Wisdom Project | Agnes Biro Rothblatt, 90

By | Jun 16, 2023

The Wisdom Project at Moment: Inspirational conversations with wise people who have been fortunate to live long lives

This week’s conversation is with Agnes Biro Rothblatt, 90, of San Francisco.

Born in Budapest, Agnes remembers a wonderful early childhood in a lovely home with loving parents. When Hitler came to power, Hungary’s pro-Nazi government upended her family’s comfortable life. Agnes was 12. Thanks to a colleague of her father’s, the family was able to hide in an apartment on the outskirts of the city with false papers until the Russians occupied Hungary in January 1945.

Then came the country’s Communist rule. With their parents arrested as political prisoners, Agnes and her younger sister Ann escaped Hungary as teenagers, first to Austria, then to Paris, where they lived in a convent. There, Agnes held fast to her Jewish identity by praying in the garden.

Ultimately, the sisters immigrated to America, where an uncle in Wisconsin adopted them. Their mother was later able to join them.

Agnes graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she met her husband, Isaiah. They were both social workers dedicated to helping children. The couple moved to San Francisco in 1959. They had three sons and later three grandchildren, and were married for 60 years before Isaiah Rothblatt died in 2014.

Agnes is the author of a 2010 memoir, A Journey from the Chain Bridge to the Golden Gate.

When Russia ousted the Germans from Hungary and you were able to return to your home, what did you find?

It had been bombed. We lived in one room dug out of the ruins. There was no food, no heat. My mother scavenged for wood from bombed and abandoned houses to get heat. Eventually, the Iron Curtain closed the country. My parents felt that we had no future there. We were considered too bourgeois.

Your mom was able to come to America eventually. What happened to your dad?

My dear father unfortunately became ill while he was in prison. My parents decided to separate after they were released because he was too sick to travel to America. He got a small rental apartment in Budapest, and his sister took care of him. He had a fatal heart attack while I was there on a visit.

With her sister, Ann, left, and mother, Charlotte Slovak Biro, just before the sisters escaped Hungary.

After college in your newly adopted country, then what?

My husband and I were both social workers. He got a job, with a stipend and an obligation to the state of Wisconsin. We moved to Racine, where he worked at an institution for intellectual disabled men. I had worked with children in our refugee camp in Austria. In Racine, I became a social worker at an orphanage.

Did you have a particular love for children who were in transition or difficult situations?

Of course, yes. My husband was also dedicated—he came often with me to the orphanage and we would visit foster homes on weekends. The children liked us so much. One of the girls ran away and came to our house, hoping she could live with us, but of course she couldn’t. We were poor. We started out with nothing. But we were always able to make friends, which was wonderful. Then he got a good job in the Jewish orphanage in San Francisco and we moved. My mother came, too.

How was she after her prison experience?

My parents were in separate prisons, of course, one for women, one for men. The circumstances were horrendous. My mother was in a cell with eight other women. They were sleeping on straw. They put political refugees in with criminals, women who had criminal records for theft and even murder. But my mother got along with everybody, and she became the prison cook’s assistant. She was a wonderful cook.

In fact, all she had in her bundle when they arrested her was a book of recipes. In San Francisco, she published a wonderful cookbook from those same recipes that’s still in print now, Flavors of Hungary. She was teaching cooking at the YWCA; a woman there noticed her and decided to publish her book.

As a child in hiding and then as a teenage refugee, how did you get through it all?

You live day by day. You never know what tomorrow will bring. You just simply do the best you can that day. It helped that my mother was a cheerful, wonderful person. And I prayed. For me, Judaism was very important. That’s where I got solace.

Her parents and grandparents in Budapest.

Who influenced your Judaism?

My grandfather reinforced my sense of it. He would take us to synagogue and tell us, “this is the right force that will keep you strong.” Jewish kids could not go to public schools back then. So, I went to a Jewish school. And that’s where I really learned to pray and where I felt I belonged. My very strong Jewish identity helped carry me through.

There are so many children right now who are refugees or who are becoming refugees, in all parts of the world. When you look at today’s refugee and immigrant children, what do you see?

I see myself. I feel for them. I wish I could bring them to my house. I’m all for letting them come here and keeping the families together. I really feel that it’s a terrible thing that’s happening. And that history is repeating itself. It’s very sad. I watch the news. It’s beyond what I can explain…the power grabbing and [cruelty] everywhere, including in many parts of our own country. We are in such chaos right now.

What would you tell kids who are being displaced like you were, many without family members, waiting to come to this country?

I would tell them to learn English. Try to be fluent in English and get as much education as you can. Be patient. You will become part of a community. Find a group. Find a [house of worship]. Find learning opportunities.

Who inspired you to become a social worker?

I had a mentor, a mother figure, in the refugee camp. Her name was Julia, and one of my granddaughters is named for her. She guided me and got me a job taking care of the children in the camp. She separated the babies from the rest of the camp because she was afraid that they’d be infected with typhoid. She had lost two of her own children. I was a nursemaid. I bathed them. I changed them. I fed them, dressed them and took them outside.

Why did you write your book?

I wanted to share my story with the world. I thought it should be told. I wanted people to hear what happened during the Holocaust. I was part of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project. I talked to groups of kids in Sunday school.

How have you dealt with the trauma of those years over time?

There was a period in Budapest when we had to live in a coal cellar of a ticky-tacky house in a suburb to hide from the bombs. The house next door was obliterated. The trauma stays with you. You might have flashbacks when you see a memorial for people who were shot. Trauma is in your heart, it’s in your soul, and you try not to bother other people with it.

I have been working with a psychologist, and I try to share it with my kids. They have become militant in the fight against antisemitism. I took them back to Hungary. I showed them where we lived. They understand. It was important and wonderful to be able to share with them.

Agnes’s family: Back row: sons Raul, Andre and Dan, with daughters-in-law Jayne and Anastasia. In front: granddaughter Charlotte, daughter-in-law Jennifer, grandson Dash, Agnes and her husband Isaiah, of blessed memory.

What about your grandchildren?

They know my story. And they know about their grandfather’s bravery. My husband was in the Battle of the Bulge as a soldier, and he fought in the War of Independence in 1948 in Israel. So, when I married him, he was already a veteran of two wars.

What makes you happy now?

My children and grandchildren. When I see that one granddaughter is painting or another is playing the violin, that’s super joy. They try to protect the environment. They love cats. They are wonderful people.

What gives you hope?

That my kids have really carried on my husband’s and my work. My oldest son is a social worker; he works for the benefit of the Jewish people. My middle son is an architect; he’s trying to build a better world. My other son is a passionate community activist in Brooklyn. They give me hope.

How can we make sense of the chaotic things that happen in our lives?

Life is full of tragedies and blessings. Enjoy the blessings.

Top Image: Agnes, San Francisco, 2019.

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