As you can imagine, the course at Yad Vashem is very taxing emotionally, physically, and intellectually. We hear lectures about Nazi Ideology, Anti-Semitism, the Final Solution, Holocaust Literature and Art. We hear testimonies of men and women who survived the Shoah (Holocaust). Just at the point that you think you can't absorb any more the course offers a field trip to ease your mind. The field trips are fun, informative and gets us out of the classroom. Tomorrow we are going to the Dead Sea and Masada and on Sunday we travel up north to the Galilee and the Golan Heights.
But the testimonies...well let's just say you can hear all the lectures, the history, the ideology, the pedagogical methods of teaching about the Shoah but the testimonies touch you on the most intimate human level that is possible.
I want to tell you about Ruth Brand. We met Ruth last week. She told us just a snippet of a story from her life before the Shoah. We knew she was a survivor but we didn't know her full story. We also knew that she would be back to tell us about her life during and after the Shoah. Ruth is from Romania and came from a religious family. She has been back to Romania only once since she was taken away at the young age of 13.
Ruth and her family were put on a cattle car to Auschwitz and managed to live in the car for three days among human excrement and corpses. She said that babies were born in the cattle car but barely survived because the mothers were not producing milk for the babies to drink, nor was there adequate food for the mothers to eat.
They arrived at Auschwitz. She and her family went up the "ramp". She faced Dr. Mengele who determined that she was strong enough for work and was thrown to the right, she had been selected for forced labor. Her cousin also was selected to work. Ruth never saw her family after that day, not her mother or her father. After she had settled in as much as she could, she asked about the smoke was that was coming out of one of the chimney's. Curtly, she was told that it was her family, her mother and father. That was the beginning of her life in Auschwitz.
Ruth’s first job was shoveling the ashes of the people who were murdered and incinerated. She shoveled them from the crematory to ditches that had been dug by other workers. After some time she and her cousin also dug large ditches. It was work she said, that the strongest of men were asked to do. It didn’t matter, they had to dig so deep that they hit water with worms.
Food was sparse, a cup of liquid that was called coffee, that was breakfast. A soup that was barely edible was lunch, and a piece of bread for dinner. Sometimes, she said there was a slab of margarine on it. A woman doctor, Dr. Perl, who was also in the camp told the women to use the margarine for the wounds on their skin rather than ingest it. Ruth said that it became a healing balm for their dry and parched skin. Dr. Perl, who was a gynecologist, took care of the woman in unimaginable ways to save their lives. Dr. Perl's life and story is also heart wrenching.
Ruth tells that when Yom Kippur came she and her cousin fasted. They remained observant even in Auschwitz. She said that the other women thought that she and her cousin were crazy…why would they put their life and health in such a precarious position? But they fasted and, as Ruth says, the next day a miracle happened. They were give an extra piece of bread to eat. She said that she always looked for the smallest of miracles to happen in the camp.
After some time, Ruth and her cousin were sent to Bergen-Belsen. They hardly survived and knew that they were headed for death. But the end was near. After liberation came she had nowhere to go. She said that the lice on her body was unimaginable. Her family was gone and she did not want to go back to Romania, by then she was 17. She came to the United States to be with cousins and her grandmother who had left Romania before the Shoah. She married in the US, spent 25 years there and then made aliyah to Israel. She did not tell her story for a very long time.
I am not relaying her story of survival very well, how can I really? To hear someone recount his or her experiences of the Shoah is something that only they can do. All we can do is listen and try to understand as best as we can the depths of humanity and the resiliency of the human spirit.
I tell you about Ruth because she asked each one of us in the class to remember her. To remember her story and to pass it on to others so that she and the survivors of the Shoah, and the 6 million Jews who were murdered will never be forgotten.
I pass to you their memory and their lives trusting confidently that you will hold sacred their stories. I pass Ruth's story to you so that we can be reminded that 'never again' can be a reality.