After Kristallnacht, little Liesel was abducted and abused by the Hitler Youth
Chanita Rodney was rescued from almost certain death on three occasions in her lifetime. The first was in a Berlin hospital on the day that she was born, in July 1929, three months premature. The doctors had already determined that there was no hope for survival. But little Annelise Lowi, as her parents named her, had other ideas. She screamed so loudly from the bin where she had been discarded by the staff that the surprised doctors rushed to retrieve her.
The second occasion was in 1938, when her beloved brother Hanns, 20 months older than herself, found and rescued her from the hands of the Hitler youth who had abducted and abused her for several weeks shortly after Kristallnacht. Hanns and Leisel (as Annelise was nicknamed) adored one another and were rarely seen apart. But very soon after he brought his sister home from that horrible ordeal, they would be separated forever.
Richard Lowi had believed that as a loyal and patriotic German citizen no real harm would come to his family. But after the attack on his daughter, he was determined to find a safe haven for his children. There was never any talk of what Liesel had gone through nor was a doctor called in to examine her.
In fact, when she returned bruised and bleeding, a frightened little girl who needed comfort, there was no joyful greeting, no sigh of relief and no embraces. It was Hanns who bathed, fed and comforted her that day and in the days that followed.
Sometime after her return, Liesel and Hanns were dressed in their best clothes and brought to a professional photographer to have their picture taken. It was to be sent to relatives abroad in the hopes of finding a sponsor and an escape route for the two. The picture reached the hands of a well-to-do Jewish couple in Liverpool. Mrs. Levy was active in Wizo, the organization in charge of the Kindertransport that brought some 10,000 Jewish children from Europe to Britain. The Levys had no children of their own, but nonetheless they decided they could only cope with "the little girl with the beautiful curls." Her brother would have to remain behind.
On the day she would leave her family forever, Liesel was once again clothed in her best dress, handed a small brown suitcase and told she was going on a special walk with her father. She looked around for Hanns and called out to him. Then she heard him banging on the bathroom door where her father had locked him up. He was pleading to go with them. But ultimately, in an effort to save his sister once again, he urged her to go and said he would follow later. Leisel's mother had her back turned to them and was staring out the window. Thinking that all the trouble that had befallen the family was her fault, Liesel did not dare approach her mother, who never turned around.
When they arrived at the train station, they saw a large group of well-dressed children with nametags hanging around their necks. Liesel asked why the nametags. One of the children answered: "Because we are going to England. If you are coming with us you'll need one too." That was how she found out she was leaving Germany.
Her father did not wait with her. He gave her a pat on the behind and said: "Well liebchen, I'll be going now." In retrospect, Chanita says, perhaps it was for the best. She did not sense how serious the situation was nor did she understand that this was the third time that she was being saved from death. The ship on which she sailed was the last to leave Germany.
When Liesel disembarked from the ship in Southampton, she was met by a beautiful woman who introduced herself as Mrs. Levy and held out the photo of her with Hanns, asking if she were the girl in the picture. Upon seeing the image of Hanns, she was filled with longing, with resentment toward the Levys and with guilt. But her father had taught her to answer politely in English and she did. It was only when they arrived at the family home in Liverpool where she was ushered into the luxurious bedroom, specially decorated for her in pink that her heart sunk completely and her anger rose. There in the spacious room was not one bed, but two. Why couldn't Hanns have slept in that bed?
Over the years, Liesel managed to overcome her anger and she and the Levys were able to develop a relationship based more on mutual need and gratitude than on love and understanding. They were a childless couple who had yearned for a child; she was a parentless child who desperately needed a family. Unfortunately, as Liesel came to realize as a mature adult, the lack of any real communication about what was going on around them and what they had all been through during the war prevented what might have been years of greater understanding and happiness together.
Liesel completed primary school and high school in Liverpool and excelled in her studies, as she did in all of her activities. Mrs. Levy was busy making plans for her college education, but Liesel, had other plans: she had joined the Zionist Habonim movement and was going to Palestine. Despite the angry reactions of those around her, particularly her foster mother but also her headmistress who considered Liesel a brilliant student with a promising future ahead, she was determined to become a pioneer on a kibbutz.
It was at Bosham hachshara farm in Sussex that the next chapter of her life was to begin. There she met her future husband, Bob Rodney. Bob was handsome, wore a tailored suit whenever possible and smoked a pipe. The girls were all wild about him. Originally from Germany, he had had the sense to escape in time from Bordeaux where his family had been living, leaving them behind. Like Liesel, he never got to say a proper goodbye.
It had been six years since Liesel left her family in Berlin. Jewish survivors from the continent had begun arriving at the hachshara farms. One such young man had a number tattooed on his arm and Liesel asked what it was. He explained that he had been a prisoner in a concentration camp at Auschwitz and after miraculously surviving that horror had been moved to Dachau. Realizing he was about the same age as her brother, she asked if he had by any chance met up with Hanns Lowi. To her amazement he began jumping and talking excitedly about how they had worked together at the crematoria at Dachau, how Hanns had saved his life many times, including at the time the camp was liberated, and what a wonderful person he was.
Upon hearing her brother was alive, Liesel first called her foster mother to report the good news. She then arranged for time off from the hachshara to go to London to search the Red Cross lists for her brother. New lists were arriving every day and crowds of people filled the Jewish Agency offices scanning thousands of names, as yet in no particular order, for their relatives. It didn't take long for Li to discover that her parents and her grandfather had perished. But there was no news of Hanns.
On the advice of the Jewish Agency, she wrote to the American Red Cross asking if they had Hanns on their lists of those they liberated. Finally a letter arrived with their answer: Hanns had in fact survived the horrors of the Holocaust and was alive when the Americans liberated Dachau on April 22, 1945. However, the sight and stench of the camp was so overpowering for the liberators that some of the survivors themselves were sent in driving trucks with rations. With no medical supervision, many of the starving and debilitated prisoners ate too much and too quickly, causing as many as 2,500 deaths. Hanns was among them.
Liesel cried for days and fell into a deep depression. She didn't share the news with her foster parents who, even upon learning of Hanns's fate, never brought up the matter again. But as this chapter in her life was closed, another was about to open.
On March 1, 1949, Liesel's boat docked in Haifa. Bob, who had left England several months earlier, was there to meet her and take her to their new home in Kibbutz Kfar Ha'Nasi. In May they were married. The journey was complete. It was Bob who gave Liesel the name Chanita, which she liked, but throughout their life together the only name he ever called her was darling.
It wasn't long before the Rodney family grew. Three of the couple's four children were born at Kfar Ha'Nasi within a period of five years: Their first born, Rina Zehava (Golden Joy), named after Bob's mother Golda, Raffi Tzvi, named after Chanita's brother and Ron David. Bob worked as a long distance truck driver for the kibbutz cooperative with a large modern truck he had purchased on his own and Chanita was assigned to various tasks from kitchen duty to housemother. Although she made close friends on the kibbutz and enjoyed the communal spirit, Chanita never adjusted to the landscape of black volcanic stones surrounding their home, to the cooperative child-rearing or to the fact that Bob's work took him away from the family for long periods. In 1957, they relocated to Timorim, a moshav in the south of Israel that Bob had discovered through his work as a driver.
At Timorim, the entire family felt more secure and involved. There was a communal spirit and yet each family lived on its own. Bob got a job as chief purchasing officer for the moshav. Chanita joined the garden committee and the education committee and it was there that she began her twenty-year volunteer career with Wizo, where she worked with poor surrounding moshavim in the south and later became head of the Southern Israel executive and a member of the national executive. The Rodneys had a little garden and each morning before going to work, Bob would bring her hot tea with freshly picked lemon from their tree. She had finally come home.
The fourth Rodney child, Ruth Miriam, was born when Rina, the oldest, was ten. Although there had been earlier behavioral issues, it was not until 1962, at her batmitzvah party, that Bob and Chanita noticed some troublesome behaviors on the part of Rina, which they attributed to adolescence. Later it would become clear that these were early symptoms of schizophrenia. But the road to the diagnosis was long and characterized by misinformation and lack of information from the professional community and guilt, frustration and desperation on the part of the family.
Once a name was given to Rina's illness in the mid 1970s, Chanita, in her characteristic fashion, went into action. She read extensively about schizophrenia, learning not only that family upbringing was not a factor and that she was not to blame, but also that with proper treatment it was possible to live a normal and productive life. With this information in hand, she was determined to educate the public and see to it that no other family would suffer from the stigma of mental illness as her family had.
She began by going door to door at the moshav to speak with members, then on to Yaron London's television program with Martha Ramon, who also had a child with mental illness, to Wizo, to the Ministry of Health and to international organizations which were active in the field. These activities culminated in 1977 with the establishment of The Israel Mental Health Association, Enosh (the Hebrew term for human), aimed not only at public education and support but also the promotion of research on mind related diseases.
Enosh and its founder and president Chanita Rodney have been awarded many prestigious prizes over the years and gained international acclaim.
his year, Chanita's life work was especially acknowledged and honored. She was awarded the Rappaport Foundation Prize by LaIsha Magazine given to women who have created lasting change in Israeli society, and an honorary doctoral degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for her contribution to Israeli society in the field of mental health. In her acceptance speech, Chanita observed, "Life has been my university and I have not one single regret, as it has all been a link in the chain leading up to this great day."
As we sat sipping iced coffee on her Herzliya porch while Chanita recounted her life's journey, we were interrupted several times by calls from one or another of her many grandchildren checking in on their grandmother. This, no doubt, represents yet another victory over the Nazis and the events that dramatically altered one woman's life, a woman who went on to influence the lives of so many others.
For more information on Chanita Rodney, her life and her accomplishments, see her autobiography, The Gift of Life.