How did an orphaned Jewish girl from the Midwest whose father had survived the Holocaust and a Mexican Catholic from El Paso, Texas get together? It must have been fate.
“He was so handsome, I couldn’t resist.”
Meet Park Vista residents Robert and Mona. As in every one of us in life, they’ve had their share of ups and downs. Most of all, they feel gratitude for having met each other 50 years ago this year. They love their family, including their two children Nick and Rebecca, and they are grateful for their community here at Park Vista. Here’s the story of two survivors.
Robert was born in 1938 in El Paso, Texas. The youngest of four children, Robert became deathly ill at the age of 4 with the measles. They didn’t think he would make it. It went into his eyes and his ears, resulting in an operation on both. The procedure saved him but he became deaf in one ear. When his single mom became ill, Robert and his siblings moved in with his paternal grandmother in the projects. Two years later, his mother died. Robert was just 10 years old, and for the next five years, the children continued to live under the watchful eye of his grandmother, who worked tirelessly to make ends meet and was all business in the evenings.
“She was the strongest person I’ve ever met.”
A single woman having raised her children and then her four grandchildren, she worked doing industrial laundry for the government for years, laboring to make ends meet in El Paso and rising to the role of supervisor. When Robert was 15, the family moved with her to East LA to live with his aunt in a big house in Highland Park. The neighborhood wasn’t terrific, but they were together. His grandmother found more work doing laundry in L.A. until one day Robert met her at the bus after she had finished work and she stumbled off, clearly exhausted and in pain. He told her it was enough. He dropped out of school to help support the family. Bob was a hard worker all his life. After his grandmother stopped working, he quite suddenly noticed a complete change in his grandmother. After years of laboring and fighting to survive, it was like a whole new lightness surrounded her. For the first time in Robert’s life, his grandmother was incredibly loving and full of laughter.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Ohio, Mona was born in 1945. Her father was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to Germany as an infant, but his name was changed when he came to the United States after surviving the concentration camps in Germany in WWII. Her father was lucky to have escaped. His brother, mother, father and sister did not meet the same fate. He immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio escaping the war, and eventually met and married Mona’s mother. Mona was the middle child of their three children. She remembers that time with her siblings fondly, although she knew her parents were unhappy.
There was one particular day in Euclid Beach that she recalls as the most joyful day of her childhood with them, where they played games and had a picnic, then the day ended in beautiful fireworks over the beach. The fireworks over Rec Park each 4th of July take her back to that glorious day. But it was not to last. Her mother became ill when she was very young and was unable to care for her children. She was hospitalized. Her father took the children to an orphanage at the Jewish Welfare in Cleveland and left them, where they were separated and placed into different foster homes than Mona. It was terrible. She missed her siblings and her extended family and some of the foster situations were arduous and abusive.
“She has been through so much,” said Robert.
But there were happy times ahead. After three years, Mona was introduced to Max and Rosalyn Berck (previously Berkowitz), a Jewish couple from Iowa, who met her and fell in love with her, adopting her when she was seven years old. She rode on an airplane for the very first time, and when they brought her to their home in Ames, Iowa, she was shown to the new room they had carefully created for her, including a glorious canopy bed. Her mother was beautiful and kind. She had been a Broadway dancer in her youth, working with some of the top names in entertainment at the time, having met Bob Hope, Phil Silvers, Red Buttons and others. Mona learned to play the piano, to ice skate and to dance, which, like her mother, became a life long love of hers – modern dance, tap and ballet were favorites. In the summer months she attended camps, where she became a 1st class skipper in sailing, a fisherman, and fondly remembers swimming, archery, tennis and canoeing. Her parents would tell her, “You are twice chosen.” Once, because she was Jewish and the second time when she was adopted. She was loved.
When Mona was 15 years old, her mother died in a tragic accident. The teenage years are difficult in anyone’s life, and losing her mother during that time was especially hard. Her brother and father were there, but it was not the same. She graduated high school and set off for college at the State University of Iowa then later moved to New York, worked at a summer resort, as a secretary and a waitress and eventually settled in Chicago in the 1960s where she worked as a secretary and later as a dental assistant. She became engaged with a dentist. The story could have ended there, but Mona knew that he just wasn’t the right guy. So she broke it off, and decided to visit her good friend Judy in California for a fun vacation. The year was 1969.
She went to a party and that is where she met Robert.
Some things are just meant to be
“I met this handsome man. I fell in love. I didn’t know he was deaf,” says Mona.
Mona eventually moved to California. Shortly thereafter, she found a guy selling hearing aids, and for the first time in his life, Robert could hear.
“She saved me,” says Robert.
Three years later in 1972, Robert and Mona were married. In 1976, they had their daughter, Rebecca Lynne.
“Bob worked so hard and would do anything to make life better for us. He was always so handy. I thought he would be good on a farm,” said Mona.
Up for a new adventure, in 1979, they decided to try their hand at Oregon. So they scooped up their daughter Becky and moved to Grants Pass. They indeed bought a small farm where they lived off the land, raising cows and chickens, and grew produce including fresh raspberries.
Reconciliation & Courage
For a while in Oregon, life was good. Mona joined a group who encouraged her to find her birth siblings. So one day, she mustered up her courage and called her caseworker back in Cleveland, who was not helpful and told her not to bother finding them. But she knew in her heart that she needed to find her family in order to put all the pieces together of her interesting life. She bravely didn’t take no for an answer, called again and someone else picked up the phone who promised to get in touch with them. The worker called back almost immediately. She’d spoken with sister, her aunts and her mother and they were thrilled at the news. Mona sold her adopted mother’s sterling silver and bought a bus ticket to Cleveland. Her siblings, aunts and cousins put together a big reunion and she met her mother, who was still ill but knew who Mona was, and her real father, and she learned about her brother who is now a published poet, and she keeps in touch with her sister Jan, with whom she’s had such fun times since then.
Work in Oregon was hard to come by, so Bob got creative. He went to work for a farm nearby and even had the chance to help with the birthing of baby cows—a real adventure for a kid from the city. They would also sell the eggs from their chickens, recycle bottles for cash, and at one point he even put an ad in the paper to advertise gardening help. The farm had a barn, so Bob decided to generate extra income that he would turn it in to an apartment. He went to the library and learned how to do it. They moved in to the apartment and rented out the main house. In 1983, their son, Nick Jeffery, was born. Tired of struggling financially, and with a new baby in their arms, they decided Oregon was too hard and that it was time for them to head back to California to be near Bob’s family. Bob had been a truck driver and he called his former boss who was very happy to take him back. They rented out the house in Oregon and hit the road.
They moved back to Southern California where they were welcomed in with Robert’s aunt in a rental house in Atwater Village. The neighborhood was rough so Mona started a Neighborhood Watch program and home schooled her two children.
When Nick was 11 and Becky was 16 found work as an extra and joined the Screen Actors Guild in 1992, when she played a nun on the movie Super Mario Brothers. She enjoyed acting and the whole family got into it, with extra roles in Adams Family Values and even Schindler’s List. Mona has appeared in many things, including as a Duchess in the Music Video for Katy Perry with Timbaland “If we ever meet again,” and Bob played a chauffer in a music video for Aloe Black.
Mona as The Dutchess in Katy Perry and Timbaland’s music video
In 1996, Mona landed a job with Delta Airlines as a sales agent. This was how the family discovered El Segundo. Mona worked there for nine years until they closed El Segundo office.
Caring for each other
Bob retired at 66 and they moved in to Park Vista. Then in 2011, Bob suffered a mild stroke. Mona called 911 and they were there in 5 minutes.
“It was the scariest thing I ever went through,” said Mona.
Shortly after that, he also had surgery for a corroded artery. Mona took care of Bob and helped to nurse him back to health.
Then in 2014, Mona was diagnosed with breast cancer and it was his turn to take care of her over the next year, as she went through extensive treatment.
Now, life is good. Mona, who became a Christian, loves going to Hilltop Church and they like to go walking when they can. Bob enjoys watching sports and talking sports with friends at Park Vista. They love their neighbors.
“Park Vista has been a great place to live. We love that it’s so close to everything and it has such a great group of people.”
They are very pleased with being here and are especially fond of the resident manager, Teresa, who they find very caring and helpful.
Bob and Mona still love going to parties, just as they did when they first met, they love a good DJ and can often be seen dancing together, such as they did at the anniversary party.