(New York Jewish Week via JTA) — A recent fall meant Rose Girone spent her 110th birthday in a Long Island rehab facility. But nothing could stop her friends and family from giving her exactly the right gift: red wool and brand-new knitting needles.
“Rose cannot imagine her life without knitting,” Girone’s daughter, Reha Bennicasa, 83, told the New York Jewish Week.
Dina Mor, who owns The Knitting Place in Port Washington, New York, was among the guests to join Girone for the birthday celebration Jan. 13 that turned her dear friend, mentor and former employee into a supercentenarian — the official term for someone who lives to 110 and beyond.
“When Rose turned 105, she turned to me and said, ‘I need to retire,” Mor recalled. At 110 and even after a COVID-19 scare, Mor said, Girone still “had it.”
Girone’s passion for knitting has made her well known in the New York-area knitting community in recent decades, but it also played a critical role in her family’s survival earlier in her life.
Girone (née Raubvogel) was born in 1912 in Janov, Poland. After a brief move to Vienna, the family settled in Hamburg, Germany, where they ran a theatrical costume shop. She loved playing there — especially sliding down the banisters of the two-story building. In Hamburg, Girone learned to knit from an aunt, according to Bennicasa, and she enjoyed it immediately.
Rose married Julius Mannheim in an arranged marriage in 1938; later that year, the couple moved to Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), just as the Nazi-run pogrom known as Kristallnacht initiated waves of violence against Germany’s Jews. Mannheim was arrested and transported to the Buchenwald concentration camp and Girone, eight months pregnant, briefly fled the city with her mother and uncle to stay out of harm’s way.
Alone and afraid, Girone was determined to get out of Nazi Germany. She found a brief window of opportunity when, in 1939, her cousin, Richard Tand, sent her a paper he said was a visa, written in Chinese. Shanghai was one of the last open ports in the world and Girone presented the visas to the Nazi authorities and was able to get her husband released from Buchenwald.
As Bennicasa recalls, “They let my father out with the proviso that we pay them and get out of the country within six weeks, and so we did.”
They were allowed to leave with 10 reichsmarks — roughly $40 today — and no valuables or jewelry. After a month-long voyage aboard a German liner — which required Jews to dine and swim separately from non-Jewish Germans — the young family arrived in Shanghai.
Conditions in the Chinese city were difficult. The family traded whatever linens and trinkets they brought with them and then needed to depend on aid from relief agencies. Eventually, Mannheim found work as a taxi driver. Girone recalls living on “oodles of noodles,” according to her 1996 interview with The USC Shoah Foundation.
Still, Girone was able to find wool, and she knit clothes for her baby girl. An entrepreneurial Viennese Jewish man saw her creations and thought she could put her talent to use, earning them both money. He invited her to sell her work, saying he would teach her about business. Together, they brought her sample knits to an upscale store in Shanghai where the boutique’s owner suggested ways to make the pieces more elegant. Girone took the feedback and began to design and knit sweaters, with help from Chinese women, as a way to make a living.
Knitting was more than a source of much-needed income: She credited her colleagues with giving her the strength she needed to survive. Girone, according to Bennicasa, “lived a sheltered life in Germany. The other women in Shanghai made her stronger.”
In 1941, Nazi-allied Japan, which occupied parts of China, forced the Jewish refugees into a one-square-mile ghetto in Hongkou, the poorest part of Shanghai. Girone’s family moved into a tiny room under a staircase that once served as a bathroom. There was a single bed for the three of them; the mattress was infested with roaches and bed bugs. Rats would gnaw their way through the hardwood floors and climb over the family while they slept.
There was a bright spot of ghetto life: At one of the Heims, or community homes set up for refugees, a rabbi would give inspirational sermons to the community. “He was a fabulous speaker and I would always stand in line to hear him,” Girone said in the Shoah Foundation interview.
The final years of the war were filled with frequent bombings. “It was really horrible,” Girone continued. “I was panic-stricken.” Bennicasa remembers playing with hot shrapnel in the streets once air raids ended.
Fortunately, another voyage would provide refuge. In 1947, the family was granted a visa for the United States. Girone insisted on completing her knitting commissions before they set sail. “I had to finish what I promised,” she said.
Again, there were limitations on what the family could take. Each person was only permitted to leave China with $10, but Girone hid $80 cash inside buttons on her hand-knit sweaters, according to a Patch article about her 99th birthday. They traveled by ship to San Francisco, ultimately ending up in New York via train where they were reunited with Girone’s mother, brother and grandmother, who had all survived the war.
The couple and Bennicasa, then 9, moved into a hotel as part of a refugee settlement program. Girone was determined to help provide for her family. She found work as a knitting instructor — but her husband did not muster the same motivation. After years of Girone urging him to find his footing in America, they divorced.
In 1968, she met and married Jack Girone and they moved to Whitestone, Queens. Rose Girone was thriving as a knitting teacher and was cultivating her own knitting community. She soon opened a knitting shop in Rego Park, Queens, with another knitter; after a short while they expanded to a second location in Forest Hills.
After a year or two, the partners split and they each kept a store — Girone’s design expertise made her store on Austin Street stand apart.
“Mother was pretty proud of all her designs,” Bennicasa said. “People would bring ads from Vogue and the like and say they wanted something just like this particular picture. Some with intricate patterns, Mother would sit, figure it out, lots of times with graph paper. She loved it.”
When Girone turned 68 in 1980, she sold her business. But she never stopped knitting. She began volunteering at a not-for-profit knitting shop in Great Neck — which is where Girone first met Mor.
One day, according to The Knitting Place podcast, Mor arrived at the shop; she was struggling with a sweater she was knitting for her husband, Erez. Girone offered to rip out the back panel and urged her to go distract herself at an adjacent cafe so “it would hurt less” to see her stitches unfurled.
Girone took great care to help Mor improve her knitting technique, and the two became close. “Mother saw that Dina had a knack for knitting, so that when Dina voiced that she would love to open her own store, she was happy to help,” Bennicasa said.
“‘If you go, I go,’ Rose said to me,” Mor said — and subsequently Girone worked at Dina’s shop in Port Washington for nearly 15 years.
Even after Girone’s retirement five years ago, the two remained close. During a visit last fall, Mor recalled, the first thing Girone said was: “How’s business?”
Mor’s affection for Girone runs deep. For her 100th birthday, she commissioned a surprise painting of Girone at the center of a table in The Knitting Place, surrounded by her knitting friends and students.
“Looking at it gives [my mother] memories and makes her feel good,” said Bennicasa.