Ronya Schwaab was born in Gomel, Belarus, in 1909. She survived Polish pogroms and witnessed a massacre by the antisemitic tsarist gang the Black Hundred in 1920. Two years later, Ronya immigrated to New York with her mother and two sisters to join her father, whom she had not met before. In New York, she quickly learned English and became a public speaker, denouncing antisemitism and supporting President Roosevelt’s campaign. After a series of department store jobs during the Great Depression, she became an artists' model to support her dancing career. She appeared with Martha Graham and Anna Sokolow's dance companies. She married Eugene Schwaab and had three sons before divorcing him in the 1950s. After a trip to Israel, she grew very interested in helping Jewish communities, which led to her work on behalf of Soviet Jewry. She traveled to the USSR in the 1960s on fact-finding missions and to visit her family, whom the Soviet authorities only allowed her to see for three days. Throughout her trips, she was followed by the KGB. Nonetheless, she was able to gather much information about the actual living conditions of Jews there, and her testimony describes in-depth what she saw. She continued to remain active in Jewish community life later in life, working as a professional book reviewer and lecturer.
Ronya Schwaab is a dancer, writer, lecturer, human rights activist, and advocate for Soviet Jewry. Her comprehensive oral history covers much ground, beginning in Gomel, Belarus, where she was born in 1909. She offers vivid descriptions of her childhood, including the First World War, Jewish holiday observances, women’s education and roles in village life, Jewish/Gentile relations, arranged marriages, and the details of food and dress. Ronya recalls encounters with the Chyornaya sotnya, Gang of the Black Hundred, an anti-revolutionary, tsarist group who tormented, raped, bombed, and murdered Jews.
In the second interview session, Ronya discusses her family life, her children and grandchildren, and their relationship with Judaism. She begins by talking about attempting to escape Belarus and the pogroms by boat surreptitiously. She and her mother and two sisters arrived in the United States in February 1924, where she recalls meeting her father and driving in an automobile for the first time. They settled in the Bronx. Ronya examines the impact of the abuse she has faced, including beatings from her uncle, hostility from the Poles, her family's criticism of her looks, and the mistreatment she encountered as a foreigner in the US. These factors motivated her to learn English, become a dancer, and get involved with the Democratic Party and stumping for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ronya attended Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, a commercial high school where she studied stenography and general subjects, and she worked in the Macy’s shoe department. After graduating with honors, Ronya found work as a secretary in a law firm. She explains that since her arrival in the United States, she went by “Rose,” as her name, along with her sister's name, was changed during processing at Ellis Island to sound more "American." During this time, Ronya attended City College at night, began to dance, worked as a model, and earned a living at the Art Students' League. She studied dance under Anna Sokolow and Martha Graham, became part of a professional dance group, and later danced with the Federal Dance Project of the Works Progress Administration under Helen Tamiris. Ronya recalls meeting and marrying her husband, Eugene Schwaab, who disapproved of Ronya’s profession as a dancer and model and who she describes as a “militant atheist.” After the War, learning about the Holocaust, and seeing how African Americans were treated, Ronya became interested in humanitarian efforts and civil rights. Around this time, she divorced her husband, moved to Boston, joined the American Technion Society, joined Temple Israel, and dedicated more of her life to rediscovering Judaism and helping Jewish communities, which led to her work on the plight of Soviet Jewry. She details her fact-finding missions to Russia with Hadassah, where she visited the surviving members of extended family and met with refuseniks. These efforts connected Ronya with her Jewish roots, so she took Rabbi Mehlmans’ Bible class and embarked on a Jewish spiritual journey that continues to today.
In the third interview session, Ronya discusses more of her family life and background, including her brother Eli Chernin, a John Hopkins educated parasitologist and professor of Tropical Public Health for the Harvard School of Public Health and his sudden death at age 66. Ronya describes other tragedies in her life, including the deaths of two of her sons, her depression that followed, and coping with loss. Ronya details her continued involvement with the Soviet Jewry movement and activism in social and political movements.
In the last session of her interview, she describes in great detail her pained relationship with her gay son Dean, an artist who died of an unnamed disease. Though she told him that she disapproved of his gay "so-called culture," she also still loves him. After his passing and the death of her other son, she fell into a depression. Finally, Ronya reflects on her political activism, the Soviet Jewry movement, trips to Russia, and emotional and spiritual development.
How to cite this page
Oral History of Ronya Schwaab. Interviewed by Vicki Gabriner . 18 January 1997, 26 January 1997, 3 February 1997, 7 February 1997, 18 June 1997. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 11, 2023) <https://jwa.org/oralhistories/schwaab-ronya>.
Oral History of Ronya Schwaab by the Jewish Women's Archive is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://jwa.org/contact/OralHistory.