The secret life of a century-old Scrabble queen
OpinionGuest Columnist

The secret life of a century-old Scrabble queen

Judith Rothstein's incredible life story, as told to her Riverview neighbor Joe Adler

Joe Adler
Judith Polak Rothstein and Joe Adler (Photo courtesy of Joe Adler)
Judith Polak Rothstein and Joe Adler (Photo courtesy of Joe Adler)

One of the first things I did after I moved into my new apartment at The New Riverview senior high-rise was to look for other Scrabble players.

I met several, and we played a number of individual games and watched others play the game, until a kind of consensus formed that there were four very good players: Jean Golub, a quietly pretty 73-year-old grandmother of eight from Cleveland; Earl Parker, a 93-year-old witty grandfather of 12 who had been the first president of Riverview’s tenants’ association; and me, an 83-year-old retired human rights professional.

To me, the most interesting player, and definitely the best, is a feisty old woman named Judith Rothstein. She was 98 when the four of us started playing regular games every Thursday. Last September, a dozen of us honored her 100th birthday with a luncheon. Something someone said in tribute to her that day, plus her European accent, led me to want to learn about Judith’s life. So, I spent several hours interviewing her in her tastefully immaculate apartment.

Here’s what she told me:

Judith Polak Rothstein was born in 1923 in Tilburg, a medium-sized city In the Netherlands. Her Dutch-Jewish roots go back 400 years. Judith was the youngest of three daughters of Alfred and Sarah Van Cleef Polak. Her father was in the leather import business. Her mother was one of the small percentage of Dutch lawyers who were women — a clue to where Judith’s intelligence comes from.

Her oldest sister, Adah, was 20; the middle sister, Edith, was 18 and Judith was 16 on the most fateful day of their lives: May 14, 1940.

Growing up in 1930s Holland, Judith encountered little antisemitism and had friendly relations with her gentile neighbors. But in the 1930s, war was in the air in Europe. Hitler had taken back the Sudetenland, then Austria, then Czechoslovakia. Mussolini invaded Albania and Ethiopia, without interference from the impotent League of Nations. The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) became a proxy war, with the Soviet Union supplying the legitimate Spanish government, and the German Nazis and Italian Fascists supplying much more war material to Franco and his Spanish rebels.

The Spanish city of Guernica was the first city to be massively bombed from the air, in 1937. The second city to suffer that fate four years later was the Dutch city of Rotterdam, on May 14, 1940, four days after Holland’s neutrality — which both sides had honored in World War I — was overrun by the Nazis in their rush to take Paris.

From 1933 on, Jews who had money or connections or the prescience to have studied Hitler’s written or spoken words were fleeing Europe as fast as they could. Hitler had promised that if war came, the Netherlands’ neutrality policy would be honored, but on May 10, 1940, Hitler invaded Holland. The Dutch army resisted as best it could. But after the second massive bombing of a European city, Rotterdam, on May 14, the Dutch government folded.

Judith’s father and his brother Hans were faced with Nazi soldiers on the streets of Tilburg. They knew that sooner or later the lives of their wives and children would be at stake, so they took quick action. They were put in touch with a fishing boat captain who risked his life to help his Jewish neighbors flee to England.

Meanwhile, the brothers found transport for their families from Tilburg to Amsterdam. They traveled as quietly as possible, as the old saying goes “with just the clothes on their backs.”
Along with an armada of fishing boats, trawlers and other small boats, they set out at twilight on May 14, the night of the Rotterdam bombing. It was a day before Holland surrendered.

Judith Polak Rothstein (Photo courtesy of Joe Adler)
Judith remembers seasickness and the sound of bombs dropping nearby. But sometime the next morning, they were safely in English waters — a great speed for fishing boats carrying so many extra people.

When I blurted out that, “It must have cost the brothers a small fortune,” I was shocked when she replied, “It cost nothing.” I responded, “If these captains are not on the wall of honor in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, they should be.”

I can only imagine what went through their heads when the Polaks, years later, learned that thousands of their former countrymen and women had starved to death in real or manmade famines, thousands of gentile resisters were sent to the gas chambers, and 70% of Dutch Jews went to death camps.

After six weeks in England, they were able to book passage for all the Polaks on a Canadian liner returning to Canada. This was a dangerous crossing because Germany was at war with Canada and German U-boats were sinking Allied ships. But their ship took a route just south of Iceland, knowing that the U-boats were not operating that far north in the Atlantic.

After 10 days, they landed in a Nova Scotian port. Quickly on to New York City, the Polak families eventually settled in the Borough of Queens. While their father soon returned to the leather import business, the older daughters went back to college and Judith completed her secondary school year at George Washington High School. As she was just starting to hear stories about the Holocaust, she began her studies at Queens College. In the back of her mind was the consciousness that, had her father waited even a few days, both families would probably have met their end at Auschwitz.

While in college, she met her future husband, Harry Rothstein, who escaped Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938. Judith and Harry married in 1946. After the wedding, her parents moved back to Holland and Alfred returned to the leather trade. Harry, who had fought with the American troops invading Italy at Anzio, continued in his successful work in the drapery business. Judith, with her college degree in home economics, worked as a dietician. She worked until she gave birth to her oldest child, the first of three girls, in 1948.

There was never again any great danger or adventure for the Polaks like they’d experienced in Europe and on the high seas in 1940. Judith describes her life as a wife and mother as a very happy one.
But there was great sorrow, too. Harry accepted an offer to work for a drapery business in Pittsburgh. They moved to a house on Woodmont Street in Squirrel Hill. Later, they moved to Stanton Heights. But Harry suddenly died of a heart attack without warning in 1972 at the age of 48.

Fortunately, he had provided enough life insurance, and Judith had her degree and experience, so life as a single mother was not as traumatic as it was for so many war widows in similar situations.

Judith’s parents moved back to Holland in 1946, but she had her sisters nearby until both of their families moved to Israel in the 1950s. Judith eventually had 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, in America and in Israel.

Judith never remarried but had a long-term relationship with a man who liked to travel. They often visited her Israeli family as well as Switzerland, Italy and other European countries.

Judith doesn’t travel much at 100, but she is in remarkable condition. She’s often seen in her active life around the building with a walker, but I can attest she walks perfectly fine around her apartment with neither a walker nor a cane. She no longer plays mahjong but exercises her mind with lots of Scrabble, bridge and Rummikub. She eats healthily but doesn’t attribute her longevity to any special food or diet. She doesn’t drink except for an occasional Sabbath wine. And she has a group of friends who absolutely adore her.

A final word here about Scrabble.

Earl and I are particularly competitive. We each win about as many games as the other, but Judith wins even more. And it’s how she wins. Earl and I play Scrabble like it’s checkers; Judith plays like it’s chess. On average, it takes us more than two minutes to make a move, often under Judith’s frosty stare and irritated sighs. I always sit to her right. Through most of a game, I am still getting new letters out of the Scrabble bag when she has finished her next move and is looking at me with a “hurry up, mister” expression.

I’ve heard rumors there are some other good players who’ve recently moved into Riverview. Some day one of us four will have to be replaced, and it won’t necessarily be Judith. I suspect the replacement will be the Englishwoman who recently moved here. In the first game Linda and I played a week ago, although I made the nearly impossible feat of back-to-back seven-letter words, she still beat me by 50 points! If and when she plays Judith one-on-one, Judith will definitely give her a run for her money. I can’t wait to see that game. PJC

Joe Adler is retired from a career in human rights law enforcement at the city, state and federal levels. He was born in 1940.

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