As members of our community remember the passing of Annemarie Roeper, I thought I would share a piece I wrote on the one year anniversary of her death in 2013:
Last spring Elane and I spent time with Annemarie Roeper in her Northern California home; we had the chance to talk, tell stories, and get to know each other. Many of our conversations were certainly School related, and the work I would be taking on in the fall, but I also brought with me a series of questions for Annemarie that had to do with her life experiences and her own sense of identity. I had seen the film Across Time and Space, was moved by the Roeper family story, and I was curious. Having been forced to flee Germany because she was identified as Jewish I wanted to understand Annemarie’s personal connection with Judaism and whether she self-identified as Jewish.
As we talked, there was deep clarity in Annemarie’s description of herself as German. Anytime I mentioned Marienau or Hamburg you could see her eyes grow distant as if she was traveling back to her home, to a place of comfort and familiarity. She was resolute in her identification as a German, but seemed far less clear about being Jewish.
We talked about my own family history, and that my grandmother and her family came from Hamburg. Annemarie happily noted that when she was born, a family friend, a Jewish doctor named Feldman had delivered her – in Hamburg; the coincidence seemed to strike an affinity between us. While I did not identify as German, Annemarie seemed pleased that the new Head of The Roeper School was named Feldman, like her family friend, and like that friend I did identify as Jewish.
Throughout my visit I tried to gain a deeper understanding of Annemarie’s connection to being Jewish. It was clear that her cultural identity as a German brought her strength, pride, and ultimately hurt. She talked proudly about her father serving in the German army during World War I, and the intellectual relationships her family had established in the country. The rise of the Nazi party, and the Bondy family’s need to escape from their home left clear and unhealed scares on Annemarie. It just didn’t seem possible that a self-identifying German would have to leave everything that was familiar behind, and for her own personal safety, have to go into exile.
Annemarie shared with me that her family was not religious; they were secular Jews, intellectuals in their community. I’ve often thought that perhaps her notion of self-actualization – the idea that we need to understand our own identities – was embedded in her thinking through this moment of coming to terms with an identity that was placed upon her rather than self-embraced.
Today, one year after the passing of Annemarie Roeper I find myself searching for a way to mark the anniversary of her passing, and at the same time find ways to celebrate and focus on her life and not her death. Annemarie was an active and engaging leader; our traditions should celebrate hers and George’s birth, the School’s founding, times filled with life and joy. Yet I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to note this one year anniversary of her passing.
It is interesting how religion can sometimes offer practiced and lasting traditions that contain the wisdom of the generations, and provide us with guidance when we face a puzzle. Within Judaism mourners move through a series of stages to help guide and provide focus for them during their period of grief. There are practices that guide you during the initial days, the first week and month, and ultimately the first year after a loved one has passed.
This first year of mourning is called “Shneim asar chodesh” (twelve months) and its conclusion marks the end of the formal mourning period. We remember those who have passed by acknowledging something called “Yahrtzeit,” (time of year) each year on the anniversary of our loved one’s passing. A prayer of mourning – Kaddish – is recited on the anniversary of the death as a way of keeping that person close to us.
In the brief time we spent together Annemarie made it clear to me that my Jewish identity was an important part of who I am and in the type of leader I would be at Roeper. Given all she had experienced in having to leave Germany, she seemed to take some level of satisfaction noting that the school she and George founded would have a Jewish Head.
While I cannot say with any personal insight or certainty the place Judaism had in Annemarie’s own identity, I know it had a profound effect on her life experiences. It is for this reason that I will keep her Yahrtzeit, and in keeping with Jewish traditions say the mourning prayer – Kaddish in her memory.
We have reached the end of the first year, but Annemarie’s and George’s spirit continues to fill our hallways, classrooms, and open spaces. Theirs are lives we should celebrate, and whose ideals continue to inspire the work we do with children each day.