Newton’s Rosian Zerner lives a legacy of courage
By Susie Davidson – Wednesday May 28 2008

“I stand before you as proof that miracles happen,” Rosian Zerner said last year at the annual Yom HaShoah ceremony at Faneuil Hall.

Zerner’s place at the podium was inspirational, and apropos. Her advocacy on behalf of Holocaust survivors and work in German-Jewish relations is well-known. She is the former vice president, and current governing board member of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust. The contact person for Greater Boston Child Survivors, she is the JCRC representative from, and executive committee member of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston. She is also on the Holocaust Survivor Advisory Board at the Jewish Family and Children’s Service, the Yom HaShoah planning committee, has represented Boston survivors at restitution issue meetings, and helped bring about a U.S. stamp honoring rescuer/diplomat Hiram Bingham.

Although her native Lithuania holds the dread distinction of being the country that lost the highest percentage of its Jews, Zerner survived World War II in the Kovno Ghetto, and in hiding. Her parents dug a hole under the ghetto’s barbed wire fence and pushed her to safety. “I was 6,” she said. “They timed and avoided the changing of the guards, the searchlights, the dogs.

Zerner, who had grown up in a privileged environment, remembers every detail of her escape. “I was hidden in homes, attics, barns and woods, an orphanage. I was baptized,” she said. “Sometimes I was ready to stop running, but my will to live was greater.” Miraculously reunited with her parents after the war, they remained in Italy for six years, en route to Palestine and before moving to the U.S. in 1951.

Immersed into Newton High School at age 16, she sang the St. Louis Blues without knowing English with the a-capella sextet the Newtonettes. She found it refreshing to be with people not touched by the Holocaust.
“It certainly did not fit into my senior prom as the date of the class president or into the values that I was absorbing within the ‘melting pot’ of the 50s,” she said.

Zerner later matriculated at Barnard College. “In Italy I had listened to Radio Free Europe and thought I would come to the land of spirituals and jazz,” she rememberd. Instead, it was all rock and roll. Her mother, who is still alive today at 100 in a Waltham nursing home, had been the Konzertmeister of the Lithuanian Opera, and Zerner had been a student at Milan’s La Scala Ballet School. She had read all the works of Shakespeare, Zane Gray, and Jack London in Italian. Despite class structures and educational strictures, she said that “the world, the time, was my very own oyster.”

Zerner was a runner-up for Miss Barnard, president of the fine arts club (her major was art history and her thesis, the female nude), and a class officer. Her future husband, John Zerner, was in her music class. In 1961, she began graduate school at Columbia, but embarked for India, arriving before even the Beatles’ George Harrison. She spent four months in Japan, Thailand and Persia.

“I bicycled in Nepal among Tibetan refugees, lived on a houseboat in Kashmir, bathed in the Ganges and went to its source.” She has since traveled to 64 countries. In Israel, Zerner visited her mother’s surviving relatives on a kibbutz and in Tel Aviv. She married Zerner in 1962; they had two sons but divorced in 1970 following his medical school graduation. “I was unprepared for either motherhood or independence, and yet, in those feminist days, I declined to take alimony,” she says.

In the freewheeling 60s, Zerner’s car had a flower instead of an antenna, she was teargassed in Washington antiwar marches, and started to sculpt again, painting, writing and publishing Beat poetry, making candles, pottery, enameling. Her father later convinced her to buy a home in Chestnut Hill. “Newton schools were the best at that time,” she said. A salon she had begun in Brookline became the Sunday Brunch Club at the Newton Highlands Women’s Club. She organized trips, tennis parties, support groups, and media, joined boards of arts organizations and chaired art-related events.

“In 1987, she joined her pro-baseball player son Jay, who is now a physician, in Australia. Although caring for her father curtailed graduate school hopes, she studied Spanish and pre-Columbian civilizations at San Miguel de Allende and Oaxaca in Mexico, climbed pyramids and became a Mayan Solar Initiate. “I spent a month in New Mexico and Arizona with the Zuni and Hopi, explored Eastern philosophies and religions that took me to Brazil, Japan and Thailand, and followed the Celtic and other paths that led from Stonehenge throughout Portugal and Spain,” she said.

In 1996, her father died at age 90, and she learned that her father’s sister, Lyda, committed suicide weeks after the Nazis murdered her composer husband Edwin. In 2000, Zerner joined a child survivors’ and a German-Jewish Dialogue group. She accepted an award bestowed posthumously by then President Adamkus of Lithuania upon one of her rescuers. “I re-connected with my childhood friend who hid with me, and retraced my steps from the house of my grandfather to the Kovno Ghetto, to the homes where I was hidden,” she recalled.

At Faneuil last year, where son Lang lit a candle, Zerner quoted presidential candidate Dennis Kuchinich: “If we can change ourselves, we can change the world. We are not the victims of the world we see, we are the victims of the way we see the world.”

Susie Davidson, a frequent Advocate correspondent, is the author of “I Refused to Die,” a book documenting the lives of 20 survivors and 10 concentration camp liberators in Boston, and “Jewish Life in Postwar Germany: Our Ten-Day Seminar.”