Yesterday afternoon I went to the Conference on the Holocaust Luncheon. I’ve attended this luncheon every year that I have been a student and each time it is a completely different experience. For those of you who haven’t been to the luncheon, it is open to all students (Jewish and non-Jewish) and pairs six students with one or two Holocaust survivors. The students have the opportunity to ask the survivors any questions and the survivors tell their stories.

This year I was at a table with two survivors, the grandparents of my close friend from high school. Although I have met his grandparents numerous times at high school events, graduations, Shabbat dinners, and holidays, I have never heard their stories. In the 14 years that I have known their grandson, we have never once discussed the story of his grandparents’ survival.

Ruth, his grandma, was only four and a half years old when World War II started. She grew up in Poland with her older sister, mother, and father and had a large extended family, most of whom perished in the Holocaust. Her older sister was placed in the home of a non-Jewish Polish royal family. Ruth refused to be separated from her parents and was taken with them to a working camp. From the age of four and a half to nine years old, she survived three of the most brutal and abusive work camps, measles, typhus, TB, and pneumonia. On top of the starvation, torture, and constant exposure to death, she was used in Dr. Mengele’s experiments. For those of you who haven’t heard of Joseph Mengele, he was a heartless German doctor who performed experiments on humans, specifically twins and children. He was called the Angle of Death because when transports arrived to the camps, he decided who would be put to work and who would be gassed. Crossing paths with him led to a torture that was worse then death itself. Ruth still shakes and cries when she talks about her time in the Auschwitz-Birkenau children’s block that was used
for Mengele’s experiments. Even to this day, she is unable and unwilling to communicate what happened at his hospital because it was so traumatic.

After almost five years of being separated, Ruth saw her father one last time through the barbed-wire fence at Auschwitz in January of 1945. Her father told her that the war was coming to an end and if she couldn’t get out of the camp on the last transport happening that day, she would be executed. Ruth’s father managed to get out, but she couldn’t because all the children and sick were left behind to be executed the next day; the Germans were trying to destroy any evidence of what had occurred at Auschwitz. Unfortunately, Ruth’s father died on the Last March, where Nazis made the starved, weak, and sick Jews march for days without food or water. Many people on the marches didn’t have shoes or coats as they walked hundreds of miles through the snow. Ruth miraculously escaped execution at the camp because the Russians advanced faster than the Germans had anticipated and the Nazis fled without killing the Jews that remained.

Ruth was sent to an orphanage in Poland and with much difficulty, her mother who had survived the war, was able to find her. Ruth’s mother also located Ruth’s sister who had lived a life of luxury and could not identify with the poverty or hardship that the Jews in Europe faced after the Holocaust. Eventually the three emigrated to Canada because they had relatives there and Europe was still too dangerous and too uncomfortable for Jews. Ruth met Mark, her husband, at a dance in Toronto and they’ve been happily married for many years. Mark, also a survivor, let Ruth talk for a majority of the luncheon and held her as she cried about the past.

After hearing this story, I was really upset to think about the injustices and crimes against humanity that occurred during the Holocaust. How can anyone treat human beings with such cruelty and why is there still so much hatred and bigotry in the world? I have heard dozens of survivors speak about their stories and have written several papers on their stories, but each time I am shocked to hear about the brutality and hardship these people faced. The saddest part is that many of these survivors are approaching their deaths and soon they will not be able to tell their stories. That is why it is so important to hear their stories and spread them to as many people as possible. It is our generation’s job to make sure that this never happens again.

2 thoughts to “COTH”

  1. Considering we have gone to school together since pre-school, I have basically had the same exposure to Holocaust survivor stories as you have. Like you said in this blog, each time I hear a new story it gives me chills and makes me upset. These stories really make me question and evaluate that aspects of my own life that I consider to be unfair or bad. This is a remarkable and terribly heartbreaking story.

    1. I agree, Rachel, these stories make me reevaluate my own priorities and question things in my life. For instance, when I got home on Sunday, I was kind of disgusted at the amount of clothes and shoes I have in my closet. I felt guilty for not only having basic things, but having unnecessary items after hearing how someone didn’t have adequate food, clothing, or even shoes for five years.

      This reminds me of a speaker I heard in high school, Gerda Klein. She won an Academy Award and a Grammy for a documentary about her experience in the Holocaust and she spoke about the feelings she had when she received these honors. She was waiting in line in the bathroom, surrounded by celebrities crying hysterically because they didn’t win any award and she thought about how pathetic it is. She juxtaposed this scenario of her standing in line holding her award with her as a little girl holding her empty bowl for some watery potato soup – the only food she would get for the entire day. This story really makes me question things that seem important to me — do I really need a new cell phone when mine is perfectly good? At the same time, I am so thankful for Holocaust survivors and my family in general who have ensured that I don’t have to worry about surviving and who have given me all the luxuries and comforts I could ever ask for.

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