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Edna Ritzenberg




Edna met Phil when Phil’s navy aircraft carrier docked in Cape Town, Edna’s birthplace and childhood home. After a long distance courtship they were first married in Rome and subsequently at a Jewish wedding by a navy chaplain.

Edna taught elementary school in the Hewlett-Woodmere School District for 28 years. She served as a docent at the Cooper Hewitt Museum and moderated book clubs at 4 libraries and 3 private groups.


Disclaimer: Unedited AI Transcription

Speaker 1 (00:01):

Cape Town, according to Captain Cook is the most beautiful city in the world. He said the Cape of good hope was remarkable. And we living in Cape Town at the end of Africa, somehow felt that we were at the end of the world. And when visits came, people came to visit. It was a big excitement. This was the days before the airplanes and somehow we always felt we were missing something. And very, and I believe it might have started way back, it started back when the ships used to pull into port for food and water on their way from Europe to the far East. And there are many songs among the indigenous people of the ships coming in and everybody getting ready to welcome the visitors with dance and girls and food and wine. And this was such an occasion at Cape Town at the end of the world for us who lived there, my earliest recommend recollections were of the convoys coming in on their way to the far east.

Speaker 1 (01:33):

My father used to wake us up and take us to the top of the mountain to see all these gray ships, maybe 10 12 of them coming into port and nestling under the table mountain, which is the landmark of Cape Town. And this was such an occasion actually it wasn't an unusual occasion for me because my Sunday job was to take my nephew to the docks because he collected matchbook covers and he wanted matchbooks, which were very popular in those days as part of his collection. And during his early days he collected as many as 1000 matchbooks. Anyway, I used to have to take him after he'd had his bar mitzvah lessons down to the docks. And I was a little tired of it. And when the um, uh, Eisenhower, president Eisenhower sent the seventh fleet to stand off of Formosa in 1955, the SS midway, the aircraft carrier was the big part of this flow tiller going to the far East. It was the largest ship

Speaker 2 (02:58):

In the world at the time and it was too big to go through either of the sewers or the Panama canals. So they sent to run the Cape of Good Hope and it was a very big exciting thing for Cape Town. And as was usual with the visit of something special, everybody in town was gonna go down to the docks and try to get onto the ship. Well, Stanley became very excited and he wanted to go. And then my mother said, well, you know, every time something like this happens, the Jewish community entertains the Jewish visitors. So why don't you take Stanley and go down there and look for some Jews? So anyway, I'm not driving 15 miles around the mountains of which there are plenty in Cape Town to go stand in line with 50,000 people to get on board the ship. So my mother suggested that I call the president of the Union of Jewish women who is in charge of the entertainment of Jewish sailors and ask her who to contact.

Speaker 2 (04:20):

So I called Mrs. Levitan and she said, go down to the ship and ask for left tenant rittenberg. Well, like I said before, I was not gonna drive 15 miles around the mountain. So I found the number for the ship and I called the ship and I left a message for this Lieutenant Rittenberg. And he called back the next morning. The strange thing was that I'd been to a big party the night before, given by an American pianist who lived in cave town who was entertaining all the airplane pilots and he wasn't there. Anyway, he called the next morning at seven 30 and invited me down to the ship and said to come to the officers gangway where I wouldn't have to stand in line. So I took my nephew and two nieces and we drove down around the mountains and went to the officers gangway and asked for left tenant rittenberg. And he came and he showed us around the ship and got Stanley his matchbook cover. And then I got a little tired and I said, you know, we need to go back around the mountains and take somebody out for lunch to the farm. And he said he would go and see if he could find a sailor for us. And he came back and he was all res respondent in his whites. What a handsome

Speaker 3 (05:56):

Man, just like Lieutenant Pinkerton in Mecado, men and butterfly, excuse me. Anyway, we drove out to my sister and brother-in-law's farm, which nestled under the big mountains in a town called Hal Bay. It was an old Cape Dutch that roof house spread out under the oak trees and it was a gathering place for the family on a Sunday afternoon for a tea with scones and whipped cream and all the rest of it. Anyway, my mother was there, her two sisters were there, other people were there. And they asked him where he came from and he said he came from Cleveland, Ohio. And my mother recollected that she had her, her mother had nine brothers and sisters that went to live in Cleveland and only she was the only one to go to South Africa. So that was the point of conversation for a long time. And then I showed full around the farm to the vineyards, to the dairy, to the streams and drove him around town and showed him everything. And sometime along the afternoon we were walking around the grounds and he held my hand and he took my hand in his hand and we walked like that. And I had never really had that experience before of a stranger just holding my hand.

Speaker 3 (07:46):

And anyway, we had a very pleasant day together, dinner together. And later that night I took him back to the ship, which was leaving the next morning. And as weak as goodbye, which we did, he said, please write to me. And he said, as sailor's life is lonely. <laugh> so. Anyway, so the ship sailed off and went to the far east and I wrote to him and he wrote back and then it was two letters a week and then three letters a week and then a letter every day. And by that time I had broken up with the fellow I was seeing and I was tired of apartheid and fighting apart head in South Africa. And I said, uh, I thought I would go overseas. And a friend of my dad's offered me a job teaching English in a high school in Tel Aviv. My parents were great Zionists and my father was one of the, what's the word?

Speaker 3 (09:06):

Not instigators, but he was one of the people that started at the first Jewish day school in Cape Town. Anyway, so they said, okay, you can go to Israel. That path had been paid for me before by my eldest sister Connie going to Israel many, many years before. And that's another story for another time. Anyways, so I wrote and I told Phil that I was going to go to Israel and I was taking a ship up the east coast of Africa and it would end up in Italy and from Italy I would take a ship to Israel. And he wrote back and he said, I'll meet you in Venice where your ship docks I'll, I'll bomb a ride on a Navy plane. And that's exactly what he did. The trip up the coast of Africa took 28 days. It was extremely interesting. The week after I went through the sewer canal, they bombed the sewer canal and there was a big war that exploded the statue of Lesseps.

Speaker 3 (10:20):

Anyway, Phil arrived and we spent a couple days together and then he asked me to marry him. Now before I left Cape Town, my father said to me, you know this young man is not coming to see you for nothing. He says, don't do anything foolish. He says, go to America if Phil asks you and see if you like it here. He said, I'll give you a letter of credit and you can go. And I went to the embassy and I did all the things that they wanted and I took those papers with me. Anyway, he arrived two days after I arrived in Venice as I said before, and he invited me to come to America, but I couldn't get a visa cuz there was a five year waiting list for visas because of the college law, which was passed in 1924. So we went from embassy to embassy seeing maybe there was a different way to get a visa and nobody could give me one. And the interesting that happened there, he didn't have any money for me to fly to America and he couldn't take me

Speaker 4 (11:52):

Back on an Navy plane. So what we did was we canceled my trip to Israel and got the money from the travel agent for that trip and the travel agent sent that he would take us to a place that would convert my South African ran into dollars because South Africa 1956 was nongo as nobody wanted the money yet. Anyways it, we made an appointment and it was interesting. He took us to a place and we climbed up these rickety steps and we got to a door and there was like a porthole in the door and he knocked on the door and they opened this porthole and they took one look at Phil and his lady uniform and they slammed the door and they told us to go away. Eventually they let me in, they wouldn't let Phil in but they let me in and I signed over all my travelers checks and then we had enough money for me and him to fly back to America.

Speaker 4 (13:09):

And then we decided, he decided that seeing he had a letter of permission from his commanding officer of the admiral to get married. We could go to the naval headquarters in Naples. And we took a train from Themi to Naples. The most interesting part of that story that I still remember was we hadn't had any breakfast cause we'd rushed to get to the train and they came around selling sandwiches and they were ham sandwiches and I'd never eaten ham in my life. I said to him, I can't eat it. And he said to me, what do you think's going to happen? Do you think a bolt of lightning is gonna come down from heaven and strike you dead? So I ate the sandwich and we got to Naples and we went to the base there and he told his our story and the Jewish chaplain was not there. He'd gone to Israel to get married to Miss Israel.

Speaker 4 (14:28):

And that was interesting because after we moved to New York many years later and still was in, Phil was still in the reserves, rabbi Clona was the chaplain to the reservist in New York and he was no longer married to Miss Israel. Anyway, so the lawyer that the Navy gave us cut through all the red tape, the laws in Israel, excuse me in Italy, were that you had to post bands in a church for six weeks before you could get married. But he found a loophole that said that aliens could get married. And after cutting through all the red tape and believe me there was plenty of it. Um, we were married by the vice mayor of Naples in the city hall was two witnesses pulled in off the street. It wasn't easy to get through all the red tape cause we had to send cables back home to have our birth certificates translated into Italian are the consoles in Cape Town and in Cleveland.

Speaker 4 (15:55):

But the mail worked in those days and those things came in two to three days, at which point we had to take them to Rome to have the signatures verified and to get more stamps put on them and pay more money. And then I remembered that my brother-in-law Charles had been studying um, with an Italian doctor by the name of Carlos Ponty. So he said, if you ever get to Rome on your trip, he said, call Ponty and tell him that you're my sister-in-law. So I said to Phil, why don't we call Carlos Ponty the same Carlos Ponty who was married to Sophia Lauren. So we called him and said him, you know, we are getting married and can you recommend a place where we can buy wedding rings? So he said, well come and have lunch with me and then I'll take you to a place. And we went and I think I remember we went to his home and had lunch with him and then he sent his chauffeur with us to a jeweler where we bought our wedding rings and then we went back to Naples to get married. And then we put a call in to my parents and he to his parents telling them that we were being married. And you had to make an appointment in those days, three days in advance there were no satellites. So you had to wait your turn for an International line. 

Speaker 3 (17:48):

And we went to the main post office where there were cubicles and you were given the number. I still remember the number of the cubicle was number 15 and we were given the time and we waited and eventually we went into the cubicle and I started to talk and eventually the operator broken. And he said to me, the lady on the other side, I can't hear you or doesn't want to hear you, tell me what you want to say and I'll tell her. And the call went from Naples to Rome to London to Johannesburg to Cape Town. To get a long story short, my parents arrived two days later and we met them in Rome. And the first words of my mother's mouth were, why weren't you in the Israeli Navy? First words out of my father's mouth were, have a Scotch Philip. And then my father said to me, you're not really married are you? He said, I told you to go and see if liked America. I said, well daddy, I couldn't get a visa. He said, oh well I'll have another place to go on vacation.

Speaker 3 (19:14):

Both sets of parents were very upset that we hadn't had a Jewish wedding. My father had said, couldn't you find a rabbi in Italy to marry you? Well forget about that. Anyway, there was a chapel that had been built on the naval base in Norfolk. It was a three dimensional, it was Jewish and Catholic and Presbyterian and they'd never had a Jewish wedding there before. But before we could get married there, we had to go and see the chaplain. His name was Aaron Landes. And he didn't want to believe that I was Jewish. I mean, I don't know why, but he questioned me and he, we spoke to him many times and I had fluent Hebrew in those days and he said Noah. And finally at the last meeting he said, okay, you'll go, you'll go to the for and I'll marry you. And I said, no, I'm not going to the mikvah.

Speaker 3 (20:24):

My three sisters got married, my brother's wife got married and nobody went to the mikvah. I'm not going. And I stood up and he said, okay, I'll marry you. And they lady met a big fuss of the wedding cuz it was the first wedding in the Naval chapel. They called in reporters and photographers and who went out all over the country, over the a n p and the U p i. And it was a big guillo. And the admiral, the vice admiral met a big wedding party for us and everybody came and it was beautiful. And Aaron Landes eventually, that was his first wedding, he eventually became a rabbi of the, um, Frank Lloyd Wright cinema in Philadelphia and also became head of all the naval chaplains. And when he retired as Vice Admiral, he invited us to his piping out and we took the train down to Philadelphia and went to the piping out, which was a very interesting, um, procedure when we met his wife.

Speaker 3 (21:50):

Actually I'd called him over the years to do, he'd done a good job 25 years and 50 years and we were still married, came to America into Idle Wild, which was just a bunch of concert huts. And Phil introduced me to his parents on the phone and his mother told the story of how she was in Florida at the time and she told the ladies around the pool that her son was getting married to a girl from Africa and they wanted to know if she was black or white. And my mother-in-law said, doesn't matter, she's Jewish, but it would've mattered, I think. Anyway, we came to New York, we spent a little while at Ile Wild and then flew down to Norfolk with some friends of Phil's. Had his car. This was the young couple that he had met when he had a, a Fulbright to Berlin in 1953. And they lived in, actually, well at that time when Phil was doing his two years in the Navy, Arthur was doing his two years in the Army and he was a private based in Fort UTIs in Virginia, just across from Norfolk. Anyway, they picked us up at the airport and that was my introduction to America, I world and then north of Virginia.

Speaker 3 (23:38):

And Phil had a bachelor apartment and

Speaker 4 (23:45):

We spent the first night there and then they went off to work the next morning leaving me alone in the apartment. And that was my first experience with American bugs. Cause they got into the shower and then this huge, huge bug called out and I called him to come home. I'd never seen anything like that. I said, where is this creature? Oh, he, he laughed and he said, the water bug just squash it. Then I came to learn that Norfolk Jr. Was full of cockroaches and water bugs and flying cockroaches. Anyway, it was a very interesting experience. We moved from this one bed, bedroom, um, one room bachelor apartment to a one bedroom apartment on the beach. And that was interesting. It was on a place called Willoughby Spit. And Willoughby Spit was the place from which the engineers were digging the tunnel underneath Chesapeake Bay.

Speaker 4 (24:58):

And it was interesting. But living there was interesting because the whole place was full of young just married from all over the United States. And I was intrigued with them with a different accents. I'd never heard so many different ways of saying water. It was water, water, water border, all saying the same thing. I became intrigued. I also was the laughing stock of a lot of people because I saw this word in the newspaper and I said, what's a chihuahua? Of course it turned out to be a chihuahua. Anyway, the ladies were very good. They took me to the px, they took me to the gynecologist, et cetera. And I learned a lot while Phil went off to work every day. There was a good introduction for Phil and I to get to learn to live together because after all, all the words were on paper and we would've been married this month, 2067 years. And that's the story of Philip and Edna and two marriages.