Name and spelling variations: Ronia, Ronja, Rebeca, Rebecca, Rivka
Ronya (Rebecca) Datnowsky, my grand-mother, is remembered by all as a strong and unique personality. Born in Latvia, she found a husband in Constantinople, moved to Dusseldorf in the 1920's, then to Paris in the 30's, was a refugee in Spain during WW2, lived in Jerusalem, then moved back to Paris. She died in 1968.
Libau, as Liepaja was known then by its German name, was a port on the Baltic with a significant Jewish population. Latvia had been a Russian province since the end of the 18th century, so Ronya was a Russian citizen. However, because Latvia was also under heavy German influence, Ronya's language at home was probably German.
The Riga Rabbinate Vital Records - Libau, 1891
- Record Nº Female
- Year reg
- Date of birth
- Given name
- Father's given name
- Occupation of the father
- Mother's surname
- Mother's given name
- Father's place of registration
*Note: Dates are from the Julian calendar. Add 12 days to find the date on the Gregorian calendar (Western calendar). So the actual birthdate would be April 29, 1891. Why then is Ronya's birthday listed as May 5 instead?
From 1904 to 1909 (age 13 to 18), Ronya attended the Russian Gymnasium (high school), apparently in Windau. Ronya's autograph book is filled up with friends poems and entries dating between 1905 and 1909, and most include Windau as the location.
It's not clear if the Datnowsky family moved to Windau for a few years, or if Ronya was sent to a boarding school there. A card from Dr. Israel Auerbach still residing then in Berlin (so pre 1908) was addressed to Ronya in Windau.
Card from Dr. Israel Auerbach.
Ronya's Russian gymnasium report
On her school report, Ronya received a 3 in Russian, so it probably was not her native tongue. On the other hand the report mentions her "good behaviour".
An interesting fact from this school report is the presence of mandatory church-related classes.
Ronya and classmates, Russian School, Latvia, 1909
All the young ladies wear their hair in a bun, the teachers wear uniforms, and an orthodox priest seems to be in charge...
A large number of girls have Jewish names: Immerman, Jacobsohn, Jacobi, Goldsctück, Israelsohn, Feitelberg, Gerson, Jacobi, Richter. (Note: every one of these surnames appear on a list of victims of the Shoah from Libau: http://www.liepajajews.org/wc_idx/sur.htm.)
Ronya (sitting in the first row, 2nd from the right with her hand clasped) with a group of students, Latvia, 1909
Ronya in Windau, Latvia, 1909
In 1909, Ronya's mother Bassja died. Along with her two younger siblings Eva and Israel, she left Latvia to stay in Constantinople with her elder sister Bertha and her husband Israel Auerbach.
In the spring of 1909, Ronya finished high school. In July, she was issued a passport to travel abroad, and after a stop in Odessa on August 1, 1909, arrived in Constantinople. She was nineteen.
She lived with her sister Bertha who had been living there since 1908 with her husband, Dr. Israel Auerbach.
It's not clear if she remained in Constantinople and lived with Bertha until her marriage, or alternated between Germany and Constantinople.
Three postcards, dating 1909, 1910 and 1910 are addressed to Ronya, c/o Dr Israel Auerbach.
Postcard from Rahel Auerbach, 1909
Ronya (3rd from left), with Bertha, Eva and Israel in Constantinople - 1909
Ronya (with veil), with Bertha, Eva and Israel in Constantinople - 1910
Ronya, Constantinople, 1909 or 1910
Ronya, Cospoli Eyoub, 1910 (Cemetery of Eyoub)
Ronya Datnowsky - Travel to Palestine, 1910
In the summer of 1910, less than one year after arriving in Constantinople, Ronya received a "tezkere" (travel permit) for Palestine.
What were the reasons for this trip? How long did she stay? And who did she travel with?
There is no information at all regarding this trip except for a few photos and this travel document.
Travel document from Constantinople for Haifa - 1910
This travel permit was issued by the Russian Consulate in Istanbul in July 1910 . It authorizes "Mademoiselle Datnovski" to travel to Haifa.
Eye color: hazel
Occupation: not legible.
Although the tezkere was made in her name and was made out for "one traveller", it difficult to imagagine that a nineteen-year-old woman would travel on her own from Constantinople to Palestine in 1910, so we have to assume that she was accompanied. There are however no clues as to who her travel companion(s) could have been.
She probably hadn't met her future husband yet, and even if she had, she would probably not have travelled with a man she hadn't married yet.
Although there are no documents to confirm it, it is possible that she travelled with her brother Israel (Isrolke) - maybe to see him on his way to Palestine. (Note however that Alex Mallat dates his arrival in Palestine to 1913 - but this too is not substantiated by any documents.)
Ronya also had several friends in Palestine at the time - as evidenced by a number of postcards from that period. Although this doesn't provide a reason for the trip, it suggests at least that she wasn't completely on her own.
It's also possible that she could have travelled with Israel Auerbach, who made frequent trips to Palestine around that time, or that her travel was connected somehow to Elias Auerbach, who resided in Haifa. The brother of Israel Auerbach, he was a physician and had opened the first Jewish hospital in Haifa.
This group photo taken in Jerusalem doesn't show any other familiar faces which might help understand the reason or nature of this trip, although the man with the moustache sitting *might* be her brother Israel.
Ronya, Jerusalem, 1910. Photo:M.Swides & J.Hotinsky
Ronya (with the water jug on her head) poses for a studio portrait. The young lady sitting in the front row was a friend, Ms Weinberg. The other people are probably friends too but are unknown, although the man sitting looks a little like Israel Datnowksy. This photo is typical of the early 20th century studio photographs of the time, the painted background and prop costumes providing what was meant to be an "authentic" oriental look to the picture.
Surprisingly, there are a few photos of Ronya on a horse, next to Aaron and Sara Aaronsohn in front of their house in Zichron Yaakov. Why was Ronya visiting Zichron? How did she know the Aaronsohns? Maybe the person who took the photos was her fellow traveller, but we'll never know...
A possible answer is that she was introduced either by Israel or Elias Auerbach who knew the Aaronsohn family.
Four years later, Haim Abraham, the oldest brother of her future husband Moritz, would marry Sara Aaronsohn. Coincidence? Or did the Abraham brothers have contacts with the Aaronsohns earlier than 1913, when friends supposedly mentioned Haim as a prospect for Sara?
Zichron Yaakov, 1910: Ronya, Sara and Aaron Aaronsohn.
Zichron Yaakov, 1910: Ronya, Aaron and Sara Aaronsohn.
There is no information on what happened with Ronya after this trip, whether she stayed in Constantinople with her sister Bertha, or instead went to Berlin.
It is probably around that time that she was introduced by her sister to Moritz Abraham, a successful merchant from Rustchuk, Bulgaria.
In April 1912 the following document was issued by the Russian Consulate in Constantinople (in French) to affirm that - based on the "credible testimonies of two Russian citizens" - Ronya Datnowsky was not married.
Certificate from the Russian Consulate, July 1912
Ronya married Moritz Abraham in May 19, 1912 in Constantinople.
Ronya and Moritz, wedding, Constantinople. "Souvenir of May 19th, 1912"
Wedding announcement, in German. 1912
Wedding announcement, in French. 1912
1912: Berlin. Business travel with Moritz? honeymoon? or vacation? No precise date, so this could be before or after their wedding.
Ronya and Moritz. Berlin, 1912
Balkan War - 1912 - 1913
In October 1912, the first Balkan War started: an alliance made up of Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, and Montenegro, under Russian auspices, attacked the Ottoman Empire. Within a few weeks, Turkey had been pushed back to maintaining the defense of Constantinople.
The war brought a large number of wounded to Istanbul, and soon a cholera epidemic broke out, resulting in significant healthcare needs. Most of the governmental and official buildings in Istanbul were turned into hospitals, and the ladies of Istanbul nobility participated voluntarily in the provision of healthcare services.
On November 1st, 1912, Ronya finished a three-week nurse course at the German Hospital - which means she had enrolled in the class at the very beginning of the hostilities. Ronya had been married for less than six months when she became a volunteer war nurse with the Red Crescent.
Certificate of nurse class - 1912
Since Bulgaria was attacking Turkey, with the support of Russia, and Ronya was a Russian subject married to a Bulgarian Jew, it may seem strange that she got involved on the Ottoman Empire's side. However, it seems from the photos below that her case was not so unique: all the nurses seemed to be foreign. According to my father Uriel, "it was the thing to do for well-to-do young ladies at the time...". Maybe it was a way for foreign Jewish residents to prove whose side they were on, especially as Turkey was losing to the enemy.
Ronya in nurse uniform - 1912
Ronya, Balkan War - Constantinople, 1912
Ronya, Balkan War - Constantinople, 1912
Ronya, Balkan War. Constantinople, 1912.
Legend: Kemal Bey, Fraulein Morvien, Fraulein Abramovitz, Saud Bey, Ronya Abraham, ?, Frau Ludner, Mehmed Ahmed, Ali ?, Hussein ? .
Looking at the names at the bottom of the photo, it seems that all the nurses had German and/or Jewish names...
In the January issue of "Die Welt", the Zionist Organisation publication, a brief article appeared under "Short News from Constantinople", mentioning Rornya's "heroic" service during the war:
Die Welt, January 1913.
The gymnastics club "Maccabi", section Balat, has organized a lottery on behalf of Jewish refugees who are accommodated in the suburbs. Two members of the Women's Department, the wife of the President of the organization, Rosa Abramowitz, and Ms. Ronja Abraham, have since the outbreak of the war been active in heroic self-sacrifice as nurses of the Red Crescent (Crescent-sisters) in a Turkish hospital in Halidschoglu on the Golden Horn.
WW1 - 1914-1915
On 28 October 1914, one year after the end of the Balkan War, Turkey entered World War I on the side of Germany and Austria. The enemy: France, England and Russia.
Ronya, who was originally a Russian citizen and had received a Russian education, was again part of the Turkish war effort as a volunteer nurse.
It seems that her participation as a nurse lasted only until 1915.
Ronya, nurse, WW1- 1914 or 1915
Everybody is waving a Turkish flag for the photo, and it looks like Ronya's neighbour is fixing her Red Crescent armband. A previous photo shows her without the armband.
In 1916, Ronya was awarded a bronze medal and received a berat with the Sultan's seal (tugra) in recognition of her services as a nurse during WW1.
Berat with the tugra of Sultan Mehmed Reshad (1916)
"Medals in different levels had been granted to the women whose services regarding the material and spiritual interests of the Ottoman Red Crescent Society were appreciated. Madame Abraham, who served at Sisli Etfal Hospital as a nurse helping the patients with their treatment and recovery, deserves one as well. Based on the special regulations, in accordance with the decision that had been made by the Red Crescent Society, a bronze medal of the same kind was granted to her and thus this imperial Berat has been issued for the grant of this bronze medal. Written in the day 13 Sevval 1334 (August 13 1916)."
Tugra: The big drawing at the top is called a tugra (tughra) - it's the signature of the sultan. The tugra in this document belongs to the 35th Ottoman Sultan Mehmed Reshad (Mehmed V Reshad (2/3 November 1844 - 3/4 July 1918).
Berat: When Sultans granted something to people to show appreciation for their services, he issued a berat. Grant might be a medal, nomination to a higher rank or right to use of place or property. This document was issued for a bronze medal that your grandmother received as an appreciation for her services in the hospital.
Hospital thank-you note
This thank you note was written by the chief doctor of Sisli Etfal Hospital in Istanbul, and was sent to Ronya in 1915. The chief doctor thanks her for her great efforts in taking care of the injured soldiers, in the hardest time of WWI.
Constantinople 1916 - 1922
In July 1916, Aaron Aaronsohn, the brother of Sarah Aaronsohn who had married Haim Abraham a year earlier, arrived in Constantinople. A world-famous agronomist and leader of the NILI spy ring, he paid a visit to Ronya.
He wrote in his diary:
Aaronsohn Diary - July 25,1916
Courtesy of Beit Aaronsohn
(...) I go pick up Ronya and Collen (?) at the Pera Hotel to go to Abramovitch where Dr. Caleb will give me injections against cholera.
Tuesday July 25, 1916
(...) "After 9 am, we go with Ronya to examine Sara's house. We have the keys to the house, but all the rooms are locked, and we need to use a locksmith who forces the doors. We find the house in a mess, and Mrs Blumberg is kind enough to take it upon herself to put things in order.
(...) From there at 1 pm I go to have lunch with Ronya in her apartment, which is well-lit and bright."
What is interesting is that Aaronsohn mentions Ronya and not her husband Moritz Abraham, who was after all Sarah's brother-in-law. This is probably a sign that Ronya maybe knew the Aaronsohn family first, or had a closer relationship with them. Any details however are lost, at least until the unpublished portions of Aaronsohn's diary become accessible and maybe provide more information.
A few days later, miles away in Palestine, Ronya's younger brother Israel Datnowsky died under confusing circumstances - the official story later repeated in the family was that he had died of an epidemic (most likely typhus). However the following entry in Aaron Aaronsohn provides a different version of the events, which may be closer to the truth, since it is a contemporary record:
August 15, 1916, Constantinople:
"Ronya received a telegram from the Jaffa Consulate announcing the death of Datnowsky Israel at Wilhelma, following an accident. This telegram which left Jaffa on the 1st, only arrived here on the 13th."
See Israel Datnowsky's page for the circumstances of Datnowsky's death.
Comite des Dames du Bnei Brit (Ronya, standing, second from the left)
In Constantinople, Ronya's circle was apparently made up predominantly of Western European Jews.
In 1917, Ronya's and Moritz's first son, Gisy (Gedeon), was born
Ronya with first son Gisi, Constantinople, 1917
1918: Ronya's and Moritz's second son, Uriel was born.
Ronya with Gisi and Uly, Constantinople, 1919
In the Summer of 1920, Ronya, the children and their nurse Kitza travelled across Europe. According to the Travel Pass issued by the Italian Authorities in Constantinople, the trip was for "Health and Personal (?)" reasons.
Travel pass issued by the Italian Authorities in Constantinople, 1920.
We ask the Inter-Alliance Authorities, military and civil, to please facilitate travel for Mrs. Abraham and children, who for reasons of health and of interests (?) are traveling to Switzerland and Germany. The above mentioned lady and her children are carrying valid passports.
Kitza, Uly, Gisi and Ronya in Venise, 1920
From Constantinople to Germany
Ronya, not wanting to live in Constantinople and aspiring to a western environment, convinced her husband Moritz to move the family to Germany.
This is probably the last photo of Ronya and Moritz in Constantinople, taken in 1922
Ronya and Moritz, Constantinople, 1922
Ronya, Spanish nationality certificate, Constantinople, 1922
Ronya used a two-year-old photo for this certificate: Uriel looked very different by then.
This is the earliest document showing Ronya (or Moritz) having acquired the Spanish nationality.
Moritz bought an empty lot on LindenmannStrasse in Dusseldorf, for which he commissioned an architect to build their house. Ronya, Uriel and Gisy first came to Dusseldorf in 1922, while Moritz stayed behind in Constantinople until December of that year, taking care of his business, and eventually dissolving his partnership with his brother Haim in an acrimonious dispute.
While the construction of the house went on, Ronya, Gisy, Uriel and their nurse Fraulein Ewald lived in Frau Brockerhoff's boarding house, a guest house popular with artists and intellectuals in Dusseldorf.
Ronya, Uly, Gisy with Mme Cornfeld, in front of the house, Dusseldorf, 1926
Ronya and Fraulein Ewald, the nanny - Dusseldorf, 1925
Ronya, Celerina, 1929
From Dusseldorf to Paris
1930 - Berlin
A postcard dated May 22, 1930 addressed to :
Frau Ronja Abraham
bei Herrn Dr Auerbach
Berlin - Grunewald
Douglas Str 30
It appears that between Dusseldorf and Paris, the family (at least Ronya and the children) stayed with Bertha, or at least in her house, in Berlin.
Paris - 1931
Ronya, balcony of 122 boulevard Murat, Paris, 1933.
In the summer of 1938, Ronya travelled to Palestine, apparently without Moritz. She sailed the S.S. Champollion, making a short stop in Alexandria, and arrived in Haifa on August 22. She left one month later, on September 22, and disembarked in Marseilles on September 28.
During her trip, she visited all her relatives: her sister Bertha and her family (Israel and Lea Auerbach, Israel's brother Elias), Eva, Ascher and Bitia, and Visa De Leon.
Was this just a vacation, an excuse to see the family? Or was she considering moving there as the war loomed?
Ronya's Spanish Passport bore a red stamp: "not valid - including transits - for Germany, Italy, Portugal, Austria and Hungary"
Ronya's passport - 1938
She took another short trip in April, this time to England. She left from Dieppe to Newhaven on April 9, then returned back to Dieppe on April 16, 1939.
What was the purpose of her trip? Did she go there to see a relative? (There may have been a Datnowsky and/or a Rabinowitz in England - or was this later?) Or was she planning to move there in the event of a war? Germany had annexed Austria one month earlier.
In September 1939, the Abraham family moved once more, this time to 35, Rue de Lubeck, as always in Paris 16th.
In May 1940, Germany invaded France, marking the end of the "Phoney War".
On June 3, 1940, the Germans bombed Paris, and half of its population joined a mass exodus, fleeing the German advance. Among them was Ronya's son Uriel, who rode a bicycle all the way to the south of France.
Ronya and her husband Moritz chose to stay in Paris. Why is not clear. Maybe Moritz was already too ill to consider fleeing? Or maybe they simply couldn't imagine what lay ahead for Jews under German rule?
There is no information at all on how Ronya and Moritz survived through the first years of the German Occupation.
In 1942, the situation of Jews in France further deteriorated, with new anti-Jewish laws targeting foreign Jews, including in December the stamping of ID cards with "Jew".
By then, Moritz was not working - most likely because as a Jew he couldn't own a business anymore. His health was not good - although there are no precise details on his ailments, he apparently remained in bed for long periods of time.
How did they survive? Had Ronya already started her knitting business then? (Either Michael Rosenberg or Bitia remembered her coming to Palestine a few years later making her luxury knitwear).
Ronya, like Moritz, was holding a Spanish passport, and as such had been protected - at least up to a point - from Vichy's laws.
This was not the result of the Spanish government's official directives, but of the Spanish Consul in Paris, Bernardo Rolland. Rolland issued "letters of protections" to shield "Spanish" Jews (mostly Jews from the Balkans) living in France.
The Spanish consulate probably defied the German racial laws at least in part to prevent the assets of Spanish Jews from being confiscated by the Germans - assets the Spanish government felt should fall under Spanish control.
Regardless of the actual motivation, the Spanish consul did help save the lives of many Jews with Spanish nationality, including Ronya and Moritz.
In January 1943, Bernardo Rolland sent the following letter to Ronya's husband:
The Spanish Consulate in France certifies that Mr Mauricio ABRAHAM JACOB, a Sepharad, is a Spanish national, and as such benefits from the provisions of the French-Spanish covenants concerning the treatment of Spanish subjects in France.
Two weeks later, on January 31st, 1943, Moritz died.
In March 1943, Moritz's certificate of nationality was cancelled by the Spanish consulate in Paris, and on March 29th, Ronya had a new passport delivered by the Spanish Consulate in Paris to her name.
Although it was now stamped "CANCELLED", Ronya still held on to Moritz' official document, which was most likely crucial in proving that she deserved the protection from the Spanish authorities.
Three weeks later, she left Paris and found refuge in Spain.
Why did Ronya finally decide to leave Paris? Did she fear that with the death of Moritz, her Spanish citizenship would be questioned and would not protect her anymore? While Moritz was a Sepharad, she was a Russian Jew from Latvia - her claim to Spanish protection was clearly more tenuous.
According to Michael Rosenberg, who claimed to have heard Ronya describe her flight to his grand-parents in Jerusalem in the 1940's:
One day there was an "Aktion" against the Jews in Paris and she had gone to someone's funeral (not her husband's, because he had been dead for "many years" (sic)), someone there tipped her off that the Germans were waiting for her in her apartment. She didn't go home, and instead went directly to take a train to Madrid. All she had with her was her purse, but it contained her husbands' "Consul honoraire d'Espagne" (sic) passport which she always carried with her to protect her. Because she carried such document, they had to let her through the border. The passport was not even of Franco's Spain, but of the Monarchy.
Spain - 1943
Ronya crossed the border in Hendaye on April 19, 1943.
According to my sister, the border guard had refused to believe that she was actually Spanish, because she didn't speak the language and, of course, because of her Russian-sounding name and heavy Slavic accent. According to her, at some point the guard turned his head and wasn't looking, so Ronya "simply walked on and crossed the border."
This is clearly an apocryphal story. Although there is no doubt that the border guards must have been dubious of the authenticity of her passport and probably hesitated to let her cross, they apparently had to give in since she did carry both her passport and Moritz' papers and most likely the border officer "looked the other way" - i.e. decided not to stop her, and instead let her cross into Spain.
In any case, the stamp in her passport clearly proves that she crossed legally
In April 1943, she arrived in Spain. Photos taken at that time show her in Barcelona, Madrid and Cadix.
Ronya receive a letter in August 1943. The letter was addressed to "Madame Ronia", 42 Rambla Catalunya. Was "Madame Ronia" an indication that she had changed her identity from Ronya Abraham?
Letter to Madame Ronia, Barcelona, 1943.
While in Spain, she met and befriended other Jewish refugees.
Ronya with Elieser and Sophie Neuhoff, Cadix, Spain, 1943.
The Neuhoffs would go to Palestine with her on the same boat, and their son Alex would become friend with her son Uriel, and would later introduce him to his future wife, Toni...
She was received in Spain with the status of refugee, accepted under the condition that, like all Jewish refugees, her presence would be temporary.
In the beginning of 1944, Spain forced its Jewish refugee population out, and with the help of the Joint (the American Jewish organization), Ronya left Spain for Mandate Palestine.
In the winter of 1944, the SS Nyassa was chartered jointly by two relief agencies - the JDC and the HIAS - to transport 750 refugees from Portugal and Spain to Palestine.
The Nyassa first left from Lisbon with 166 refugees, then arrived in the port of Cadiz in Spain, to take an additional 570 refugees.
The Spanish refugees came mainly from Barcelona and Madrid and had been transported to Cadiz by special trains to coincide with the arrival of the Nyassa in Cadiz on January 24.
Ronya boarded the Nyassa in Cadiz on January 24, 1944.
The sailing of the boat made history by crossing the Mediterranean in war-time and the story was covered at the time by the press in Portugal, Spain, England and Palestine.
Ronya arrived in Palestine on February 2, 1944 after an uneventful journey.
List of passengers - Ronya is #5. Her age is mistakenly given as 82 - she was 53 at the time. Dr. Auerbach is listed as her relative in Jerusalem.
The steamer's arrival in Haifa received a hearty and triumphant welcome, as this was the first ship since war began to arrive in Palestine with a group of legal immigrants from Europe.
Arrival of the SS Nyassa in Haifa. Although it's impossible to tell, I can't help but think that the first person on the left under the flag is Ronya.
Arrival of the SS Nyassa in Haifa
(Photo: Yad Vashem)
Arrival of the SS Nyassa in Haifa
(Photo: Yad Vashem)
Ronya and the Neuhoffs met in 1943 (actually 1944) on the boat that took them from Spain to Palestine (actually they had met before). When they arrived, they were quarantined in Athlit, like all immigrants at he time of the British Mandate. They were "parked like animals for sanitary reasons (?) for 40 days".
These recollections may be incorrect - and probably confuse conditions with incarceration in the Athlit prison; the "40 days" quoted were more likely just a few days of medical observation.
According to Michael Rosenberg:
(Michael remembered Ronya) arriving in Jerusalem from Haifa, maybe in a car, with a round rattan basket which contained all of her possessions at the time.
She came to Jerusalem because this was where her sister(s ?) were.
According to Michael Rosenberg, she spoke German, not Hebrew.
Ronya came with some savings, or maybe someone - maybe on the Mallah side - helped her with some money.
Ronya lived in Talpiot, the modern neighborhood in Jerusalem, and stayed with the Gail family. (?)
Michael who lived in Jerusalem with his grand-parents would see Ronya at least twice a week until the end of the war, or 46.
At the end of July 1946, Ronya left Jerusalem and moved back to Paris.
Ronya - Photo studio Harcourt, Paris
Ronya died on April 28th, 1969, at the age of 77, in her apartment, 3 square de la Dordogne, Paris 16eme.
- Special Thanks:
- Rina Offenbach, Director "Bintivy Ha'apla" - Illegal Immigrant Database and Information Center, Atlit Detention Camp - SPIHS: Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites
For information on the SS Nyassa.
- Bitia Biesel
- Michael Rosenberg
- Alex Neuhoff
- Aaron Aaronsohn Diaries
- The Riga Rabbinate Vital Records