February 23, 2020

Obituaries Nov. 30: Sister Cecylia Roszak and Ricky Jay

Sister Cecylia Roszak, Saved Jews During WWII, 110
Sister Cecylia Roszak, one of a group of Polish nuns who risked their lives rescuing Jews from the Holocaust and was honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, died last week in Krakow, Poland. She was 110 and, at the time of her death, was thought to be the oldest nun in the world.

Born March 25, 1908, she entered the Dominican order when she was 21. During the German occupation of Poland, Sister Cecylia, along with several other nuns, established a new convent in Vilnius, in what is now Lithuania. They opened its doors to 17 Jews who had escaped from the nearby ghetto, including the activist and writer Abba Kovner, who later testified at the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. The fugitives worked with the nuns in the field during the day while continuing their resistance work, including writing, printing and distributing anti-Nazi manifestos. Kovner later claimed that the seeds for the ghetto rebellion were planted in the convent. The Jews left the convent on New Year’s Eve 1941 to continue their fight; the Germans closed the convent in 1943, and arrested Anna Borkowska,  the mother superior.

After the war, Roszak returned to Krakow, where she was a church organist and cantor. At her funeral, among the memorials was a bouquet sent by Wanda Jerzyniec, who along with her brother, was one of those saved by Sister Cecylia. 

Mother Superior Stanislawa Chruscicka told the Associated Press that Sister Cecylia’s philosophy was that “life is very beautiful but too short.” 

Ricky Jay: Magician, Actor, Author
Ricky Jay, the author, actor and magician the New Yorker called “perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive,” died Nov. 24 at his home in Los Angeles.

Born Richard Jay Potash was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in either 1946 or ’48, to Samuel and Shirley Potash. By the time he was 7, Jay had become adept enough to appear on a local TV show, “Time for Pets,” where, billed as “the world’s youngest magician,” he turned a guinea pig into a chicken. 

By the time he was 15, the lack of family support (Jay claimed his fondest memory of his parents was their booking magician Al Flosso perform at his bar mitzvah) prompted him to leave home. He ended up performing in the resort community of Lake George, N.Y., where he gained enough notoriety that in the mid-’60s, he was booked at the Electric Circus in New York City. Tours of the United States and Europe followed. A move to Los Angeles in the 1970s led to regular appearances at McCabe’s Guitar Shop and The Magic Castle. 

Jay practiced what is known as close-up magic; a stout, avuncular presence, he was a master of cards tricks and he could flip playing cards with such speed and accuracy he cut into a watermelon, all while keeping up a line of erudite, deadpan stage patter. A one-man show, “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants,” was an off-Broadway hit and filmed for a 1996 HBO special. As an actor, he appeared in David Mamet’s “House of Games,” “The Spanish Prisoner” and “State and Main,” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” In 2002, he married Chrisann Verges, who survives him. 

A student of magic and a fine prose stylist (The New York Times described him as a “master of a prose style that qualifies him as perhaps the last of the great 19th-century authors”) Jay wrote 11 books, most notably “Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women,” a history of eccentric entertainers. His knowledge of the history and mechanics of illusion led to his co-founding Deceptive Practices, which offered “arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis.”