By Katie Fallon
Despite a wartime escape from Nazi-occupied France and a youth spent in pre-Castro Cuba, Rose Cunningham has retained the ability to find the joy in life.
Cunningham, an Atlanta resident since coming to the United States as a war bride with husband John following World War II, spoke to the Kiwanis Club of Sandy Springs on July 19 and painted a picture of quite the colorful life.
Born Jewish and raised Catholic, Cunningham’s childhood began in Romania. A few months prior to the beginning of World War II in the Fall of 1939, Cunningham came home to find her family, including her French father and Romanian mother, packing their bags.
“[My father] said we were leaving because if we didn’t, we were going to die,” Cunningham said. “He was willing to go anywhere.”
The family soon fled to France ahead of the looming cloud of the war, but eventually fled Paris one day before the German invasion. In 1942, after hiding in Marseilles for two years, the family escaped from France on a freighter carrying 500 Jewish refugees to Havana, Cuba. The six-week journey, which cost $500 per person, included a change to another ship in Casablanca, Morocco and stops at ports in Jamaica and Mexico.
While initially in hiding, Cunningham said it was tough to understand the magnitude of the war.
“When the war started, we didn’t really know there was war,” Cunningham said. “In the beginning, it didn’t feel like a war. Nothing really happened for six months.”
Cunningham’s international life, however, did not end when she arrived in Cuba.
When she came to America with her husband, who she met at a dance in Cuba when she was 18 and he was a 23-year-old Air Force pilot, Cunningham said she wanted to do something to improve the diversity in Atlanta.
“I was very interested in doing something international,” Cunningham said. “Atlanta in those days was nothing. It was not an international city.”
Cunningham’s work eventually included everything from working at the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce for a decade and starting the first Spanish-language program on WABE to becoming the Honorary Consul to Costa Rica and being Billy Payne’s interpreter during the bidding process to bring the 1996 Summer Olympics to Atlanta.
Kiwanis Club secretary Milt Gorman said the club decided to invite Mrs. Cunningham to speak because her story is one with which many generations can identify.
“We feel like she does have a real story that needs to be told not only to us that grew up in the second World War period, but to the younger generations who have never experienced the ordeals and trials she and her family went through,” Gorman said.
Now with two daughters and two grandchildren, Cunningham documented her life by writing a book entitled “Joie De Vivre: a Memoir of Survival, Service, Serendipity.” The book recalls everything from her escape from the Holocaust to her international career path in America.
“I did this for my children and my grandchildren,” Cunningham said. “I wanted them to remember where I came from and where they come from…their roots.”
Cunningham has extended her quest for knowledge to the collegiate level. A professor of sociology at Oglethorpe University, she will soon bring her Conversation Spanish program to Oglethorpe after teaching it for several years at Emory University.