A week after returning from her mother’s funeral in 1985, Anne Gross received a package at her home in Denver. She carried it to the kitchen table, opened it and swallowed her disbelief.
The package contained journals written by her mother chronicling her lifetime battle with polio and its attendant shame — raw emotions she never shared with her
daughter. Carol Rosenstiel contracted polio in 1927 at the age of two. Paralyzed from the waist down, she married, had two children, mastered the harpsichord and recorded with Igor
Stravinsky. What sounds like an exemplary victory over physical limitations was actually an unspoken plea for acceptance in an unaccommodating world.
“This was a time when polio victims didn’t venture outside their houses,” Gross tells the Intermountain Jewish News.
“People blamed the victims. Disability was shameful, and my grandparents were very ashamed. This was the prevailing attitude toward disabilities. “My grandparents, Isadore ‘Iz’ and Evelyn Greenfeld, took the lessons they learned from being Eastern European Jews — downplaying their religion, hiding their vulnerabilities — and silenced all issues relating to my mother’s condition.
“But I think they were extreme, because they never talked to her about it at all. She was forced to live as if her paralysis was a minor impediment.”
Gross mentions a family anecdote that illustrates the intergenerational thread of shame and secrecy.
“My grandfather rose from using a pushcart to being the owner of his own clothing manufacturing company,” she says. “But early in his marriage he lost his job and didn’t tell his wife.
“Every day he left the house as if he were going to work, sat on a park bench until it was time to go home and then told my grandmother what happened at work.”