The Life of Gloria Donen Sosin: Recognizing a Local Writer, Veteran and Mother for Women’s History Month
A few weeks ago, I led a group of fifteen elementary and middle school boys across Rye’s village green to look at the war memorial outside City Hall. We were hosting a War History camp at the Rye Historical Society, and we gave the boys five names to find on the World War II plaque. Four were names of veterans who were interviewed as part of a local documentary. The other was the name Gloria Donen. Her name, no bigger or brighter than any of the others, stands out to me as a story untold, a life that unfolded here in Rye and overseas over decades and generations. It is a story of many stories, of family, of literature, of military service, of immigration, of Jewish history, and of Rye. Hers is a name that, had I not happened upon one piece of paper piled in with old issues of the Synagogue’s Community News in our archives, I might never have known and had a chance to share.
My initial project was to research the history of Jewish businesses in Rye, back in September and October, around the time of the Jewish holidays. I went to the Knapp House and paged through old ads in the Community News, hoping for an entry point. That’s where I found the story, “Memories Tumble in with the Surf in a Walk Along Rye Beach.” I read this piece, published in the Westchester section of the New York Times, and felt as though this author was leaving my house on Halsted Place and walking the very walk I walk many days. Only the author’s walk traced the story of her family. Her parents, Russian Jewish immigrants, came to Rye at the time of World War I. The tone was one of gratitude for a place to come and build a home, to dig one’s feet in the sand and build castles, and to become immersed in nature. I copied the essay and tucked it in my folder, eager to learn more about the author, Gloria Donen Sosin.
The next week, I started my research. Who was this woman? What else did she write? Had she lived in my house, or on my street? With little more in the Historical Society archives, I turned to the next best research tool – Google. I found other articles by Gloria, and two books, as well. One was about her father, Isaac Donen, and his decision to move to the United States from Russia. The title is A New Life Is Coming Soon, a line from a letter he wrote to his new bride as the war ended and they planned to make a home near her brother in Rye. Gloria’s other book, called A Red Letter Year, is about her experience living in post-WWII Germany from 1950 to 1951, with her husband, Gene. Among mentions in the Community Synagogue archives, I found Gene’s obituary, from only a few years prior. I read about Gloria, her son, her daughter and their extended family, as well as their history as members of the Synagogue. Then a question occurred to me. Where is Gloria now?
This is when I turned to a less trustworthy but sometimes dot-connecting tool, Facebook. I looked up Gloria’s daughter, Deborah Sosin, and found her instantly. My heart raced. Deborah is an author and clinical social worker living in Massachusetts, and without hesitating, I sent her a message. I don’t often message strangers and knew there was a chance I’d never get a reply, but less than an hour later, I had a response. Yes, she was the Deborah Sosin who is Gloria Donen Sosin’s daughter, and yes, her mother is still alive, 96 years old, and living in the same house in White Plains, just a few miles from her childhood home in Rye. Now I could abandon my Knapp House folder and internet research to meet Gloria in person.
We set up a time, and in that first meeting I uncovered a history of Rye that felt both distant and close. Gloria described her parents, Isaac and Edith, and their journey from Russia to Rye. Isaac served in the US Army during World War I; Edith came as an immigrant before the war in 1913. They fell in love, married in 1918, and then fell in love with Rye. They first rented a house on Grapal Street before moving to 272 Purchase Street. Later, they lived on Forest Avenue, near their treasured beach; and still later, on Eve Lane. Isaac Donen opened his first business, a stationery store, at 83 Purchase Street, where Sarza now stands. His brother-in-law then took over that store when Isaac opened Donen’s Music Shop at 78 Purchase Street, in what is now William Raveis Real Estate. Donen’s Music Shop was in business for decades, first selling primarily record players and other musical instruments and then expanding into appliances.
Isaac and Edith had two daughters, Gloria and Joyce, and the family was active in the community, particularly in the growing Jewish community in Rye and Port Chester. Gloria remembers studying Yiddish as a child at a building in Port Chester that had a Workmen’s Circle, a social justice organization that helps families strengthen their Jewish identity through cultural engagement. Gloria went to elementary school in Rye in a building where the CVS now stands, next to the School Street building. In 7thgrade, Gloria’s class was among the first to move to the new high school on Parsons Street; she graduated in the class of 1939.
As her name on City Hall indicates, Gloria is a proud veteran, having served in World War II with the Women’s Army Corps. She showed me the jacket of her uniform, carefully stored in her home for more than seventy years and beamed when I helped her put it on again. During the war, Gloria was stationed at Camp Upton on Long Island, the same place her father had been stationed during the first World War. She then worked in a hospital in Brentwood, Long Island. Her husband, Gene, served in the military, also. He had a gift for languages and worked in intelligence in Washington, DC, where he decoded Japanese messages. They met after the war when they were both in graduate school at Columbia for Russian Studies.
In the 1940s, the Donens had joined with a small group of Jewish families in Rye who hoped to create a place for worship and education. After many years of attending services and providing Jewish education for their children in New Rochelle and Port Chester, Isaac and Edith were founding members of the Community Synagogue in Rye; Gloria’s younger sister, Joyce, was the first bride to be married there, in August 1950. Gloria and Gene were married just before the Synagogue opened, in June 1950, at her parents’ home on Forest Avenue.
Gloria and Gene shared their deep love of Russian scholarship, commitment to democracy and passion for the arts. Gloria taught Russian at Scarsdale High School. Gene worked for Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe until his retirement in the late 1980s. Gloria was active in Hadassah and other service organizations in Westchester. In 1966, because of Gene’s work, the family moved from Rye to Munich, where they lived for four years. In 1970, Gloria and Gene settled in White Plains, but maintained all of their connections—friends, doctors, Jewish activities, beach walks, and Community Synagogue membership—in their dear hometown of Rye. Gloria’s parents’ home on Forest Avenue still stands, less than a mile from where she raised her own children. I can picture her on her walk to the beach, first as a child with her mother and sister, and then with children of her own.
Gloria and Gene raised their children, Donald and Deborah, in their home on Hill Street, just down the hill from my home. No wonder her descriptions in her essays felt so familiar. Donald and Deborah also attended Rye schools and, like their parents, have pursued careers in the arts. Deborah recently published a beautiful children’s book, Charlotte and the Quiet Place. Donald is a composer, conductor, and pianist, specializing in silent film. He is married to Joanna Seaton, a singer and actress. They have two children: Nicholas, 29, a singer/songwriter and filmmaker, and Mollie, 8, a budding artist and singer. Gloria is a proud mother and grandmother who raised her children to see the many opportunities life holds and that their work can make a difference. And like Gloria, they chose creative paths that incorporate a love for storytelling.
Gloria and I have met a few times now, and I’ve also had the chance to meet Deborah. I’ve shared with Gloria the articles of hers that I’ve found online, and she shared her books and family photos documenting the generations from her Russian grandparents to her immigrant parents and her own family here in Rye. Each time I arrive at her home, I notice the brick on her porch from the Community Synagogue, with the names Gloria and Gene Sosin engraved on it. Gloria’s memories come to life with vivid detail as she describes her childhood and adulthood in Rye and beyond. She celebrated her 97th birthday last week, and while Isaac, Edith, Gene and her sister Joyce are no longer alive, she carries their stories with her. Gloria’s talent as a writer and her ability to capture the spirit of our community speak for themselves, and I am thrilled to share these treasures from our collection with you. We hope you will find a piece of your Rye in these portraits of the past.
Links to articles:
This is the piece I found in our archives and reference in the article.
This is another piece that Gloria wrote for the New York Times. It reminds us of the importance of living history and sharing our stories with our family, friends and neighbors, particularly across differences.