MARBLEHEAD – He was 17. She was 15. They were madly in love. They had just made it to Vienna together, by the skin of their teeth, lacking money or valid passports. On a journey across Europe, they bartered broaches, cartons of cigarettes, and Swiss Army knives to avoid the arrests, deportations, and murders that had befallen so many of their friends and relatives.
This may sound like “Casablanca” or a John le Carré novel, but it is actually just a small snippet of the incredible true story of Robert and Bery Sanford, a Romanian Jewish couple living in Marblehead who recently collaborated on a series of memoirs about their experiences during World War II. In October, they presented three of these books at a Lunch and Learn event at the JCC of the North Shore: Bery’s memoir “To Life: A Journey;” Robert’s memoir, “The Leap to a Life of our Own;” and “Gerda, the Girl Who Became a Spy,” the story of Bery’s relative, who became an important spy for the Russians.
These books are part of a recent explosion of creativity and memory that has produced nine books in the past eight months. Robert, 91, a retired engineer and professor of chemistry, physics, and international business, began writing after colon cancer and a terrifying car accident in short succession convinced him he had to tell his story while he still had time.
“I was wondering how much time I had left. That convinced me not only to start writing, but I sped up things,” said Robert. “I love to write. My physical existence depends a great deal on how I exercise my brain. I find the most compensation in sitting down at the computer and allowing ideas to evolve.”
For most of 2019, Robert has spent hours each day writing a science fiction trilogy on quantum physics and philosophy, travel stories from his years as a scientist and academic, and his own story of escaping the Holocaust in Europe.
Robert was born Isador Strulovici in 1928 in Botoşani, Romania, a mid-sized city in the country’s northeast that has produced a disproportionate number of famous people, into a large family of moderately observant Jews who owned a liquor business and lived peacefully until the outbreak of World War II. When he was 14, he met Bery, an only child raised by her grandparents in Bucharest, and decided he would one day marry her. As the war raged on and they both fought to survive the Nazis, their two stories converge into a heart-stopping thriller involving espionage, bribery, conscription, and eventually, redemption.
After months of separation at the end of the war, Robert and Bery were finally reunited in Paris, and then got visitors’ visas to come to New York City.
Shortly after arriving in America, Robert was drafted to fight in the Korean War (even though he wasn’t yet a citizen), and was honorably discharged, despite not having legal papers. This was partially thanks to an intervention from New York Senator Herbert H. Lehman. After that, he went to college and graduate school on the GI Bill, and became a physicist, chemist, and professor. He got hired by General Electric in Lynn, so he and Bery moved to Marblehead, where they raised three children. They now have seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
In “To Life: A Journey,” Bery tells her own remarkable story. She sat with Robert each day, retelling her story about her own life and that of her father’s cousin Gerda, a spy for the Russians who helped turn the tide of the war by informing about Nazi weaknesses before the Battle of Stalingrad. Bery was born in Galați as the only child of two parents in an unhappy marriage. Eventually, her mother left her father, and moved back in with her parents, who helped raise their granddaughter.
When the war broke out and the Russians took over Romania, Bery, her mother, her stepfather, and Robert embarked on a quest through Hungary, Germany, Austria, and France that eventually ended in their freedom. Sadly, most of Bery’s relatives did not survive. Her grandmother died in a concentration camp holding a doll she believed was Bery, and her uncle dug his own grave before crying, “Long live Romania!”
Unlike many survivors, Bery told her children her story, even if it was hard to relive. “I didn’t hide anything. I told them that my grandparents died, they knew about concentration camps, they knew about my uncle being shot,” she said.
Robert said having Bery at his side has helped him process the turmoil of his early years and the guilt that comes with surviving when so many did not. “I helped Bery a lot. She helped me a lot,” he said. “I’m more fragile than you think. I told Bery a little while ago that without her, I’d go to pieces. But I am a Jew. I always will be one.”