Project Witness is a non profit Holocaust resource center, dedicated to Holocaust education. Their mission is to create a better future, one that has learned from the horrors of the past, through the communication of Holocaust survivor stories. Through Project Witness, the WHSAD community was blessed with the privilege of hearing Holocaust survivor, Ruth Gruener, speak. Organized by the WHSAD Humanities Department, this event was held Wednesday May 13th, via Google Meet, with a plethora of special guests, students, and WHSAD faculty. In a video call lasting a little over an hour, Ruth Gruener was able to share something special with us that greatly impacted the WHSAD community.
Over 50 people took part in the virtual event. Students sacrificed their class time, teachers the same, and superintendents, as well as other educational officials outside of WHSAD, came to be a part of the meeting. I also shouldn’t fail to mention the appearance of Deborah Lauter, the Executive Director of Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes as being present as well. Then, of course, there were people from Project Witness; Founder Ruth Lichtenstein, Education Director Deborah Schechter, and Researcher Faigy Zweig who helped organize the meeting. Out of all the great people who joined the Meet, the title of most notable falls to Ruth Gruener.
Ruth is an 87 year old woman who was born in Lvov, Poland in August of 1933. At three years old, she had her first brush with anti-Semitisim when Ruth’s young nanny referred to her as “Dirty Jew”. Despite this, Ruth lived a normal childhood before the war. Her parents owned a candy shop and a nice 3 bedroom apartment. She could sing, dance and practice her religion freely. However, It wasn’t long before this was all ruined, by a regime fueled by hate. Her hometown was taken over. First came the Soviets who restricted the people and their ways of life, then, the Nazis who torture, killed, murdered, and massacred. She lived in the ghetto where sorrow was seen and lived on a daily basis. Children could no longer be children. Perpetuated hate forced Ruth into hiding, separating her from her parents, killing the rest of her family, and massacring her neighbors
When she was eight, Ruth was able to hid in a confined space at the Szczygiel family residence for 8 months. This was how she survived. She spent every day in fear, knowing that any moment she could be found and killed, and there was a time when she came very close. But, by her faith and prayer, Ruth survived to tell her story. Ruth is the only member of her Kindergarten class that wasn’t killed, and she and her parents were the only ones out of their entire family to survived.
Clearly, Ruth Gruener has seen a lot in her lifetime. She hails from a perilous time when being a particular religion or nationality was sanctioned by death. She’s seen the power of hate and lived through despicable atrocities committed in its name. She is of a dying generation who has suffered unjustly from deplorable actions, and know true fear more than anything as they were forced to live it. Yet, Ruth leaves us with the message of peace. She wants us to forget hate because she knows the consequence. She wants us all to find peace with each other to ensure we never let another Holocaust happen again. This was the message that made this Meet so inspiring. When you take into account everything the woman has survived, its easy to understand her views. No one deserves to suffer. Everyday we strive to create a better world and Ruth’s story helps us remember why.
Throughout the call, multiple acts took place. We began with Ruth passing her words of wisdom down to the youths and sharing her insights. A few students were then given the chance to ask her questions, which she thoroughly answered. Many students had also prepared pieces of artworks and poems for the meet, but due to the closing of the school, where they were kept, they didn’t have access to them. Fortunately, students Mayerli Barzola and Joseph Lorenzo had access to theirs and were able to read them for Ruth, and, it’s safe to say that she enjoyed them. I think I speak for everyone in the Meet when I say, it was an honor, to hear the voice of an important generation and testimony of such an experience.
The following are some of the questions asked by students to Ruth, along with her answers:
Mahalia Saint-Eloi –
Did you remember experiencing anti-Semitism growing up? If so, can you tell me about your experience?
“One experience was when I was 3 years old. When the girl who was taking care of me called me a dirty jew. Otherwise I was, you know, very young. I went to kindergarten at the beginning of the war because my city wasn’t very…ruled by the Russian army. So, we stayed with the Russians for a year and a half, from 1939 to 1940 and a half. Sometimes it was difficult because my parents felt that our 3 room apartment was too large for 3 people. And my parents said to take in another family to live with us. But the family consisted of parents, grandma, and an 8 year old boy, whom, I always admired and I thought he acted like my big brother. So, that was fine, until, the Germans entered. Actually I spoke to many people and this only happened to my city. The name of my city was Lvov. The Germans called it Leinburg. In my city, they were first taking the children. My father worked to protect the children and we had a bathroom and a half in the apartment. So, when my parents heard rumors about deportation coming up my dad took the door off the larger bathroom, covered the opening with a sliding door closet and when the warning of the deportation came he had me and the little boy who was there crawl through to the back of the closet, into the bathroom. We were sitting there and we were so nervous and so scared. Then, suddenly we heard footsteps going up and down the apartment quickly and that was the first time in my life that I realized I was holding my breath. I couldn’t breathe, just because I saw a flashlight on the side of the closet. The door frame were not like the modern ones, they were thick and there was no way that this guy didn’t see that there was a door frame in the back of the closet. But, suddenly it got dark and I heard the sound of the footsteps receding and after a long while I heard no footsteps, nothing, and after a while, my father opened the closet door and he said ‘killer’, And the reason I am saying killer is because I heard afterwards that all the children that were found that day were put into trucks, the trucks were covered and gas pipes were inserted. So, Henry and I crawled out of the closet and my mother tells me what happened-there was a portrait of me hanging on the wall and in that portrait I was two and a half years old. That portrait is on the cover of another book by Scholastic. He assumed that if the young couple had a picture of a child on the wall, then they must be parents. So, he asked my parents where is your child? My mother told me she said she was taken away.
Were you separated from your family or were you together?
After I stayed for three months in the ghetto with my parents, one day my father had a job on the outside of the ghetto and he came back from work that day and told me and my mother that he met Mrs. Szczygiel. Mrs. Szczygiel was a customer in their business and became a very good friend. My father said that she said to him in the streets when he was trying to go back to the ghetto that she assumes that he, my mother, and I will be killed. But, she wanted to save the life of a child: me. She said ‘tomorrow morning bring her out, take her to the place where you work and I will pick her up’. It was very difficult to come out of the ghetto. I came out under my father’s coat although I made it. I put my feet on top of his shoes, and she didn’t come to pick me up that day. You know, It’s a long story. But I stayed in her house for 8 months after this one of her 3 teenage daughters got very scared because one day when she was sitting in bed and had invited her boyfriend to visit her and I was hiding under the bed and the family dog was in the room and the dog couldn’t understand why I was lying under the bed across from the wall where the headboard was. He started to pull me out and kept pulling and scraping the floor, and the boyfriend wanted to know what was going on with all the noise under the bed. I still remember seeing the outline of his head as he was bending down and he wanted to see. At that moment, she was a smart girl, and she said to him “hey, why don’t you go to the window and see how the weather is? Maybe it’s better and I’ll be able to go out tomorrow.” So, I could only say that God was watching over me, continuously. At that moment when she said that he got up, went to the window, opened the door and the dog ran out. Then, after that she insisted that I leave them alone because she was too scared. Which I felt very very hard. After 8 months, Mrs. Szczygiel told me after much suffering at an incident that she’s taking me to visit my parents. She was afraid to tell me that she’ll maybe ask Mr and Mrs. Oyak, who were hiding my parents, who’d refuse to take me. So, she said “just visit” because after 8 months I wasn’t allowed to go near a window…
Did you lose any friends or family? If so, how did you cope?
“You can imagine how I felt. How anybody would feel. I still have photographs of my kindergarten class which have been published in a book called Destined to Live. Because when we lived in the ghetto, my father took pictures and put them in a glass jar and then he hid the jar in the ghetto. After we survived he went and he found the jar and gave it to me so I would have all the pictures of my family and my little friends. It was horrible to know that they are all dead. I was the only child of the whole kindergarten class to survive. All the others were killed. Even during the first deportation or children or even in the ghetto. So, the Nazi soldiers brainwashed the children into following Hitler. If they felt like shooting someone in the street, a child would be the first to shoot.
How are you doing during this Quarantine ?
“I’m holding up. I’m just hoping everyone and their families are staying safe and are hopefully well.
If things had turned out differently what are some things you would have done when you were younger?
“I would be a regular little girl like any other. I would have friends and spend time with my grandmother who loved to make prunes. It sounds odd, but I really loved them, it’s where I at least felt happy. I miss her.”
When you were younger, what was it that kept you going everyday and stopped you from giving up?
“My faith, I was praying like I told you before and I was praying that God would help me and that I would have a normal life. One thing that’s a little funny I could tell you was that when the Szczygiel family had to paint their apartment, and they were afraid someone would see me, so Mr. Sczcygiel took me down to the cubicle for as long as the painting would go on. When the day came, he brought to the room I was sitting in, a burlap sack and put me into the sack because he was afraid for people to see me walk down into the basement. So he put me in the sack. He brought me into the cellar and put me in there the whole day.”
Student Poems and Artwork
These are a selection of student pieces inspired by the Holocaust
Poem that Mayerli Barzola wrote & read:
We live in a world where as a whole we need to create tranquility
There’s a peace within ourselves we all wish to achieve
We fight to bring serenity to our lives
We embrace our thoughts
Our hearts are stronger than we know
It fights harder than from friend to foe
We will fight through all evil and be resilient
We can withstand any hardship thrown our way
We are strong
We are powerful
Our life is a present
No more pain
We will assert our great presence
The celestial beauty of oneself outshines any darkness
We are celestial.
-Mayerli Barzola, WHSAD Senior
Annaya Fountaine, WHSAD Sophomore
Poem by Joseph Lorenzo
“Reflection on the Holocaust”
The thought of killing thousands of people is horrific,
Based on religion and description.
Deadly gas was forced on them like a prescription, wasn’t their
Safety and making it out alive was their mission.
Praying to God, wishing to be saved, instead of being in a camp
They had faith that God#39;s decision was made,
Sadly, many lost their mothers, brothers, fathers and sisters. May
their souls rest easy; may they live in eternal happiness, peacefully.
Things shall get better and fear can be left in the past,
Learning to avoid this in the future because it will be the last.
This piece is to remember those we lost and the saved;
People are fine the way they are. Humans should not to be ridiculed
Race and religion. Never forget those murdered and enslaved.
By: Joseph Lorenzo, WHSAD Junior ELA Spring 2020
Here are a few student reflections from after the event, followed by teacher reflections, that describe their thoughts on listening to Ruth Gruener.
Silas Rodriguez, Junior
“Spending time with Ruth Gruener was not something I was anticipating until I got the invitation the day before. Yet, it proved to be far more impactful than I would’ve thought. In school, you study the Holocaust and the events surrounding it, and usually, it evokes thoughts and emotions that make you question humanity. But, being that I got the chance to speak directly to somebody who experienced some of these atrocities, the impact of her words felt much greater than reading them in a textbook. You could feel the realness and pain in her stories. You don’t get that from a video or book. It puts it into a new perspective where you realize that these aren’t just stories to tell, but real people. It made me realize how petty some of our actions and problems are as a society. I don’t know if I would have the ability to do what she had to do as a child to survive, and I’m grateful that my biggest problems aren’t anywhere near that. Getting to ask her questions about her experience and motivation gave me a lot to contemplate moving forward. Her strength and mission to bring more love and encouragement to the world serves as a source of inspiration for me as we move forward in an uncertain future.”
Jessica Juarez, Senior
Listening to Ruth talk about her experience made me feel better during this time because we are all experiencing a pandemic. She spoke about her life and although a lot was going on, she didn’t lose hope. Ruth prayed for better days and eventually things got better for her. She was able to get through it all and now she shares her story to show people, regardless of what’s going on at the moment, everything happens for a reason.
Andre Rodriguez– Junior English teacher
“When Ruth was telling her stories, I felt her struggle at trying to figure out the severity of what was happening to her and her loved ones, when she was a child. With the blessing of age, understanding, and reflection, I could feel her genuine connection to any and every group of people that have been and continue to be discriminated against. She has lived what it feels to be othered and has made it her life’s mission to persuade people to focus on our societal similarities and to never stop striving for equality. Her stories, as well as her character, truly inspired me and reminded me to never stop trying to be a better person, to never be silent when a voice is needed, and to always make the most of my breaths.”
Jessica Como– Sophomore Global History teacher
“Being given the opportunity to hear a Holocaust survivor speak is always such an honor. I am so thankful Ruth was able to share her story and speak with our students. What stood out to me was the message she had for you all as young adults: “Be good people… Never judge somebody because of their race or religion… We are all God’s children.” When you encounter injustice being an up-stander may not be an easy task, but it is the right thing to do. I would like to share with you one of my favorite quotes, “All too often, when we see injustices, both great and small, we think, That’s terrible, but we do nothing. We say nothing. We let other people fight their own battles. We remain silent because silence is easier. Qui tacet consentire videtur is Latin for ‘Silence gives consent.’ When we say nothing, when we do nothing, we are consenting to these trespasses against us.” ― Roxane Gay
Ms. Weinstein– AP US History Teacher
“This event was very meaningful for me. It is very important to hear stories of the Holocaust, and all forms of oppression, so that we do not allow any of it to happen again. I am also the granddaughter of Holocaust Survivors and grew up hearing their stories and the stories of their friends, so I am very grateful that the WHSAD community had the opportunity to hear from Ruth. It was incredible that we were able to teach a Holocaust survivor how to use Google Meet and use it to have a conversation with her. I hope that we are able to meet her in person one day soon!”
Lastly, I leave you with words from Ruth Gruener.
Words from Ruth:
“ I want to talk to the young ones so they know we are all God’s children regardless of nationality and religion, and i’m sure that the one above would have wanted us to live in peace. Life can be so beautiful.”
“My father said that if we survived the war he would go all over the world and want people to hear how he suffered. That is why I decided to share my story. I want my children, grandchildren, and future grandchildren to live in peace.”