During Yankel Rosenbaum’s six months in New York, the fax machine at his parents’ home in Melbourne would grind out a daily letter detailing his exploits. If the Australian scholar, who was doing research here on the Holocaust, missed a letter because of Shabbat or a late cricket game, there would be two letters the following day.
“That was the type of person he was,” said Yankel’s mother, Fay. “He was not a mommy’s boy, but his family was very important.”On the eve of the sentencing of Lemrick Nelson in the stabbing death of Yankel during the Crown Heights riots nearly seven years ago, Max and Fay Rosenbaum and their elder son, Norman, recalled Yankel’s life with warmth and laughter, even as they pondered a final chapter in a death that not only tore apart their lives but left a gaping wound in New York race relations.
They spoke of a young man whose diverse interests ranged from juggling to finance to Holocaust studies.
“He was a person that stood up for everybody, the downtrodden and underdogs,” Fay said in an interview at her Manhattan hotel. “It didn’t matter who it was.”
“All people, of all colors,” Max interjected.“Yankel was very frum, but creed, color or religion — he could mix with anybody,” Fay continued. “If he could do a good deed for them, he would.”Although Norman Rosenbaum, a 41-year-old attorney, has made the daylong trip from Melbourne dozens of times since the murder to press for justice, Fay’s victim’s impact statement Tuesday (see story on page TK) marked the first time his parents have played a direct role.
On Monday night, the Rosenbaums were upbeat as they prepared for the next day’s sentencing and awaited news of a settlement of the civil suit against New York City stemming from the riots in which they are plaintiffs. Fay, 64, spoke freely, while Max, 71, fatigued by the long journey and hectic schedule, listened intently but reserved his comments.
“It hasn’t been easy,” said Fay, speaking with an Australian accent. “People say it’s been a long time. But it never really gets easier.” She added that Nelson’s acquittal on state murder charges in 1992 was, except for the initial news, by far the most painful episode of the six-year saga.
“Yankel had identified him,” she said sternly. “He wasn’t the sort of person to say that one did it if it wasn’t that one. That isn’t the style of him. Either he got the right one or no one. So that was all I needed. I couldn’t care how many acquittals there were.”
Fay said she had concerns about the safety of her 29-year-old son while he was in New York, but was reassured by Yankel’s good judgment.
“He’d been there before, and I knew he wasn’t stupid,” she said. “He always assured me he’d be very careful. I think I read somewhere that [the suspects] said Yankel started it. Yankel would never start anything. He wasn’t stupid enough to try and be a hero and take on the world. He assured me he would not look for trouble.”
The Rosenbaums were undecided on whether they would rather see the Crown Heights civil suit go to trial rather than be settled out of court.
“I’d like to see [former Mayor David] Dinkins answer for what happened,” Fay said, “but I don’t know which way is better off.”
(Dinkins and his former police commissioner, Lee Brown, were dismissed from the suit by Judge Frederic Block, who allowed the suit against New York City to continue.)
Norman Rosenbaum blasted a statement by Dinkins released last Friday that condemned his successor, Rudolph Giuliani, for his willingness to settle the lawsuit and apologize to the victims. Dinkins claimed the decision was politically motivated.
“It’s a pathetic statement from a pathetic little person,” Norman said. “His own deposition is contrary to what he said, and there were gross inconsistencies in what he said [then and now].”
Dinkins, who was in South Carolina this week, could not be reached for comment.
The Rosenbaums took issue with the former mayor’s contention that Yankel’s death was “not the culmination of unchecked rioting” because it had occurred only a few hours after the traffic accident which sparked the riots.
“We’ll never know, but if they had tried to stop it in the beginning, there is a lot more chance Yankel would be here today,” said Fay. “Who’s to know? Maybe [the rioters] wouldn’t have gotten where Yankel was. But let [Dinkins] say that to me! As the Yiddish expression goes, I would spit in his face.”
The Rosenbaums vowed that after this week’s sentencing, they would continue to press for the arrest of the other members of the mob that attacked Yankel, purported to be as many as 30 individuals. Norman was undaunted by U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter’s statement that the federal investigation was closed, saying: “He’s been wrong before. We’ve taken legal advice that there is no statute of limitations for this crime. We’ll be moving forward to have the case reopened.”
Yankel’s mother also took issue with those who have equated his death with that of Gavin Cato, the black child who was struck by a chasidic driver, sparking the four-day riot.
“I feel for the parents, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “A dead child is a dead child no matter which way that child dies. It’s very heart-rending. But from what I understand he was killed in an accident. Yankel was the victim of a pogrom. You tell me where it can be put on the same level.”
Only once during the interview did Fay Rosenbaum seem to lose her composure, growing emotional when asked about Norman’s unwavering commitment to see his brother’s killers punished.
“It breaks my heart,” she said, tearfully. “He’s got a family who have sacrificed so much by him not being there. It’s a miracle his kids recognize him. But knowing the boys as we knew them, it was always one for the other. And the two of them were always there for us.”