Most Mondays, Sylvia Rozines sits at a gray desk in the brick and glass atrium of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in the District, a name tag clipped to her shirt. To her left, on a red brick wall, hangs a banner that reads: “This Museum is not an answer. It is a question. — Elie Wiesel. ”
Museum patrons—a mix of families, school groups and international travelers—gather around Rozines to ask how she endured and survived the Holocaust. Most of the 80 survivors who volunteer at the museum now were children when World War II began. “One lady, she was the best speaker, she used to sit here Wednesdays,” Rozines says, her accent a mix of English, French and Yiddish. “But now she’s in a home. We are losing quite a few people.”
On this crowded day in late March, visitors jockey for one of the three seats on the other side of her desk. A few more form a row behind it and lean in to listen, while others mill about and catch snippets of the conversation.
“Where are you from?” Rozines asks visitors, and within a few minutes she’s met people from as far away as Australia. A woman from California with dark hair in two braids makes her way to a seat, introduces herself and places a copy of Yellow Star on the desk. The historical fiction book, published in 2006, is based on Rozines’ life—she and her family were among the estimated 270,000 people forced into Poland’s Lodz ghetto beginning in 1939. By the time the ghetto was liberated in 1945, roughly 800 survivors remained, according to the book. Of those, 12 were children. Rozines was one of them.
“May I sit and talk with you?” the woman asks.
Rozines takes the book and signs it, asking the woman to spell her name, Sharina. A mother and her middle- school-age daughter from Florida settle into the other two seats.
“You’re actually my highlight, you’re what I came for,” Sharina tells her. “I wanted to meet a survivor and hear your story—and try not to cry.”
Rozines opens a white folder and takes out pictures and a map of Poland with the Lodz ghetto marked on it. There’s one of Rozines and her sister, Dora, who is seven years older, lying on their stomachs in the grass on either side of their father. Another shows a young Sylvia—who was known then as Syvia Perelmuter—in pigtail braids (not unlike Sharina’s) and white kneesocks, with a wide smile.
“The dress had polka dots. I only have pictures up to this age,” Rozines says, explaining that she entered the ghetto before her fifth birthday. “I am one of the youngest survivors.”
The blue-eyed mother and daughter lean in closer to look at the photos. “How did you survive?” the daughter asks.
The answer to that question is something Rozines didn’t talk about for decades. “I happened to have a very courageous father,” she tells her. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be alive.”
The photographs Rozines shares of her childhood are also part of a collage that hangs on a wall in her Montgomery County apartment, where she likes to spend time reading and keeping up with the news. A woman from the library at her synagogue often drops off books for her. She’s finished several about Holocaust survivors, and has been the subject of one, and at one point she felt she’d read enough. Then someone gave her a copy of Abe-vs-Adolf, a story about a teenager who survived five years as a prisoner in nine different concentration camps. “Once I started to read it, I couldn’t stop,” she says.
At 83, Rozines is enjoying what she calls her “American life.” She visits her son, her only child, and grandchildren in nearby Virginia. She has an affinity for La Madeleine’s tomato basil soup and likes going out for Chinese food because she can’t cook that at home. After years of hunger as a child, it took Rozines a while to adjust to eating some meals. “When I used to be fussy and I didn’t like certain foods it was easier to keep skinny,” she says with a laugh.
A widow for nearly two decades, she enjoys going to the theater and seeing movies with friends. “I like good stories,” says Rozines, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1957. “Years ago, my favorite movie was Casablanca. I watched it many, many times. If I was depressed, I’d watch that movie. I used to watch All in the Family reruns, too, when I needed something light.”
Once a week, a driver arrives at Rozines’ home to take her to the Holocaust Museum, where she’s been talking to visitors as a volunteer for about four years. She was never planning to share her story with strangers. She rarely spoke about the Holocaust. But a few years after she moved from Rochester, New York, to Montgomery County in 1999 to be closer to family, her son emailed his cousin, Jennifer Rozines Roy, an author, asking if she knew that his mother was one of only a dozen kids to survive the Lodz ghetto.
Roy, who’d written several children’s books, knew that her Aunt Sylvia had survived World War II and later lived in Paris, but had no idea about Rozines’ years in Poland. “I didn’t even know what the ghettos were,” she says. Roy started to worry about the history her family was losing. “A big part of this was, my dad’s family survived the Holocaust, too,” she says. Her father and Sylvia’s husband, David Rozines, were brothers. “We never talked about it, or really knew how to talk about it, and I thought, I can do something to help this.”
When Roy first called Rozines to ask about Lodz, her aunt said, “Oh, Jennifer, I was just a little girl.” More than 50 years had passed since her liberation from the ghetto. “I don’t remember anything—but I remember I had a doll…”