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Ruth Steinfeld was seven years old when she was separated from her parents in France at the height of the rise of Nazi Germany. It would be the last time she would ever see her parents. Now, the 87-year-old great-grandmother, grandmother and mother of three daughters, is hoping to evade an enemy she can’t see, COVID-19.
She is one of the few survivors remaining that were witnesses to the horrors of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime and she, along with other Holocaust survivors, was vaccinated this past week in an effort to mitigate the spread of the virus among the most vulnerable.
Wednesday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Ruth, who likes to go by her first name, was born in Sinsheim, Germany before her family was deported in 1940s when her family was sent to Gurs, an internment camp in southwest France near the Spanish border. The conditions there were “filthy,” she told this reporter in an interview Tuesday.
“It was filthy, it was muddy, it was awful. There were no bathroom facilities. It was horrible and I remember it, but my sister didn’t remember. She was so sick during the war when we were in children’s homes and whatnot. She had rheumatic fever at the time, they didn’t have penicillin or anything. I just cried and cried. I didn’t want to lose my sister,” Ruth told me.
From then on it was she and her older sister, Lea, who was a little over a year older. Together, they were saved after their mother, who chose to allow an organization (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants) protecting Jewish children during the Holocaust, to take custody of her children.
In a world where monsters are sometimes intentionally evil, like the Nazis in Germany, and sometimes unintentional consequences of nature, like COVID-19, Ruth has lived long enough to understand that life is fragile and worth the fight for survival.
“France gave me my life,” Ruth exclaimed. “They made me Catholic and all that good stuff.”
“They told my mother that they would do everything they could and maybe we would survive and that’s how we survived.”Ruth Steinfeld, Holocaust Survivor
In her mind, Ruth said she never really believed it would be the last time she would see her parents and she always held out hope.
“I didn’t know this, but my mother had told my sister, if they ever were going to separate us, she should scream…” she said. “When they sent us, not many people wanted two people to come live with them because they didn’t have the rations, they didn’t have food but this couple was willing to take us in.”
It wasn’t until 1981 long after the war that she learned that both her parents had perished in the Holocaust. At the time, she was traveling, reluctantly so, to Israel.
“They were having a reunion of the survivors and we were all to meet in Israel and I decided I’m not gonna go there, I’ll never find out what happened to my parents but my sister insisted and I went reluctantly because I was afraid I guess to find out that they were really dead, even though intelligently I knew it, but I didn’t want to know it really,” she told me.
Their names were on a list of 80,000 names recovered from the Nazi headquarters in Paris of people sent to their death out of France.
It was then that Ruth and Lea discovered their parents had been killed in Auschwitz in 1942.
“I was still hoping for them until I went to Israel in ’81 and found out that they were killed in Auschwitz in 1942 on convoy 30,” she said. “And to live all my life practically, I was 7 when I last saw my parents, to live all my life never knowing what happened to my parents, it was like every day I was waiting for them to come home even though intelligently probably they would never come but unless you know, you keep hoping.”
Ruth also found herself quite apprehensive at the opportunity in 1981 to return to Germany, but she did it anyways.
“Somehow I was in Israel and the next thing I was doing something I never thought I could do was go back to Germany and I went back and found my home. We asked the lady if we could come in and that we were the Krell girls, my sister and I, and would she let us in. And as I walked in all my memories were rushing back and I got hysterical and I looked at the lady and she was just as hysterical as I was and to my surprise.”
The experience changed Ruth’s outlook and the prejudices she held after the war. Before, she for years hated Germans and when she heard someone with a German accent, she’d run the other way.
“I had a big hair salon and if somebody would come in with a German accent I would ignore them because they might’ve been the ones,” she said. “And yet here I am in my home and the one who was occupying my home was crying as much as I was and without thinking I put my arms around her and told her it was ok.”
She added, “If somebody would’ve said I would’ve had that experience it was so powerful that I would’ve done it sooner. But I guess needed to go through all that I did to be in that space in that moment. All I can tell you, it was just the most cleansing experience. I’ve often said, I wish I could’ve put the feeling in a bottle so I could smell it every so often and get that love of humankind back in me because truthfully I had worked on myself, I had gone to seminars and workshops, all that trying to find who I really was. I was the hairdresser, I was the mother, I was the wife, I was the customers’ preferred hairdresser. I was all the good things and yet I didn’t feel that at all. I was just always angry and jealous cause everybody should have a family. And now that I had a family, it still was my mother and my father and I was still waiting for them.”
“It’s terrible the antisemitism. But, this is the third generation probably from Nazis and they are brought up with the hate that their grandparents experienced towards Jews and the guilt and all of that and that just keeps prolonging this antisemitism.”Ruth Steinfeld, Holocaust Survivor
Thanks to her grandfather, who read in the New York Times that some children were saved from the Holocaust, Ruth and Lea were given the opportunity to go to the United States. He wrote to OSE and planned for their arrival to America.
In September 1946, the sisters arrived in Houston, Texas. Ruth was 13 and Lea was 14 at the time.
“Once we got here, we just made our lives here. Lea married and had four children and I got married and had three. And so it was like our children must have suffered because we didn’t have family, we didn’t have anything to prepare our lives with. I didn’t know how to be a mother. My sister had mothered me, so she was a better mother. We somehow grew our children and everybody was fine,” Ruth told this reporter.
“And the two of us, somehow, I don’t know how we did it, but we did it. We never were bad girls. We saved ourselves till our marriage, which nowadays is just ridiculous… We had our own apartment, our friends were jealous of us because they had to stay with their parents until they got married, we’re talking 1954, and somehow we just always did what we were supposed to do. Lea was a top legal secretary, she worked for every top lawyer here in town, and I would work for a frozen food company first, which later became Sysco foods.”
Her life is a miracle
Ruth’s life is a miracle. And that miracle will be protected when Ruth receives the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“So many people are resisting taking the shot and yet it’s life. It’s great,” she said, adding “Two weeks after that, I’ll still wear my mask.”
The vaccine means Ruth can now spend more time with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“Even my great-grandkids came up the other day and usually, they would never come upstairs,” Ruth told me. “I would come down and talk with them outside and my daughter’s husband called me and said ‘Mimi, we’re coming to see you.’ I said, ‘you are, am I coming downstairs?’ He said, ‘No, we’re coming upstairs.'”
“I was so excited. And my other granddaughter, she has two little girls and they come up like once a month to have dinner together. I tell you, I’ve been very lucky, I really have. And my other daughter has me at her house every so often and I get to sit outside. Somehow we’ve made life work. My other great-grandson, who loves to come visit me, he’s 4 years old, and he begs to come see me.”
For many years during the war, Ruth says she was hidden so hiding again “was not a big deal.”
“Hiding, meaning not letting people know where you are and coming to see them or anything. It was part of my past,” she said.
Ruth wrote the book “Forgive but Never Forget,” which tells her full story. The book is available here.
“I have always always wanted to write down things,” Ruth said of her decision to write a book.” I have 7 great-grandchildren already so I wanted them to know because I figured my grandchildren, their parents may forget to tell them so this way my way of making sure that they would have for reference as to what happened to their great great grandparents.”
Before the world was on lockdown in response to the novel coronavirus, Ruth spent her time in the community and she spoke all over the world to young people since 1981, the year she found out that 1.5 million children aged 14 and younger were murdered in the Holocaust.
“I always talk about my mother who sent us away from the concentration camp we were in in France by the name of Gurs, knowing that she may never see us again and I have always held my mother on this pedestal. I didn’t know that a million and a half children were murdered.”
“At that point, I made a vow to myself that I will for the rest of my life, talk for these kids who never had a chance and that’s how come my life has been the way it has been because it’s not that I like talking about the Holocaust, but I do like to let people know that it really did happen and I couldn’t make up a story like that. It’s true and I have proof. I have a big book that has my parents’ names and I’ve never had seen my parents’ names anywhere until 1981. I never had a way of proving even that I had parents. I mean everybody knew it, but nobody paid attention.”
The story of Anna Steinberger
Anna Steinberger is also a Holocaust survivor living in Houston, Texas. Despite all the challenges in her life, Anna persevered, survived, and became a renowned virologist.
Anna chose to study virology in 1950 when it was a completely new and exciting field. She once ran a laboratory and managed 12 researchers and later went on to join the University of Texas medical school, where she worked for over 30 years and retired as a professor emerita in 2001.
Anna, like Ruth, received the COVID-19 vaccine and recommends that others do the same.
“The best preventive measure we have against a viral disease right now,” Anna told me. “If not for vaccines, we would still have polio and mumps…. so the vaccine is a blessing and when people say it was developed so quickly, is it safe, I say it’s already tested on thousands of people. If it wouldn’t be safe, how many people would’ve been dead already? I’m trying to convince them, make sure you get the two shots.”
Anna also spoke of the medical miracle messenger RNA vaccines, the technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, provide for the future of combatting such deadly viruses.
“mRNA is a new technology, not the technology that I used years ago,” she said. “We used to grow viruses in fertilized eggs and when I didn’t use up all the eggs from my research, I would bring them home so my two little girls would watch the chicks hatch.”
“More vaccines can be produced quicker and it’s actually a much simpler technology. It’s more sophisticated but it’s simple”
Anna received the vaccine thanks to CVS pharmacy, which provided it to her senior care facility in Texas, she told me.
“We received our first dose of the Pfizer vaccine December 29 and I just got my second one January 19. And I had no aftereffects whatsoever,” Anna, who celebrated her 93rd birthday earlier this month, said.
“I encourage everybody to get a vaccine, I don’t understand the psychology of people that don’t want to take the vaccine. They’re crazy, they’re ignorant. I’m a great advocate for taking the vaccine.”
Anna appeared optimistic about coming out of isolation but said she’s still been able to stay in touch with many people as a master of Zoom video conferencing over the past few months.
“We all kind of resent the fact that we’re living isolated,” Anna said. “We don’t meet so much with our family members, we don’t meet much with our friends, but thank God for Zoom. I do a lot of Zooming. Sunday, I zoomed with about 53 student ambassadors. In a way, I like meeting via Zoom because I don’t have to wear a mask.”
She added, “These are difficult times, but when I talk with young people, I always emphasize life is unpredictable, some good things, some bad things. I was 11 years old, I got up in the morning, I thought I was going to start seventh grade and I couldn’t wait to get back to school I was missing my friends and instead, bombs were falling, there was a raging fire on the apartment building that we lived in… and I ask my mom, ‘what’s going on, am I not going to school today? She said ‘no, honey Germany invaded Poland. It was September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and instead of going to school, we all hid in a back cellar. We sat there for hours.”
Anna was born in Radom, Poland in 1928. At the age of 11, when she was to start the seventh grade, Anna found herself and her family uprooting their entire life because of the Holocaust and World War II. Her family fled to Eastern Poland, which was quickly taken over by the Soviet Union. She found herself then in a completely foreign place where it was challenging to survive. She said she was hungry for six years. She knows hardships.
“I had many many obstacles that I had to overcome to get educated to come to this country,” she explained. “I was hungry, not for a day, not for a week, not for a night, for six years I was always hungry. I was supposed to study for my exams, I was supposed to do other things and all I could think of is where in the heck can I get something to eat. So, you know, we’ll get out of this and there is no life without problems. Your life may be different from the problems I had to face, but just remember one thing, you meet an obstacle, don’t be discouraged, solve it as well as you can and just move on. It makes you more stronger it makes you more determined and you have to work for it to achieve your best.”
Still, Anna wanted to continue her studies so she learned Russian. Her family was later sent on cattle trains to a farm where her father and brother worked in fields.
A year later, they were moved to Stalingrad, and in 1941, when Germany invaded Russia. They were then sent to Alma-Atah, Kazakh Republic. There, she met a man, Emil, who would later become her husband. His family had also fled the Holocaust.
When the war ended, Anna and her family returned to Poland in 1946 and soon escaped to an American-occupied zone in Kassel, Germany where they stayed in a Displaced Persons camp. Her family hoped for a new life in the United States but they didn’t know when it would happen.
“I had already started my medical education, so I couldn’t continue my education because we had no idea how long we were going to be in Germany until we get permission to immigrate to the United States,” Anna said. “My mom had a sister living in New York City, she was financially very well off so they would try to prepare for us to immigrate to the United States but we had no idea was it going to be two months, was it going to be two years, was it going to be ten years, how long did we have to wait? So I wanted to continue my medical studies, but I had to learn German and when I came to this country, all I knew how to say was ‘ok.’ I learned that from the radio and from television.”
In 1949, Anna’s family made it to the United States. The next year, Anna and Emil married. Their life together in the United States didn’t come without difficulties as they both pursued careers in medicine.
“I was even more optimistic that with hard work, I will be able to achieve my goals, and eventually of course I did. My husband was an M.D. P.h.D. so he did clinical research and basic research. I just had my P.h.D. because when I came to this country, they looked at my records and they said, ‘Oh, you’re just one month short of your M.D. degree’ I said, ‘that’s right’ Well, they gave me college credit for my medical school and I had to go back to day one.”
“Well, I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to get married, I wanted to start a family. I wanted to kind of get going and so to graduate school. I was able to work in a laboratory earning some money and our first daughter was born within the first year of our marriage and the second one two years later. My husband was kind of struggling financially for a while. He got his degree and eventually we became well-known around the world for our research, biomedical research and traveled all over the world many times over to conferences and we achieved our dreams, what we were hoping for and even more.”
Anna said for so long she didn’t consider herself a Holocaust survivor because she was never put in a concentration camp. She later realized her story was one of survival.
“Now, when people ask me, I say ‘yes I’m considered a Holocaust survivor but I was not in the Nazi concentration camp.’ Because the second question is ‘which camp were you in?’ So there is still this misconception that the real Holocaust survivors are the ones that were in the Nazi concentration camps.”
It was never her family’s choice to go to the Soviet Union. She said she always hated the Russian regime and the communist propoganda she was taught.
“We certainly did not go to Russia, Russia came to us.”
Still, she’s grateful for the regime because they helped the allied powers win the war and allowed her family to survive.
In the United States and the world today, Anna says she sees problems and warns young people to always remember the meaning behind ‘Never Again.’
“I always tell people, yes the country still has problems. We have to keep on working to make things better, but it’s the best country that I can think of, that I would want to live in because it’s a country of opportunities. My greatest frustration was that after the Holocaust, the motto was ‘Never Again.’ Never again should a Holocaust happen and I said, unfortunately, kind of like Holocaust events are still happening in this country and in other countries and I say people have to learn, they must learn to live in peace with mutual respect of one another regardless of their differences: how we look, what is our background, how we worship God,” she said.
“We’re all human beings, we love our dogs, we love our cats, and we have to learn to love one another and not do any harm to other people. We may not always agree with everything we say, but it’s no reason to abuse, kill, and so on and so forth. I also tell young people often, you don’t want to wear the same clothes day in and day out for years, you like to change your clothes, you like to go out in new clothes, you don’t want to eat the same food three times a day, day after day after day, you want variety in your food. Why can’t we accept variety in people?”
“Accept variety as a positive thing rather than something to be against and to fight this and that. I don’t know, I’m really frustrated that never again never happened. It’s happening again and again… I think it was Patrick Henry that said, I may not always agree with what you’re saying, but I will defend your right to say it. These are some simple principles.”
Anna is now an active member of the Houston Holocaust Museum, where she leads tours, chairs different committees and donates her money. She hopes those efforts will carry on the story of survivors.
“After the Holocaust, people seemed a little bit more tolerant. But now everything is just a mess. I don’t know how we can fix that.”-Anna Steinberger, Holocaust Survivor
Ensuring ‘Never Again’
Judaism commands that preserving human life is a priority. It even overrules basically every Jewish law. And in the Talmud, there is a proverb: “He who saves one life saves the world.”
“If we know anything about Covid, it’s that we don’t know the full nature of the beast, and as such it is IMPERATIVE that people take the vaccine,” Rabbi Yisroel Kahan, who is a hospital administrator, told The Dark Wire. “For those who are hesitant saying that it’s fairly new and we don’t have enough research on it, I will say this, we have seen the devastation and death covid has inflicted upon us.”
Ruth and Anna will continue to tell their stories firsthand. Thanks to a number of initiatives that have been launched to prioritize Holocaust survivors in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines currently available to the public, others will be able to as well to ensure ‘Never Again.’
Arizona is joining that effort.
Arizona State Representative Alma Hernandez, Governor Doug Ducey and Arizona Department of Arizona Health’s Dr. Cara Christ to get 40 Holocaust survivors in Phoeniz vaccinated against COVID-19 this week.
“Holocaust survivors have already endured so much pain in their lifetime,” Rep. Hernandez told this reporter Tuesday. “We must do what we can to get them all vaccinated to survive this pandemic and not worry that they have to wait weeks before getting vaccinated or worry about becoming ill.”
She continued, “I feel an immense responsibility as an elected official and proud Jew to do my part, take care of them and ensure that they are with us for as long as possible. Holocaust survivors in Arizona are a treasure, and we must do what we can to make sure that are all vaccinated. I will continue to work until they are all set with their vaccinations.”
Follow Jennie Taer on Twitter @JennieSTaer