Hannah Elbaum of Trumbull is a student at the Hopkins School in New Haven. This past spring she interviewed two local Holocaust survivors for a special school project. The following is a reflection she wrote as a result of those interviews.
Lis Ruderman and Betty Deutsch both survived the atrocities of the Holocaust. Mrs. Ruderman was born in Austria and survived by fleeing to England in 1939 without her family. She came to the United States with her aunt and uncle about a year later. I was fortunate enough to spend the length of five interviews talking to her about her experiences. Mrs. Deutsch was born in Hungary and her family was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. She was transported to several different camps and was lucky to have survived. I interviewed Mrs. Deutsch three times.
Lis Ruderman wholeheartedly believes that in order to be effective, Holocaust education must focus on the future, although many Holocaust educators and survivors are focused on retelling the past. She says, “Teaching the Holocaust is really not enough. You have to give them strength to live with this history, to turn it into something positive to help others in the hope that it will improve the world.”
Mrs. Ruderman survived the Holocaust by fleeing to England to live with a compassionate family that took her in. She does not waste her time wallowing in the past and feeling sorry for herself. “To me, the best way to remember is to help others in whatever way each person wants to or can.” Even though the last time she saw her parents was at age 11, Mrs. Ruderman has the audacity to stand up for herself, stick to her beliefs, and speak her mind to anyone who will listen. She advocates for change in the way that people think about the Holocaust. She says, “I think I got myself involved almost indirectly by getting into Holocaust education.” Mrs. Ruderman was able to help herself at the same time as she helped the Fairfield County community build a strong foundation for Holocaust education.
Holocaust survivors had very different transformations of their faith during and after the war. Mrs. Ruderman feels that her faith got “knocked out” of her. However, she says, “I’m a Jew in every cell of my body.” Although Mrs. Ruderman no longer believes in God, she feels a strong connection to her Judaism and to Israel. She says, “I did speak to the schools a good bit and still occasionally at Merkaz [Hebrew High School] or something, but the thing that I did that I think ended up helping me personally is I was really instrumental, if not the one, to start Holocaust education in the area in schools with the UJA [United Jewish Appeal] Community Relations and the JCC [Jewish Community Center]. At the time, we trained teachers and principals, and anybody in the education field to be able to teach Holocaust to kids in schools.” It took a while for Mrs. Ruderman to be able to tell her story, but she knew how crucial it was to have a strong program for Holocaust education.
During the Holocaust, the world was silent. Mrs. Ruderman says, “President Roosevelt would not even let children in the way England did. And it’s like today – it’s all politics – nothing to do with humanity or saving lives.” Although she resents the silence of America and the European countries, she is thankful that England took in 10,000 children. She says, “I think that they were fabulous with the kindertransport. Beyond that, I don’t know. They were not good and they’re not now; – there’s anti-Semitism, there’s anti-Israeli professors who express their anti-Israel feelings.” As a child, she was treated extremely well, but her parents were not allowed into England. Additionally, she felt a strong anti-immigrant sentiment as her aunt and uncle and people similar to them were resented by the country.
Once Betty Deutsch came to America, she also experienced anti-immigrant attitudes and she and her sister had a difficult time getting their lives started. She says, “The beginning was very, very hard, but God helped us, and things change. Hope for the best. It was very, very hard, you know. We had a beginning in Sweden, too. We had to start our life over, and here it was the same thing. You don’t know the language. I always cried so much with my sister in the beginning. We said why did we come over here, and after a while it got better.”
When books or people talk of the liberation of the concentration camps, they usually talk of American or Soviet troops coming into a camp and bringing food and supplies. What happened after that? The people in these camps survived beatings, starvation, emotional loss, and much more, but the hard part of their lives was not over. Fortunately, Mrs. Deutsch and a group of other refugees were able to go to school in Sweden, and she commends the Swedes’ hospitality. However, she and her sister searched for opportunity in America and were met with obstacles.
“It was very hard, even to find a job. And we went to the Jewish Family Service…We didn’t have any money. We wanted to work. We wanted to be on our own. We were just desperate for them to help us find a job. We were sent away. They couldn’t help us.”
Mrs. Deutsch did not beg for money; she wanted to earn it for herself. Her incredible, inspiring determination allowed her to be successful and to realize the importance of sharing her story.
Mrs. Deutsch grew up in a very religious home and despite everything she went through when she was a young adult, she was able to remain religious.
“We were looking for God, and we asked, where are you? We still believed in God…I believe in God, what can I tell you? …If you’re not going to believe in God, who would you believe in? …I’m very proud of wearing this Jewish star [around my neck], you know, I was never ashamed to wear it, even at home, but we were so embarrassed because they embarrassed us, that they should know who is Jewish.”
Throughout Mrs. Deutsch’s life, her faith has been constant. She held onto her religion, even when she did not know where God was, and it gave her the courage to live. She denied the wishes of the Nazis by surviving sickness, starvation, and two weeks in a cattle car without daylight. Now, she channels her faith into telling her story and making sure that people know that even though she barely survived, she retained her belief in God and was able to start a new life for herself.
Mrs. Deutsch told me, “I walked through the grass, and this SS man was watching me from the window…he came out and he called me back and he asked me why did I step on the grass…He took out his rubber stick and he started to hit my back. And I started to run and he ran after me and hit me on my back, and finally I just outran him, you know. And I was just lucky he didn’t take his gun out and shoot me. After that I never ever stepped on the grass.”
I had heard about and read about the cruelties that happened in Auszhwitz-Birkenau and the like, but to hear that story face to face was an experience unlike any other. Mrs. Deutsch says that no one can understand what occurred at those camps unless they were there, which is certainly true, but I never felt more connected to or empathetic of her experience than when she told me this story and when she talked about the hunger she experienced as a young girl during the Holocaust.
Hearing what these two remarkable, courageous women had to say about the Holocaust and how it has shaped the way they view the world truly changed the way I think about the Holocaust. No longer do I only consider the Holocaust as an event of the past or as another tragic era for the Jews. The Holocaust remains an important historical event that can be learned from and can help change the way our world thinks about prejudice.
I could talk about the humiliation, the torture, and the annihilation that the Holocaust brought upon Jews, but that is not what Mrs. Ruderman and Mrs. Deutsch would want. They want their memories to live on, and they will. These two incredible women had the courage to survive the atrocities that composed the Holocaust, each in her own way, and they were able to start new lives for themselves and write a new legacy for their families in America.
Mrs. Ruderman said, “I think what I’d like to tell you…is that kind of experience stays with you forever and it influences your life on an almost daily basis. It’s almost never gone and by that I don’t mean that I’m traumatized at this point, but it’s a part of my life, always.”