Many folks viewing the Auschwitz exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Center have reason to swoon, but none, perhaps, with so much justification as Rose Guttman. She was there; she lived it, and through a strength of will that is hard for most people to imagine, she survived it.
Rose, who is far better known for her gefilte fish, latke and coffee cakes than for her past, is understandably reluctant to discuss in detail her experiences prior to her entry into the United States in 1949. She’s far more comfortable discussing recipes (though, she confesses, she never measures a thing) and her grandchildren.
As documentary filmmakers, however, we felt it necessary to walk—however gently, however respectfully—along those dark pathways that brought her from her birthplace in Romania, through Hungary, then Germany, and ultimately to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. The ‘absolute, unspeakable hell’ which she endured, and was the only one of her immediate family to survive, is etched in her mind today as deeply as then. “To this day, I never go to bed, nor get up, without thinking about it.”
Speaking about it is a far different thing, however, and in the course of her segment of “Our Jewish Story’, we will dwell more on the remarkably positive side of her life, from which the lessons of the Holocaust played an undeniably significant role. Having met her future husband Irving Guttman in a relocation camp after the war (Irving had survived the Nazi war machine by hiding in the forest for years avoiding troops), she came to America where, under the usual duress of assimilation, gradually mastered the language, the customs, and finally, the ‘dream’. Forced to work the string of brutal jobs which defines the earliest years of most of Detroit’s immigrant population, Irving and Rose took a gamble on purchasing the old Seltzer’s Deli in Hamtramck, though neither had a lick of restaurant experience.
Rose quotes a Yiddish proverb: ‘Misery breaks any kind of steel’, which means, she says, that if you are sufficiently destitute, you will do anything to succeed. That sense of determination resulted in a chain of thirteen Irving’s Deli location, that through the eighties were among the most highly regarded delicatessens in Michigan, receiving countless awards and kudos from local papers.
Though Irving passed away a decade ago, and the restaurants have all been sold, today, at eighty, Rose Guttman continues to work, putting in several days a week at Amber’s Deli in Pontiac. Of course, her gated-community lifestyle indicates that working is not a necessity for survival, it may well be a necessity for Rose’s philosophical outlook of life. “I’m not a house sitter,” she maintains. “Getting out, meeting people, mixing with friends and customers—that’s what gives life its color.”
Of the long journey that has allowed her to stand proudly and make such assertions, she says, “For the most part, I keep my pain inside. When it comes to the Holocaust, most people don’t want to hear the truth. Anyway, what can I add that hasn’t been said? Who am I? I am just a little person...”
Physically, we might be inclined to agree with Rose Guttman. But as a humanist, a teacher and now, gratefully, a friend, they don’t come much bigger.