For more than 17 years I’ve had a close friend who I didn’t know all that well. In fact, I didn’t even know his real name.
I met Leo Rosenson — Mr. Rosenson to me — on the evening of Dec. 31, 1999, an easy date to remember, in Delray Beach, Fla. My grandfather had died earlier in the year and my family spread out our visits to my grandmother so that she wouldn’t be alone during times when his absence would be felt the most. I was a college sophomore, but I had just gone through a breakup and wasn’t in the mood to party like it was 1999, the year notwithstanding. So I volunteered to take the New Year’s shift.
After Friday night services, I walked to the clubhouse of my grandmother’s gated retirement community for a Shabbat dinner with her friends (I was the youngest one in attendance by at least 50 years, and the dinner was over before 6:30 p.m.) On the way to the club, I struck up a conversation with Mr. Rosenson, in his 70s at the time, who spoke with a thick Polish accent, and was thoughtful, funny, and, as I soon realized, kinda cool. This came as something of a shock. My grandparents’ contemporaries were always friendly and I often enjoyed our interactions, but I wouldn’t describe any of them as cool. Except for Mr. Rosenson.
I visited my grandmother in Delray every year until she died in 2009, and shortly thereafter my parents became snowbirds, buying a house next door to Mr. Rosenson and his wife, Olga. Year after year he never seemed to lose a step, physically or mentally, and I don’t believe I’ve ever known anyone else who enjoyed every moment and was always able to laugh at life’s challenges. Olga and my grandmother tried (in vain) to set me up with the Rosensons’ granddaughter, I invited them to my wedding (which was not to his granddaughter), and over the years our handshakes turned into hugs.
Sadly, earlier in the week I had to pay a shiva call to Olga and Mr. Rosenson’s children in their Manhattan apartment. When I sat down, Olga said with a big smile, “My husband always loved you and you loved him.” Which of course was true. And yet, despite our mutual fondness, I knew Mr. Rosenson on a limited basis since we only saw each other once or twice a year.
The small apartment was crowded and loud. Mr. Rosenson lived to be 94, so his death, while sad, wasn’t tragic, and the many friends and relatives laughed at the retelling of classic family stories. It made me want to learn more, so when I came home I started Googling and was fascinated by what I found.
Mr. Rosenson had told me he had been in the nursing home business, but that was an understatement. He owned and operated several elder-care centers, including the Brookside assisted living facility on Manalapan Avenue in Freehold, and was a macher and philanthropist in both his Florida and New York communities.
What shocked me was that I literally never knew Mr. Rosenson.
I came across a YouTube video of his nephew, Rabbi Chaim Bergstein, memorializing his uncle, and he said that Mr. Rosenson was born Reuven Bergstein. Along with his parents and one brother, he fled his hometown of Tomaszów Lubelski, Poland, during World War II and settled in Siberia. It was there that he learned about business, a skill that he would use for the rest of his life, by bartering some of his mother’s clothes — a silk scarf, a sweater — with a local farmer in exchange for food to feed his family and members of the Jewish community, too. After the war he went back to Poland, but returning to his home was out of the question; there were Polish gangs who murdered Jews in the streets so they wouldn’t reclaim lost property.
Eventually he immigrated to the United States, but he was only able to acquire someone else’s visa, a man named Leo Rosenson. The name stuck for more than 70 years.
Since his death, I’ve been thinking about the former Mr. Bergstein. Obviously I’ll miss the man, his smile, his charm, and seeing his love for Olga, which, from my perspective, seemed only to grow stronger after so many years together. But it also feels like a significant juncture for me, because he was the last of my grandparents’ generation that I felt so close to, my last grandfather figure.
I doubt I’ll ever develop so close a relationship with someone from an era that I can’t even fathom.
Mr. Rosenson and most others who lived through these times — the era of the Holocaust, the freezing conditions in Siberia, a United States where you could finagle a visa to enter the country — are gone. His stories are known to his family and others, but I’ll never have the opportunity to hear them from his voice, through his eyes. And neither will my children or their children.
And that is truly a loss. •