|In this 2006 photo from the Jewish Standard, Peggy Norris, left, the Ridgewood library’s historian, and Catherine Taub hold a framed document under a photo of Varian Fry. Ken Hilfman
I first read about Catherine Taub in the New York Times, in a 2001 article about Varian Fry headed “A Hometown Hero for Ridgewood.”
Few people recognized that strange-sounding name before Catherine rescued it from an obscure corner of history. Few people knew that Fry had saved some 2,000 (mainly Jewish) intellectuals, artists, and others from the Holocaust and was the first American named a “Righteous Gentile” by Yad Vashem. (You can read about him in “A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry,” by Sheila Isenberg.)
Catherine, who lived in Ridgewood and died May 28, sadly and all too soon, learned about the former Ridgewood resident when she saw an exhibit about him at the Jewish Museum in New York. As she recalled years later, “I thought to myself, ‘How did we not know about him?'”
She made it her mission to tell the people in his and her hometown, and anyone else who did not know, about this good and nearly forgotten man. As we noted in a 2006 cover story, “her efforts resulted in the dedication … of a Ridgewood street as ‘Varian Fry Way,’ exhibits at the Ridgewood Library [and also at Ramapo College], and a scholarship in Fry’s name at Ridgewood High School.”
Tellingly, it is called the Varian Fry Humanitarian Scholarship (emphasis mine). It was important to Catherine that it be awarded not on the basis of grade-point average or because of financial need. She wanted it, rather, to go to the student who wrote the best essay about performing good deeds – “tikkun olam,” Catherine told me for that 2006 article, “repairing the world, the great virtue of caring and making a difference,” of following the model, in a sense, of Varian Fry.
Catherine, by the way, had that “great virtue of caring,” in large ways and small.
In her research about the people who’d been saved by Fry, she came across two who lived locally, Isi Canner of Teaneck and Jeanette Berman of Paramus. Realizing that they were elderly and that their stories should be told as soon as possible, she went to see them – and embarked on a great and kind friendship, taking them to lunch and on expeditions to dispel the frequent loneliness of old age. Isi, especially, was often housebound, and she did errands for him and dropped in from time to time to make sure that he was all right. (She wrote a loving tribute about him for this newspaper when he died some years ago.)
The Standard recorded Catherine’s efforts, and she joined with us and with the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies to advocate for a U.S. commemorative stamp honoring Fry for his wartime heroism. The stamp did not materialize, but in 2007, the Postal Service and Ridgewood’s Acting Postmaster, Mary Ellen Murray, unveiled what’s called a “pictorial cancellation” – a special postmark – that reads: “Varian Fry – Celebrating 100 years of his birth, October 15, 1907 to ‘007, Ridgewood Holocaust Hero, Ridgewood Station New Jersey 07450.”
Catherine came to the farewell party the Standard gave for me when I retired in 2011, but she was gravely ill. She had been undergoing treatment for esophageal cancer and could neither eat the delicious meal nor speak above a rusty whisper. She had come for my sake and brought me gifts. She was always bringing me, and everyone else, I imagine, gifts. It was her pleasure.
She wanted, very strongly, to live, and she did everything she could in the ensuing months to do so. She did it so well that she seemed to be thriving.
The next year and a half we tried to meet every month, and she was to be a guest at this year’s family seder. But at the last minute I got an email that she was bowing out. That was the last I heard from her. Now I know, of course, that she was, once again, very ill.
This is a harsh world, and growing harsher. Unending wars, terrorism, all-around viciousness threaten us physically and spiritually. Catherine understood that we need to know about lives like Fry’s, to lift us up from this ugliness, to remind us of beautiful goodness, kindness, caring. Lives, in fact, like her own.
We will miss her – but let us celebrate her here, our own “hometown hero,” Catherine Taub.
Rebecca Kaplan Boroson is editor emerita of this newspaper.