Rose Kornsgold got a call from her granddaughter a few months ago excitedly telling her, “Bubbe, you’re famous!”
Kornsgold’s picture was featured in the Sept. 28, 2017 issue of the Jewish Exponent for a flashback story about 200 refugee children who began attending public schools in Philadelphia. The accompanying photo featured a smiling 9-year-old Rosa (now Rose) Korntrager, who was looking at a globe, surrounded by classmates and their teacher.
The Sept. 16, 1949 article detailed the first day in city schools for Kornsgold and her brother, Gerson, who was 6 at the time. They attended Kirkbride Elementary School in South Philadelphia.
Kornsgold, who will be 78 in May, doesn’t remember that picture being taken, but her granddaughter was more than happy to call and tell her she was in the Exponent.
She was born in Stanislav, Poland, but when she was 6 weeks old, she and her family were taken to Russia and then sent back to Poland after the war. “Exactly where they sent us back after the war, I do not know,” she said, as she was 5 or 6 years old then.
At that point, her mother had become a widow. Kornsgold’s father was killed three weeks before the war ended.
“In Russia, they formed a second Polish front. They took my father into — this was in 1943 — so they took him and a friend of his also was taken into the army,” she said. “And my father’s friend said to him, ‘You’re blond, blue-eyed, you speak a perfect Polish — go as a gentile.’ My father said, ‘I’m a Jew, and I’m going as a Jew.’”
His friend told her mother there was an officer who did not like him, and would send her father on missions where he thought her father would be killed, but he came back. One night, he woke up in the middle of the night with severe headaches and, at 38, he died.
While the rest of her family perished during the war, her father’s death is the only one whose details she knows because his friend who was with him wrote to her mother.
After the war, there were few Jews left in Poland, so her mother decided to leave. She put Kornsgold and her brother briefly in an orphanage, destroyed her papers showing she was Jewish and snuck over the border into Germany. She picked up her children after a brief stint of sickness and then they were in Freiman, a displaced persons camp in Germany, for three years.
On May 19, 1949 they boarded a former army ship — the SS General Stewart — to America. It happened to also be her ninth birthday. The journey took 11 days and she spent one of those sick from nausea. One thing she remembers is her mother telling her, “‘I don’t care if you don’t eat, but you’ve got to go get an orange,’ because that was a big thing,” she recalled with a laugh. “I remember that.”
They stayed one night in a hotel before ultimately making their way to Philadelphia, where HIAS had registered for them to go, and she’s been in the city ever since.
“If you didn’t want to go where they sent you, if you wanted to go somewhere else, they were not responsible for you,” she explained of why they settled in Philadelphia. “And for my mother, it didn’t make any difference. Her whole family was lost. My father’s family was lost. So to her what difference did it make where she went? She didn’t know the language, she didn’t know any friends, so they said Philadelphia and she said fine.”
They settled in South Philly in a house with three or four other families at Seventh and Dickinson streets. Her mother started working at a factory while looking for an apartment.
“I didn’t speak any English,” Kornsgold noted, “so whatever little bit of English I learned I learned playing with the kids in the neighborhood.”
They eventually found an apartment at Fourth and Tasker streets, and Kornsgold and her brother started school — which was detailed in the 1949 Exponent article.
At 9, she was supposed to be in fourth grade but she was placed in third as she didn’t yet know English. There was no English as a second language for elementary school kids at that time, she noted. She was only graded on math for the first few report periods.
“I remember when we had to have our eyes checked they said read the alphabet — I couldn’t read the alphabet,” she laughed. “So they did for the E you go this way or that way, so that was the way I had my eyes checked.”
She went on to middle school and then graduated from South Philadelphia High School before starting work as a legal secretary, which she did for five years.
Along the way, she met her husband, Morris Kornsgold, 82 — “Right? 82?” “Whatever you say” — who sat patiently at the dining room table of their Northeast Philadelphia home as she related her story. He also came to America from Poland and Germany in 1951.
They met on erev Yom Kippur when she was 19 years old and was taking a walk with her mother in their South Philly neighborhood on a hot night.
“He was standing outside and I walked by with my mom, and we met and a year later we got married,” she said simply.
At that time, you had to be 21 to get married, she noted, so since she was only 20, her mother had to go with her to City Hall as she needed a parent’s permission.
They stayed in South Philly until 1966, after their son, Jay, was born, and they moved to the Northeast. After they had two more kids, Laura and Helene, she worked for the school board as a secretary and eventually retired from Northeast High School.
Two of her children are rabbis, another is a pediatrician, and she is the proud grandmother of six grandchildren.
“To me, family is very important. Growing up without any — in fact, I always said I didn’t realize what I missed until I became a grandmother and then I realized all the things I missed, so that’s why to me family is very important,” she said.
Reflecting on her life, though, she has no complaints.
Judaism played a central role in her and her husband’s life when building their family, as they had both lost theirs and with them, their family traditions. They’ve belonged to several congregations in Northeast Philly that have since closed or merged, and are now members of Congregations of Shaare Shamayim.
The only milestone she’d like to accomplish is a Bat Mitzvah, as her husband will have a second Bar Mitzvah at their synagogue soon.
But being with family and having her children and grandchildren involved in Jewish life is enough for her in the meantime.
“It’s like we had to start from the beginning, and I figured this way I feel like our relatives didn’t die for nothing,” she said. “For us, it was very important so they’ll know where they came from and what they have to adhere to. We had to make our own traditions, our own everything. And we did pretty good. I can’t complain.”