Off Campus

Bess Rosenzweig ’09 dies in Kenya: Plane crash kills beloved alum and her mother

By Aaron Orbey

On July 25 at the end of a two-week vacation to a country she called her second home, Bess Rosenzweig ’09 died with her mother when their plane to Nairobi crashed in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park. A passionate artist, loving friend, and adventurous humanitarian who intended to settle in Africa, Bess was 22.

The cause of the crash that killed Bess and her mother, Claire Clube, 48, remains unknown. A search-and-rescue effort found and recovered their bodies three days later in the Aberdare mountain range, where a herd of elephants circling the site seemed to stand sentinel, according to an article in The Boston Globe.

Bess loved elephants, her father told the Globe and later explained to former Art Teacher Miklos Pogany, who was close with Bess and her family. The poignant report brought only small consolation for the loss of a “happy, smiling, responsive, and engaged student,” Mr. Pogany said.

“I will never forget Bess and her mother protected by the elephants,” he said. “But what might be the lesson of this tragedy? Bess, by dying so very, very early, teaches me, and hopefully all those who knew her, that life is a miracle without a timetable.”

Bess lived every day to the fullest, said teachers, friends, and family. Devoted to the country where she felt happiest, she spent her free time in Kenya, volunteering as a teacher outside Nairobi, tackling Mount Kilimanjaro in nearby Tanzania with a friend from home, and learning about the locals who loved her equally.

“I have never been anywhere in my life where more people wanted to speak with her and just expressed their love and appreciation of this bright little Swahili-speaking beauty,” said Olivia Crowley Gottlieb ’09, one of Bess’ best friends. “Bess knew the culture and loved it in such a way that the people just responded to her so genuinely.”

Bess’ love for understanding and communicating with those around her distinguished her everywhere, Olivia added. Even before she became fluent in Swahili at Georgetown University—from which she graduated last spring—Bess thrived at BB&N as a double-language scholar, pursuing both Spanish and French with “such brio and grace,” according to French Teacher Brigitte Tournier, who taught Bess during her sophomore, junior, and senior years.

“I remember referring to her once in a comment as the ‘poster girl for the perfect French student,’” Madame Tournier said. “She was definitely one of the more unassuming, quietly serene, and gentle students I have taught. In spite of her incredible poise and, I would say, worldliness, she was a self-effacing young woman who rarely made her brilliance known in the classroom setting, probably because she wanted to wait until her level of competence attained a proficiency she considered to be acceptable.”

Bess communicated through art as well. English Teacher Rob Leith, Bess’ former adviser, described her as a “gifted draughtsman with a delicate sense of line.” At the end of her junior year, her work made it to the Petropoulos Exhibition in Renaissance Hall. Madame Tournier has kept every sample of Bess’ artwork from French class years ago—mostly colored-pencil illustrations of scenes from the Maupassant stories they studied.

Her closest mentor in the arts, Mr. Pogany, recalled Bess’ optimistic spirit in class as well as her delicate work.

“She loved to ‘do things’ in art class and was interested in seeing things in new ways,” he said. “She searched for what was beautiful and spoke of kindness.”

For Bess, art and style held important meaning—at BB&N and beyond.

“She used her style to convey the things she loved,” Olivia said, “and the things she adorned herself with were all representations of some aspect of her life. Every bracelet she had had a different story or was from someone or something special.”

Bess’ Maasai beadwork recalled the Kenyan locals she loved. Her tattoos served a similar purpose, Olivia said. A Persian poem from the 13th-century poet Rumi marked her ribs. A line from her mother’s poetry traced her arm. A dhow eye—a prominent symbol of fortune from the Kenyan island Lamu, where some of Bess’ ashes were scattered—stood on her back.

Together, these symbolized life forces that were dear to Bess. They composed her identity and invigorated her spirit, according to Olivia.

“Bess was this tiny little thing,” she said, “but she was truly a piece of art.”

Beyond embracing the arts, Bess “gave back a lot to her teachers and to her friends,” Mr. Pogany said. She had learned what Mr. Pogany called “the greatest lesson in life: to love others and care for those around you because we are all on this Earth together.”

“She had lots of friends,” added Mr. Leith, who worked with Bess on the Senior Student Activities Committee and taught her in freshman English. “In class she was someone who got along with everyone, and she really loved literature and talking about it. She had strong principles and firm beliefs.”

That’s what made her such an unforgettable friend, said Rosie Johnson ’09.

“She was smart, funny, caring, and sweet—really beautiful in every way,” Rosie recalled. “She was wise but silly, adventurous yet calm, and so much more. Bess knew what was important in life. She pursued her interests wholeheartedly and gave her all to the people she loved.”

Having earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Bess had planned to move to Cape Town, South Africa, to work at the Lalela Project, which aims to bring arts education to young children.

“She graduated from Georgetown with the world open to her,” Mr. Pogany said. “I was not at all surprised that she wanted to work helping the less advantaged in Africa. She told me she had learned Swahili and was ready to go.”

She wanted to continue sharing those experiences with others, too. Olivia said some of her dearest memories are from travels with Bess.

“There was one night in Lamu that I will remember forever,” she said, recalling a warm moment on a rooftop when the pair gazed at the stars and listened to the bats protecting them from mosquitos. “The moon was so huge that night. And we just lay out there for hours talking about living the lives we wanted and how there was no reason Africa couldn’t be in them.”

Bess transferred her passion with warmth and vivacity, Olivia said, noting how Bess’ philosophy and spirit continue in her friends from home and from Africa.

“I am so sad she isn’t here anymore,” she said, “but she inspired my life and gave me energy to keep being me in ways no one else has ever done before. I have never felt as loved as Bess made me feel. She was my person, and she changed my life forever.”

“I will remember the light in her eyes,” said Mr. Pogany. “They always sparkled. Bess’ eyes twinkled and smiled when she looked at you.”

Bess and her mother are survived by her father, David Rosenzweig of Nantucket, and her elder brother, Jake Rosenzweig ’07 of England. A memorial service for Bess will be held on September 28 at Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Photo courtesy of Facebook.com.

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