Mrs. “Abby” Rachelle Gerson ~ Former Faculty 1957
Arrived ~ 8/23/1933
Departed ~ 3/5/2023
Lovingly written and submitted by her son Sidney Gerson ~ Class of 1972
Rachelle Musman Bennett 8/23/1933 – 3/5/2023
Mom was born in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxemburg. She told us of her early life in Luxemburg and how she, being the youngest, and only daughter of four children, was spoilt rotten. One snowy day her three brothers, Jacques, Maurice, and Bernard were forced into taking her sledding. When they reached the bottom of the hill, she didn’t want to walk back up so she cried and screamed so loud and long, causing the neighbors to look out their windows, forcing her brothers to drag her back up the hill while she sat on the sled. Mom even had a dog that would meet her after school and carry her books home.
When she was around seven, the Nazis invaded Luxemburg and the family had to escape. They fled all the way to the South of France, sometimes finding a truck to take them and sometimes on foot. When they were on foot they had to watch for Nazi planes and had to jump in bushes to hide. After the dangerous trip our mom was hidden in a convent. She lived in the convent as a young catholic girl until a family was found to take her in. As Rachelle got on the bus to travel to this family, the Mother Superior gave her some Rosary Beads. Rachelle refused the beads saying “I am Jewish”. Mother Superior convinced her to take the rosary which turned out quite fortunate. The bus was stopped at a checkpoint, the Nazis were searching for Jews, Rachelle pulled out those rosary beads and started saying the prayers like a good little catholic girl!
She went on to Rodez, France, where she assumed the identity of a young French girl who had died, and lived as the daughter of the Catholic family. Of course, during this period, she was such a good student that she won an award which was signed and presented by a Nazi General and she accepted this award in front of a large assembly of students, their families, and of course Nazis.
After the war she burned the award along with other memorabilia she had accumulated because she wanted no memory of the traumatic years she had to endure. It was always hard for our mother to talk about this time in her life, although she was able to sit through two interviews recording her personal experience of the Holocaust.
Once I was driving her to a Holocaust Survivor’s event where she was supposed to be one of the speakers when she suddenly said “I cannot do this, turn around right now!” I tried talking to her and calm her down but I could see she was getting terrified so I stopped trying to convince her to go, and came up with an alternative plan. We went and ate Thai food and she felt better.
After the War, mom’s family immigrated to America. They sailed across the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth and started a new life in Brooklyn where our mom attended high school. In her high school year book she wrote that she wanted to live in the Orient. Mom went on to get a Batchelor’s Degree in Romance Languages from Brooklyn College. While at Brooklyn College, she went to a Jewish Mixer where she met our father, who had been born and raised in Thailand, the Orient! After college they were married and moved to Bangkok so our father could join his family’s business.
Mom became a teacher, and taught high school French, Latin, Math, and Chemistry at the International Children’s Center (now the International School of Bangkok.) Later she taught French at the Bangkok Pattana school where Suzanne and I both attended. In her first year of teaching, Mom had some belligerent students. She failed the ones who didn’t do their work, almost the whole class. The headmaster told her she couldn’t fail them. She said this was the grade they deserved. Then she worked with those students so they could bring their grades up. They all ended up getting B’s and A’s!
Our mom fully embraced life as an expat in Thailand and created a diverse community of friends. She joined charitable organizations such as the International Women’s Club, the American Women’s club and the Red Cross Society. When Temple Beth Elisheva was formed she became very involved with the temple’s Sisterhood. She also learned to play bridge and got so good that long time experienced players wanted to be her partner.
In Thailand Mom discovered her love of entertaining. She hosted dinners for the expat and Thai business communities. The formal evening Bar Mitzvah party she organized for me was one of biggest social events in Bangkok that year.
She gave me and Suzanne big birthday parties and made beautiful cakes for us. One year, my cake was a ship. Another birthday Mom used Suzanne’s favorite doll and made the cake around the doll to look like a beautiful gown and made a tiara that was edible! Our mom also liked making elaborate costumes for us for Purim and Halloween. I was always one of the three kings in the Bangkok Pattana School Christmas Play. I’m pretty sure it was because I always had a most spectacular costume!
One Thanksgiving dinner that she hosted, mom made pilgrim costumes for Suzanne and me and we had to meet the guests at the gate and walk them to the party around the pool. She gave me some money and bought (confiscated) my small sampan boat and had it converted into a Viking ship where she set up the buffet dinner.
Mom was an excellent cook. In Bangkok, she made an agreement with our cook, SomSee. For every Thai dish SomSee would teach her, Mom would teach SomSee a European dish. Years later, before there were any Asian markets in the USA, Suzanne and I would go over to Mom’s house to make curry pastes. We would decide what curry paste we were going to make, buy almost every ingredient we needed at the grocery store, make a few substitutions, and Mom would whip it up in the blender. They tasted so authentic.
In Thailand our best friends were the Isaacs. No, not Jewish! One year Hanukah would be celebrated at our house and Christmas at theirs and vice versa the next year. Because of this, Christmas became very important to our mother and us. One year here in America mom decided she was going to put on a very fancy Christmas dinner. She skinned a goose in one piece, breaded the goose, sewed the skin back together and stuffed it with her homemade stuffing. The goose and the stuffed skin were baked together so when the main course was brought out it looked like there were two geese at the table! The goose fat from the skin sure made the stuffing taste great but she said she would never do that again!
Thailand was where Mom’s love for gardening began. Our house sat on an acre of land and she completely transformed the grounds into lush tropical gardens. She spent hours every week in the garden nurturing the fauna, and there were flowers of all colors with bougainvillea hedges, frangipani trees, roses, jasmine, orchids and also beautiful shade trees around the pool. She was always trying to chase our barking deer away for the fresh bougainvillea buds, boy did those deer like the tender buds!
Our mom had a great sense of humor and enjoyed joking around. Once, when she came to help me for two weeks after I had back surgery, I discovered something about her sense of humor I never suspected. The movie Spaceballs was coming on TV and I told Mom she probably would not like it. She asked me what was Spaceballs and told her it was a movie by Mell Brooks. Whereupon she completely surprised me “I love Mel Brooks, Blazing Saddles is Dolph and my favorite movie, Dolph and I watch it every month”!
One time in Thailand, we boated out to an island with a large group of friends. Mom contributed hard boiled eggs for lunch. Since we were on a beach everyone decided to have fun and use their heads to crack the eggs. Mom came up and asked to use my head, I said yes and suddenly I had raw egg all over me. Everyone laughed and laughed. After I washed up, she brought another egg over and I said NO, I would crack it myself and I had egg all over me again! She insisted it was a mistake but I know better.
Another time, in Brooklyn, Mom and Suzanne were walking home from the Subway. They passed a pizza place where music was blaring out into the street. Mom put down her packages and started dancing. Of course, Suzanne was very embarrassed, but our mom just had fun.
A little known fact about our mom was that she was a jock! She could run like the wind; she played golf quite well and she was on a dive team when she was a teenager. One day, when a group of us kids were water skiing in Pattaya, our mothers decided to learn how to ski also. Mom’s first try she was up and skiing. Then she let go of the rope. When asked why she let go of the rope she replied “I don’t know how to ski yet”!
This went on for a few times so we had to fix this. Her next try all the children in the boat started yelling hold on, hold on, hold on… and she finally did hold on. A couple of weeks later she was on a slalom ski.
A few years after her first marriage ended, Mom was in synagogue in Bangkok and she kept hearing a beeping noise. She looked over and realized the noise was coming from the gentleman she was sitting next to. Adolph Bennett’s hearing aid was making noises and he kept putting his finger to his ear. So she thought it was just like in the movies, he must be a secret agent man! They talked after the service and he asked her out and a romance was kindled. At the time, he was stationed in Laos so they managed a long-distance relationship. Several months later after Dolph was stationed back in Thailand, they were married and shortly thereafter moved to Annandale Virginia.
A year later year Dolph was stationed in Kenya for three years. In Nairobi Mom continued creating beautiful gardens. She immediately was out in the garden with the gardener trimming and planting native species of flowering plants and turning her garden into a colorful portrait. Our mom again involved herself in many charitable organizations and the Jewish community. She and Dolph had many fancy parties and she enjoyed showing off her garden to her guests. She was happy to learn about several parts of Africa when she was able to accompany Dolph on some of his work trips.
Dolph’s next post was in Washington DC. Mom again became involved in clubs and charitable organizations. She was the President of the Falls Church women’s club for three years. She belonged to the sisterhood at Temple Rodef Shalom, and served for a year as President. She earned her Master Gardening Certification. She was proud of the garden she nurtured at her home in Falls Church, gave tours of her garden and taught at her gardening club. She could not have had this wonderful garden with out the help of her former son-in-law David who faithfully came over weekly to help her in the garden and mow the lawn. After mom got her companion dog Muffy, David also brought along special treats for Muffy.
One thing Mom used the flowers from her garden for was creating flower arrangements. She would trim her plants and create beautiful center pieces and other arrangements for the parties she had. Mom became so good at arranging flowers she started a business making bouquets and arrangements for weddings and celebrations. Waking up at 4 AM to help her take all the flowers to a church for a wedding was so much fun!
A joy for Mom of living back in the US, was being able to spend time with extended family, including her own mother and brothers.
Another big privilege of living in the US was being Nanny to one of the joys of her life, her grandson Aaron. She got to spend a lot of time with him and watch Aaron grow from his babyhood to an outstanding man. Mom also enjoyed the times she spent with Dolph’s grandchildren.
I would like to thank Keith for the support he gave Suzanne during the past year and most importantly, I wish to thank my sister Suzanne deeply for the loving care she took of our wonderful mom.
Thank you for gathering with us here today to honor our mother. We will miss her guidance, humor, and love
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