew him. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Vienna who sent him to study at a rabbinical college in Strasbourg from which he made his escape to the bright lights of Paris. Upon the outbreak of the war, he made his way to London to enlist. After the war he returned to Paris. My earliest memories of him are from Paris. He is drinking an expresso, smoking a Gauloise, and reading a fat French book with crinkle cut edges. It was the Gauloises that finally got him. Not a single member of his Viennese family survived the Holocaust, and my armchair psychoanalysis is that, having been the black sheep of the family who ran away from home, he never escaped his survivor’s guilt.
My mother was born in 1922 into a comfortable home as one of 6 children in the town of Uzhhorod (Ush‐horod), which was once a part of the Austro‐Hungarian empire, then became a part of Czechoslovakia before being claimed by the Soviet Union and is now part of Ukraine. This helps explain why she spoke seven languages. She learned Czech, Hungarian, German and Russian as a child, picked up Polish in the concentration camp and finally learned French and English in her post‐war migrations. Growing up in a town rather than a shtetel, the daughter of a businessman who sold typewriters and who, like my father, died while his children were young, Babette did not speak Yiddish at home, but she picked up a bit in later life. She was the youngest of the 6 children and the last to pass away, just 2 weeks short of her 97th birthday.
As Hungarian speakers, the family was initially spared the Nazi horrors, but they were eventually rounded up and sent by train to Auschwitz where the mother was instantly selected for death. Four of the six children survived. Babette returned to Czechoslovakia where she became quite successful in black market commodity dealings. Her oldest sister’s new husband, Jack, was a senior police chief and Babette would surreptitiously use his chauffeur-driven limousine to transport her illicit goods. Until, that is, Uncle Jack found out!
The siblings thought they had found a brand new life until that fateful day in 1948 when the Soviet army took over the country. As if the nightmare of Auschwitz wasn’t enough, she now needed to go through the ordeal of an eleventh-hour escape in the dead of night, without money or papers. She said that the 10 days of her escape to France were as bad as the year she spent in Auschwitz because of the terrible fear of being captured at any moment. The four siblings ended up in four different European cities; Paris, Brussels, London, and Munich.
I doubt very much that my parents fell in love at first sight. It was a match engineered by the Jewish community in Paris between the forlorn former soldier and the newly arrived desperate refugee, from which two children quickly arrived. My mother’s other sister and her husband lived in Brussels but migrated to Sydney, Australia, and pleaded with Babette to follow them there. I am sure my father loathed the idea, but my mother’s insistence to “start a new life” away from the old world, the world of the Holocaust, won the day.
I was six and my brother eight when we landed in Sydney. My father died a few years later, but although we were poor, my new country always filled me with optimism and hope. I recall many scenes from those early days, but I have no memory of not knowing English! We already spoke French and German, and my brother and I picked up the new language at public school in a matter of days. Georges became a noted architect and his contribution to his new country can be seen in bricks and mortar, or more accurately, in glass and steel. I became a lawyer, and then joined the Australian foreign service with postings in Paris, Rangoon, Manila and, in my early forties, as Ambassador in Vientiane, Laos.
Babette was a widow, but she was intelligent and attractive, and she attracted plenty of suitors. They quickly realized that the path to her heart was guarded by two young boys who were not averse to succumbing to bribery in the form of gifts and rides in sports cars. The winning candidate was Eugene Rich, a successful manufacturer, who promptly adopted the two boys and gave us his name. The marriage began, however, with something of a crisis. At the registry office, Babette was asked her age and she calmly responded “36”, the same answer she had been giving for half a dozen years. Eugene had to intercede and convince her that the actual number started with a 4.
As a widow and a recent widower, their marriage was a modest affair capped by a small family dinner. But they were in love, and they wanted the whole world to know. The occasion to convey this information was my bar mitzvah. Whereas my brother’s bar mitzvah a year before the marriage had been marked by a small kiddush prepared by my mother, my bar mitzvah was a regal affair that seemed to tumble all weekend from one event to the next. Adding up the contents of the many envelopes, I would never again think of myself as poor.
It is a rare privilege for teenage children to see their mother as a love-struck newlywed. Babette and Eugene led hectic social lives and had no time for helicopter parenting. As long as our grades were good and our appetites strong, the two boys were free to pursue their lives as they felt fit. When one considers that this was the era of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, it is a small miracle that Georges and I survived it.
Advancing the calendar a decade or so, Babette is no longer a newlywed and though she and Eugene continued to lead an active social life, she needed to find a new outlet for her energies. In the space of a few short years, she became one of Australia’s foremost porcelain painters, working for hours in her glassed‐in studio and firing her plates and vases in the kiln in the garage. She held eleven exhibitions and sold hundreds of pieces.
When Babette turned sixty, she developed a new passion, that of being a guide at the Sydney Jewish Museum She told people about her experiences during the Holocaust. It was not that she had previously been silent about her personal tragedy; after all, the Auschwitz number tattooed on her arm was a daily reminder. She told her children and six grandchildren about this period, but she was too busy leading her life to allow it to slow her down. It was in her 60s and 70s that she dedicated herself to these memories. I recall an afternoon when I dropped by at the museum while she was guiding a group of school children. I tagged along. In my eyes, she simply remained my mother. But when I looked at the faces of the children, they saw her as a living treasure.
Babette was never in denial about her holocaust experiences, but she refused to be defined by them. She had an indomitable spirit to “pursue happiness”. And I learned from her example. I drew on her cosmopolitan life experience in my diplomatic career by putting myself in the place of my various interlocutors to try to see the world from their perspectives. I drew on her love of art to seek out beauty in places as varied as European museums and Buddhist pagodas. And I adopted her hopeful belief in modernity.
I left the foreign service to become the foundation director of the Centre for Democratic Institutions, Australia’s democracy promotion body. This exciting work was to assist parliaments and judiciaries in the newly emerged democracies of the Asia-Pacific, often by drawing on Australia’s unbroken century of democratic practice. After seven years, I accepted a fellowship from the National Endowment for Democracy in DC to write a book on this subject - Pacific Asia in Quest of Democracy, 2007, Lynne Rienner Publishers.
The dedication in the book reads:
To my mother, Babette Rich Auschwitz number A-13741, who survived the worst, to give me and my brother, Georges, the best
A couple of years later I was selected by the United Nations to become the first Executive Head of the newly established UN Democracy Fund which supports “voice” projects by civil society organizations in countries of the global South. In the seven years I spent at the UN, I participated in many conferences, one of which was held in Krakow, Poland. This is an hour away from Auschwitz, so, of course, I took the tour. The contrast between the elegant Austro-Hungarian city of Krakow and the wilds of Birkenau, the camp of wooden barracks on the other side of the railway tracks from Auschwitz where all women prisoners were kept, could not be greater. No more than fifteen percent of Birkenau’s inmates survived, and I was in awe that my mother had miraculously emerged as one of them.
I retired from the UN in 2014 and took up a teaching post at Rutgers University. I am now the Director of the United Nations and Global Policy post-graduate program at Rutgers, New Brunswick, an hour by train from Penn Station, NY. The students are forever pressing me to tell them “stories from the field”, drawing on my experiences as a diplomat, an ambassador, and as head of a UN body. I often oblige them, but in my own mind, all the stories pale in comparison with the heroic story of my mother’s life.
Murray Hill, New York City 26 November 2021