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Holocaust survivor back in city

Chaim Rozwaski rose to become chief rabbi of Berlin

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When Chaim Rozwaski was brought to Winnipeg in 1948 as a 12-year-old Holocaust survivor, it is unlikely he imagined that he would one day return to this city as the keynote speaker in a distinguished lecture series. It is equally unlikely that he, having just escaped Europe, ever imagined that he would one day take up residence in Germany and assume the role there as the chief rabbi of Berlin.

Life, however, cannot always be predicted. Following an illustrious career as a Jewish educator and pulpit rabbi in the U.S. and Britain, Rabbi Chaim Rozwaski moved to Berlin in 1998 to become dean of the Ronald S. Lauder Jewish Educational Institute. This institute was created to revitalize Jewish life in Germany, in part by educating Jewish teachers and leaders.

Two years later Rozwaski was named Berlin's community rabbi and also assumed the pulpit at the Rykestrasse, the city's oldest and largest synagogue. The Rykestrasse had been torched in 1938 during Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, and used sporadically after the war under Communist rule. It had only recently reopened to Berlin Jews after a massive seven-year restoration project.

Rabbi Rozwaski will elaborate on his personal and professional experiences in both Berlin and in Winnipeg when he is in town on April 26 as the featured speaker at the Sol and Florence Kanee Distinguished Lecture Series. This annual series is sponsored by the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.

Rozwaski will speak on the topic, Winnipeg to Berlin and Back: The Odyssey of a 20th Century Jew. It is a homecoming that he expects to be bittersweet.

"I feel a mixture of being happy, glad, sad and melancholy," Rozwaski says.

"I will be happy to be there and revisit the city and meet some of the people I knew as a child, and to be in the city where I found a sense of normalcy in life," he explains. But, he adds, "I will be sad because so many of the people who were there for me and meant much to me are no longer here with us."

Rozwaski arrived in Winnipeg in 1948 thanks to the efforts of the Canadian Jewish Congress. He was one of 1,123 Jewish war orphans that Congress, after considerable lobbying, was permitted to bring to Canada after the war. One hundred and thirty-one of these children and teenagers were settled here in Winnipeg.

Born in Poland in 1935, Rozwaski and his two sisters fled to the forests and the protection of the partisans after their parents and younger brother were killed by the Nazis. Following their liberation by the Red Army, Rozwaski spent three years in a displaced persons camp. While he hoped to be allowed to go to Palestine, British restrictions on Jewish immigration made that impractical. Instead he signed up to come to Canada with the Canadian Jewish Congress.

In Winnipeg, Rozwaski moved into the home of Jacob and Fannie Ash and began attending the Talmud Torah in order to resume his Jewish education. There he was greatly influenced by the school's principal, Rabbi Abraham Kravetz. Kravetz, who was also the rabbi at the Ashkenazi Synagogue and a founder of Maimonides College, became a father figure and a mentor to the young Rozwaski and encouraged him to pursue a further Jewish education.

Rozwaski left Winnipeg in 1952 to study at the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago, initially returning to his adopted home regularly for the holidays and summer vacation. He was last in Winnipeg around 1960.

Roswaski eventually received his rabbinical ordination, as well as a doctorate of rabbinical law and a masters of science from Purdue University. He then served various Jewish communities throughout the U.S., gaining a reputation as a distinguished scholar, author and educator.

He was one of the first rabbis to open the joint session of the New York State Senate and House of Representatives, and in 1978 was invited to attend the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt. He then moved to Britain and later Germany

"Rozwaski is a unique blend," says Abe Anhang, immediate past-president of the Jewish Heritage Centre and co-chair of the Kanee Lecture Committee. "Unlike many who despaired, he was a Holocaust survivor who retained his faith and used the experience to find a place in the world of the spirit."

"Instead of avoiding mention of the Holocaust," Anhang adds, "he built on the experience and made it a central point of his own theology. Instead of forgetting, he found the internal fortitude to overcome the hate, challenging it by stepping into the jaws of the beast."

This courageous philosophy and attitude, combined with extraordinary life experiences and warm nostalgia for Winnipeg, are certain to make Rabbi Chaim Rozwaski's lecture fascinating, enlightening and life-affirming.

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2009 A11

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