You never know whom you’ll meet at synagogue. An older woman was coming in just as we approached the Charles Kimmel building of the Maplewood Jewish Center. She said she was a friend of the family of the bat mitzva.
Not remembering that in the Orthodox synagogues girls are not called to the Torah on Shabbat, the elderly woman came out of respect, even though the celebration was scheduled for Sunday. “There are no women, so I thought something was wrong and I left, but I came back,” she said.
“Come in, I’m here,” I told her, trying to make her feel welcome.
After introducing myself, she told me her name, which sounded somewhat familiar. After some more thought, she finally agreed to step into the sanctuary. By that time, more women had started to fill the rows; I felt I should take a seat next to her.
Almost as if sensing that I was pondering why her name sounded familiar, she said, “I was a teacher in Elizabeth and I taught German.” Caught in the moment, I screamed, “You were my teacher!” just as the rabbi began to speak.
Frau Rose Spier taught me German at Lafayette Junior High School in Elizabeth 45 years ago. Thinking about an anecdote detailing my justification for taking German that is in my book-in-progress, I asked, “Why in the world did you teach German?”
The section of my manuscript that includes my decision for taking the language offers some background:
I wrote that while I was studying German in high school in Elizabeth, “Uncle Harry, on a visit from his home in Newark, asked me to tell him what we were learning in the class. He explained his curiosity, saying that by knowing Yiddish, he easily picked up the German language while stationed in Germany during the war.
“Only recently I learned from an older second cousin on my husband’s side, in her 20s when the Holocaust happened, that her twin boys, who, like me, were born in 1953, also took German in high school, since it was close to Yiddish — same logic as I had — but, she thought it abhorrent to have German spoken in the house.
“That brings back some memory of my father asking why I was taking German, without explaining his inquiry by bringing up any discussion about the fate of our ancestors at the hands of the Germans. Were they shielding me?
“With no knowledge at the time of the horrors of the Holocaust, since it was not mentioned in our house (at least not in English so that I could understand), I innocently said it was like Yiddish and I wanted to know what secrets my parents and aunt were keeping from me by reverting to speaking in the mamaloshen (mother tongue).”
Frau Spier’s answer to my question was simply that it was what she knew best. As a Jew who came to this country at age 12 from Germany in 1940, she barely escaped the Holocaust. She said she lost her husband of 58 years last year; Michael, a graphic artist, was the lone survivor from a very Orthodox family in Poland, which caused him to lose any holdings to organized religion.
Graduating from Weequahic High School in 1946, she received her foreign language teaching degree from NYU in 1950. She taught German and Spanish and after seven years at Lafayette, she left the year I graduated. She went on to teach at Millburn High School, where she retired 20 years ago and taught part-time at Solomon Schechter for an additional four years.
My teacher from long ago and I continued our remembrances at the bat mitzva celebration the following day, when I brought my autographed junior high school yearbook to show what she had written (in German, of course).
And on that Monday, I brought her the yearbook at her son’s medical office, where she has been working since her husband’s passing to show her sons; it had been sitting on my nightstand, by chance, for a few weeks. I also took along my eighth- and ninth-grade report cards, which I had found in my attic, realizing I actually had her as a teacher for two full years. Showing her the grades she gave me and showing her two sons her picture in the yearbook from 1968 made keeping these items worth the dust they collected.
My fond memories of this delightful woman include the frequent appearance of an apple on her desk — evidently the sign of a well-liked teacher. She told me they were from her students, two of whom called on a conference call just as she was getting out of our car when we drove her from the bat mitzva party to her home in Maplewood.
Having planned to get the two friends on a call to tell them about my meeting with Frau Spier, they returned the call just when I was able to ask her to speak with them. She started, “Did you go to school in Elizabeth and take German in junior high school? Who was your teacher? Do you remember the name?”
They instantly replied in unison, “Frau Spier.” She said, “This is Frau Spier. I’m 83, and I’d like to meet you — again.” Teacher and students are all looking forward to a larger reunion.