Two girls, one passport

Two girls, one passport, November 2010

‘We had waited 62 years for this miraculous moment.’

By Cherie Rosenstein, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

Monique Valbot (L) and Cherie Rosenstein meet for the first time in 62 years, at Dayton International Airport, Sept. 23

The day began like any ordinary Monday. But within hours, drama and intrigue would bring the day pulsating to a thrilling, suspenseful climax. When the phone rang, I picked it up and heard my son’s voice.

“Mom, I just received the strangest message on Facebook from someone looking for you. It’s from a rabbi in Brooklyn and he’s not asking for money, but he is looking for you. I want to check this out before I give him any information. I’ll call you back. Bye.”

I wondered who could possibly be searching for me. I didn’t know a soul in Brooklyn. As I wracked the recesses of my brain, I was totally clueless.

Within an hour, Johnny called again. “Mom, you‘re not going to believe this but there are not one but two rabbis looking for you. They want you to contact them. I’m not sure what this is all about, but it seems like they’re helping a woman find you. Does the name Monique mean anything?”

Breathless, my skin tingling, I thought, “Did I just hear what I think I heard? Gosh, can it be? No, it’s impossible!”

I replied, “Please find out all you can and get back to me.” I closed my eyes, tented my fingers, and rested them on my forehead. I asked, “Monique, can this really be you?” So many years and miles had passed between us.

My memory was eerily floating back to decades ago. It was early 1948 and I was one of several dozen children living in a Jewish orphanage in Paris. My name was Maria Helena Chuchnowicz and my parents had died at Bergen-Belsen during World War II. One day, a man took me from the orphanage and rode with me on a bicycle to my new home in a beautiful, big apartment building at 37 Rue Charles Laffitte in Neuilly sur Seine.

This was the home of a very special family: Eleanor Bohne-Hene and her two charming daughters, Monique and Catherine. Like me, Monique was 5 years old. They began calling me Cherie, French for dear. I arrived with a dress, a doll and no identification papers.

Though I was unaware of the drama surrounding me, there was already a plan underway to whisk me into America, papers or no papers.

After several weeks of enjoying my new life with Monique and Catherine, Mrs. Bohne-Hene told me she was taking me with her on a long trip to America. She dyed my hair blond to look like Monique and was bringing me into America on Monique’s passport.

Tearfully I bid farewell to my newfound “sisters” and wondered if I would ever see them again.

I was overwhelmed by the size and noise of the TWA plane which was whisking me to a new life in a strange place across the sea. We landed at LaGuardia and then continued on to the Greater Cincinnati Airport, where we were met by a smiling, attractive couple, John and Libby Moskowitz. Rabbi Eliezer Silver and Rev. Samuel Schmidt, both of blessed memory, were instrumental in bringing me to Cincinnati.

Cherie Rosenstein at age 5, shortly after her arrival in Cincinnati, 1948

When the Moskowitzes approached them to find a Jewish orphan to adopt, Rabbi Silver and Rev. Schmidt worked doggedly to bring me over. At this time, Eleanor Bohne-Hene was secretary to Rev. Schmidt in the Paris office of Vaad Hatzalah, an Orthodox Jewish rescue organization.

During her short stay, Mrs. Bohne-Hene helped me adjust to my new home, telling me that the Moskowitzes would be my new parents who would look after me and take very good care of me. After two weeks, Mrs. Bohne-Hene left and returned to France.

Because no one here spoke French and I didn’t understand English, I felt utterly alone and abandoned. Gradually my new parents, with the help of an English-French dictionary, were able to converse with me and the formidable wall between us slowly began to crumble. As they showered me with love and attention, they made me feel unafraid and I started to acclimate to my new life in this new wonderful world.

The ring of the phone jarred my reverie, bringing me back to the present. Johnny told me that after speaking to Rabbi Saadya Notik and Rabbi Levy Goldberg, both connected with Chabad in Brooklyn, everything sounded like the real thing and advised me to call them for more information.

Monique and Jean-Pierre were vacationing in New York and were outside the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights section when they ran into the French-speaking Rabbi Goldberg. Monique told him about a Jewish orphan her family had taken in, that her mother had taken this orphan to America, that they soon lost touch with Cherie, and that Monique had been searching for her.

When Rabbi Goldberg repeated this story to Rabbi Notik, the latter applied a bit of Internet savvy and dug up the biographical story I wrote for The Dayton Jewish Observer three years ago. In the piece, I wrote that I had entered America as Monique Bohne.

After speaking to both rabbis, my first instinct was guarded. But as the rabbis provided more personal information on Monique, I asked myself, “How can I possibly doubt two rabbis, from Chabad yet?” I began to accept what was happening and elation replaced my doubts.

My husband, Stu, and I checked out the logistics to reunite with Monique and her husband. It was easier and more affordable to bring them to Dayton than for us to fly to New York in the limited time we all had available; they were leaving the country that Sunday. We would bring them in Thursday and return them to New York Friday morning.

On Tuesday, Rabbi Goldberg called me and said someone wanted to speak to me. Within seconds, Monique was on the phone with her lilting French accent.

“Hello Cherie! This is Monique.” I shrieked, “Monique, is it really you?” For the next few minutes we spoke like two long lost friends, remembering how we were like twin sisters, born only one week apart. Monique and her husband accepted our offer to fly to Dayton. I was enveloped by a magical spell. Shivers went up my spine.

Feverishly I got ready for the big day, sprucing up the house and making preparations. I was so excited I could hardly eat or sleep. At the airport, we were greeted by photographers and reporters from WHIO-TV and the Dayton Daily News, and my daughter’s family as we all awaited Monique’s arrival. I held up a sign with Monique’s name so she would know me. We anxiously watched the travelers entering the lobby after deplaning.

Monique and Jean-Pierre saw me first, came over and hugged me. My eyes welled up as Monique and I looked at each other. With her shy demeanor, twinkling eyes and short hair, she looked like an angel with glasses and invisible wings.

We had waited 62 years for this miraculous moment. I took her hands and said, “Monique, you shared your room with me. You have no idea how long I’ve been looking for you and wondering if I would ever see you again. I was in Paris in early May and could not find you.”

She replied with a wistful smile, “I have been looking for you too. Jean-Pierre and I are so happy to be here, now that we found you.”

Kathryn Burcham of WHIO and Meredith Moss of the Dayton Daily News interviewed us as cameras flashed and rolled. I was so nervous and overwhelmed by it all.

As we lunched at our home, we tried to catch up on 60-plus years of news. When Monique told me that her mother, Eleanor Bohne-Hene, had died eight years ago, I was saddened to know I would never be able to personally thank her for all she did for me. Her father had passed away as well.

But I was totally floored when I discovered Monique and her family were Jews, not Catholics as I had believed.

“Monique, if you were Jewish, where were you during the war?” I asked.

She replied, “We stayed in Switzerland until the war ended. Then it was safe for us to return to Paris.”

In May 2010, Cherie took this photo of the apartment building where she had stayed with Monique’s family

During the afternoon we looked over pictures Stu and I had taken in Paris during our May visit there, including the beautiful apartment building in which we lived back in 1948. We gave them pictures not only of the apartment building, but of their momentous arrival at the airport, which Stu had hurriedly printed up. I gave her a scarf I had knitted as a gift.

Then I got out the letters Monique’s mother, father and grandmother had written my parents during the first 12 years after my arrival here. She wanted to know why my parents did not answer the letters since her mother had anxiously waited for replies.

I gently explained that her father — who was separated from her mother even when I was taken into their home — had attempted to extort my adoptive parents. Her father wrote my parents that he planned to go to the U.S. immigration authorities to report my illegal entry on Monique’s passport. Then, he followed through on that threat. Afraid of losing me to deportation, my parents ended all correspondence with Eleanor Bohne-Hene and her family.

I explained that Congress eventually passed a bill allowing me to stay in America, that I was officially adopted by my American family and that I became a citizen at 10 years of age.

As I watched her read each letter, her face mirrored the gamut of different emotions: love, concern and pain. She was surprised by the strong language in her father’s letters. I promised to send her copies.

Then she asked when we were returning to Europe. Stu told her we had planned a Scandinavian cruise for August 2011. Monique and her husband invited us to visit and stay with them in Grenoble afterward. What a surprise to find they live in Grenoble. It’s no wonder I could not find them in Paris. Now we have definite plans to reunite next summer to rekindle and renew our friendship.

During a relaxed dinner out, we covered many topics, from their activities to politics. We were so caught up in our chatter that time flew much too fast. We returned to the house and watched the taped news segment from WHIO, reliving the thrill of that morning again.

The next morning, our reunion made the front page of the Dayton Daily News. We made a stop at Meijer to buy more copies. The greeter and cashiers treated us like celebrities. It was all surreal.

At the airport, we bid adieu with more hugs and kisses. It was so hard to say au revoir. We look forward to next August when we shall meet again.

By the weekend, the news hit Yahoo and was bouncing all over cyberspace. We were so swept up by the serendipitous incredibility of it all. I could not believe our good fortune in finding each other.

I am grateful to Rabbi Notik and Rabbi Goldberg, my family, Meredith Moss and WHIO-TV, and especially The Dayton Jewish Observer for the part they played in making this incredible miracle happen.

My Mother’s passing in June has been a profound loss in my life. While I have lost my Mother, I have regained a sister when Monique found me. In her own ethereal way, maybe Mother lent a heavenly hand in reuniting us.

I can’t help wondering: what if Monique and Jean-Pierre had not gone to New York? What if they had not gone to the Jewish Children’s Museum? What if they had not run into Rabbi Goldberg? Rabbi Notik attributes Internet savvy and a bit of Divine providence to unravelling the mystery of this long, lost Jewish orphan.

The day of our reunion was also my husband’s birthday and the first day of Sukkot. It was indeed an unforgettable, thankful day. After all, it’s not everyday that two 5-year-olds find each other after 62 years!

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