RIO DE JANEIRO (JTA) — At the Pan American Games in Medellin, Colombia last month, spectators, reporters and event organizers lined up eagerly along a swimming pool to watch a 400-meter medley . They were there to see Nora Tausz Ronai, who would finish the race – which involves breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and freestyle – despite being 98 years old.
After stepping out of the pool, Tausz Ronai received a full minute of applause. When the medical staff offered him a wheelchair, she dismissed him, El Colombiano reported.
“When I’m in the pool, I feel like I’m resting – obviously not physically, but morally. The pool saves me from many oppressive situations,” Tausz Ronai told JTA. “Some situations are maddening. If you swim, you don’t cry. It’s like being brainwashed from the inside.
In addition to her achievements in the pool, all earned since she started swimming competitively at 69 – including breaking several national and regional records for her age groups at the Brazilian, South American and Pan American Games – Tausz Ronai’s Holocaust story of perseverance has added to its local legend and inspired legions of Brazilian athletes young and old.
“She suffered so many losses just because she was Jewish, overcame the odds and moved on. Like in swimming, the challenge is consistency and determination,” Cinthia Griner, a 61-year-old Jewish athlete who recently won the title of “Queen of the Sea” for swimming the entire Copacabana beach in Rio. “It’s very moving to see how much she is celebrated and admired by the other swimmers, who are lining up for a photo with her.”
Born Nora Tausz in 1924, in what was then the Italian town of Fiume – and what is now Rjeka, Croatia – her grandfather was a traditional and observant Jew. But her father, who married a Jewish woman, ended up getting baptized and converting to Catholicism amid a family feud involving small amphibians. This was before Tausz Ronai was born, leaving her “technically Catholic.”
“My father’s aversion to religion began in his childhood. As he prepared for his bar mitzvah, the rabbi complained that he wasn’t studying enough. My grandmother was furious and threw the salamanders he had carefully picked up out the window and the cats ate them,” Tausz Ronai explained.
After Nora was born, Edoardo Tausz became president of a Hungarian insurance agency. But in 1935, the Hungarian government enacted a law prohibiting non-citizens from holding high-ranking positions. The company offered him a chance to obtain Hungarian citizenship, but he rejected this decision as an opportunist, quit his job and joined an Italian insurance company.
In 1938, the enactment of race laws in Italy stripped Jews of their citizenship. Tausz lost his job overnight without any compensation, his retirement savings account was seized, and his children Nora and Giorgio were kicked out of school.
“There was nothing to do. The government said we were of the ‘Jewish race’. We were not connected to the official Jewish community. When my grandfather died, no one could afford his burial Even my cousin, who was very Catholic and went to the Benedictine school, was kicked out overnight by the priest. He ended up in Auschwitz,” Tausz Ronai said in an interview with the Primo Levi Center in 2020.
Lacking nationality and resources, Edoardo Tausz groomed his family to leave, reaching out to several countries including Australia, Argentina and the United States. He even found a New York City phone book and called various Tausz families for help, but never received a response.
After Italy entered the war in the summer of 1940, the mayor ordered a roundup of all Jewish men in Fiume.
“They arrived before dawn, maybe 4 a.m., about six men in uniform with bayonets and guns in their hands. They took my father and went to get my brother. My mum begged for Giorgio because he was ‘just a kid’, when he was actually 18. [The soldiers] gave up and left [Giorgio] behind,” recalls Tausz Ronai.
Giorgio was eventually caught at a train station as he tried to escape. Although “technically Catholic,” his papers bore the word “Jew,” so he was taken to the Torretta detention camp, where his father was also imprisoned.
“At least we knew where they were. All we could do was bring them food. I guess in Germany we would have been worse off,” said Tausz Ronai.
The Germans soon began taking in Jewish wives and children. Tausz Ronai and his mother enlisted an old school friend of Edoardo Tausz, a Catholic pastor named Nino Host Venturi. He intervened to free Tausz’s men after they had spent two months in the camp. Soon after, all the Jews detained in Torretta were taken to a rice factory in Trieste and killed.
Edoardo Tausz’s conversion to Catholicism was not enough to absolve him and his family of anti-Semitism, but it became the reason they survived.
“The Vatican had made 3,000 visas for Brazil available to Jewish converts, which was our case. Visas, however, were very expensive. My aunt Valeria, who worked for the Vatican trading dollars on the black market, managed to get our visas through her contacts. It saved us,” Tausz Ronai said.
In 1941, the Tausz family arrived in Rio de Janeiro, where 17-year-old Tausz Ronai’s aversion to religiosity grew stronger. However, perhaps unconsciously, his Jewish roots have continued to permeate aspects of his life since then.
In high school, she didn’t befriend anyone except a classmate named Elias Lipner, a religious Jew who had a crush on her.
“It was an island of culture, the only one I could talk to. However, from the religious point of view, a common life would not be possible. I wouldn’t light Shabbat candles. I would not hide my house. I would not circumcise my sons,” Tausz Ronai said.
Her best friend, Judith Grunfeld, also Jewish, introduced her to Paulo Ronai, the Hungarian Jew whom she would marry in 1952 and with whom she would spend 40 years, until his death at the age of 85 in 1992.
The couple were atheists and spoke Hungarian to each other, the language Tausz Ronai learned fluently after living in Budapest for four years as a child.
“I needed to exchange ideas and possibly convince my partner with arguments. Elias’ argument was tradition. I didn’t need Judaism at all. Paulo thought like me,” explained Tausz Ronai, pointing out that they had a civil marriage without hoppa.
Tausz Ronai – who is fluent in Italian, Fiumano (a Venetian dialect), Hungarian, German, French, English and Portuguese – would become an accomplished architect and write three books, including one on the story of his life and another for children. Paulo Ronai was a renowned translator, philologist and critic.
Born in Budapest, he was sent to a labor camp in 1940, where he remained for six months, before obtaining a visa and emigrating to Brazil in 1941. He saved his mother, his sisters and his brothers-in-law, but his Magda’s first wife was murdered by the Nazis on the banks of the Danube.
Nora and Paulo Ronai raised their Brazilian-born daughters Cora and Laura as atheists and culturally marked national holidays such as Christmas and Easter. But many descendants of Laura and Cora Ronai are educated as Jews. Some went to Israel on Birthright trips and attended Jewish summer camps.
“My mother is a real Jewish mother, even if she doesn’t consider herself to be one,” said Laura Ronai, whose grandchildren attend a Brazilian Jewish school.
Cora Ronai, who is a renowned columnist for Rio’s biggest newspaper, O Globo, has traveled the world with her work but will be visiting Israel for the first time for her grandson’s bar mitzvah in December.
“It’s a mixture of curiosity and expectation. There’s this feeling that I’m finally going to visit relatives, my family,” she told JTA. “Rituals are the meeting point of past generations and future generations. I see Fabio’s bar mitzvah as a pact he will make with his ancestors, a commitment to honor them.
In March, the journalist was invited to speak to her grandchildren and colleagues at an ORT Jewish school, where she spoke about her career and her family’s Jewish roots, as well as swimming achievements from his mother.
“Whenever I find myself in a predominantly Jewish environment, everything feels so familiar to me – from the food to the people and the conversations,” Cora Ronai added.
Aside from rituals, the family has always supported Jewish causes.
“When Israeli athletes were killed in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, I took some of my most important medals and sent them to the Israeli Embassy to send to families in mourning,” said Tausz Ronai, who has also planted several trees in Israel. through the Jewish National Fund to commemorate his loved ones. “Whenever I can, I stand up for Israel.”
She was engaged in sports from an early age, as both of her parents were athletes in Italy – her father was a rower and fencer, and her mother played tennis – and she became a fan of skiing and fencing. Upon her arrival in Brazil, Tausz Ronai began to devote herself to diving and swimming, which she did alongside her career as an architect and university professor.
I see Fabio’s bar mitzvah as a pact he will make with his ancestors, a commitment to honor them
Tausz Ronai only started competing in 1993, aged 69, after the death of her husband. Since then, she has won 13 gold medals and broken 12 world records at the World Masters Championships, an international competition for athletes over 35. At the 2014 World Masters Swimming Championships in Montreal, Nora Ronai swam the 200-metre butterfly in under nine minutes to set a world record — because she became the oldest swimmer to ever complete the event.
Patricia Filler Amorim, a former Brazilian-Jewish Olympic acrobatic swimmer and multiple Maccabi Games medal winner, called Tausz Ronai a “benchmark athlete.”
“Winners don’t give up, they’re always looking for the next dream, the next challenge, which keeps them very much alive. For us Jews in particular, living and resisting is essential,” Filler Amorim said.
Tausz Ronai best summed up how her Jewishness persisted within her.
“My most Jewish trace is to ask questions, to reflect, to distinguish right from wrong based on ethics. I was lucky. I endured. I survived,” she said.