Ruth Kissel was only three years old when she and her family were forced out of Germany after the invasion of Nazis in her hometown. She would be the last Jew born in that small town of Niedermendig. A decade after the Holocaust, she went back to Germany to see what was left of her home. It was there that she had to relive the horrible stories and memories her family had endured many years ago.
She was very young to experience and remember the mistreatment of Jews, so she relies on the memories her parents and siblings shared with her growing up.
¨Since I had no memory of Germany, it was important to me to revisit that town that I heard so often of,” said Kissel.
Ruth had a brother who was eight years older and a sister that was four years older. All the members of the family lived in a very nice house built by her grandfather in 1888. Her family were the very few Jews in that town.
Her father owned a store as a butcher but would later work for farmers because he wasn’t allowed to own his own shop. Jews were also not allowed to have weapons in their possession and since her father was a butcher, he owned many knives. In order to hide these materials from the Nazis, Ruth´s mother buried them in the backyard.
¨I believe those materials are still in our backyard. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone found them today,¨ mentioned Kissel.
Ruth’s family began to feel the disowning of Jews in mild ways. People that they knew had to isolate themselves from them whether they wanted to or not, in the fear of getting caught of acknowledging a Jew. There was a young woman who took care of them who could no longer work for them. When Ruth and her sister went to Germany, they visited that woman who expressed happiness and relief to see them well and alive after so many years.
Kissel retold these horrible stories on April 18 to Mercy College students and staffed, who listened carefully as she spoke about her family’s struggle to survive the Holocaust. It was the first time some students listened to a Holocaust story, let alone meet a Holocaust survivor. This encounter was organized by the history club of Mercy College who contacted The Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education.
Once the Nazis came to their town, the kids would no longer play with them. Ruth’s sister experienced taunts and bullying in school. She was not allowed to play with the other kids during recess. She also remembers the teachers assigning the front row seats to the “slow’ students so they can pay more attention to them and the smarter students in the back row. Ruth’s sister was placed in the last row but was told by students who tormented her in school daily that she was put there because the teacher didn’t want a Jew to be sitting close with them.
Ruth’s sister ultimately told her parents about the mistreatment she was experiencing in school. Her mother went to speak to the teacher who said there was nothing he could do about the harassment but would put her in the front to separate her from the kids. But moving up to the front row only gave the bullies a reason to pick on her even more, calling her “stupid.”
In the Summer of 1938, her sister and brother were at a local pool enjoying the hot days in the cold water when they were accused of stealing money. It was believed that someone had put the money in her purse in order to get her in trouble. Although no serious punishment occured, both were asked to never come back to the local pool again.
“I didn’t know what money was. I was only six years old. I didn’t know I was singled out for being jewish,¨ explained Kissel’s sister in her memoir.
Blamed for stealing money wasn’t the only punishment they experienced while growing up. Kissel’s parents warned them to always do the Nazi Salute when passing a Nazi soldier. If they hadn’t done so, the family would be in big trouble.
Another time when she was six years old, a group of students were smelling a perfume and they wouldn’t let her smell it because she was a Jew. One kid went as far as to say “Jewish noses would kill the perfume.”
Her brother had a much terrible experience because he was diagnosed with autism at an early age. He was severely hit in school because at the time it was believed that in order to “get the autism out” from someone, one must hit them.
Unfortunately for her brother, his teacher was a Nazi sympathizer and treated him cruelly. His parents were helpless to complain about this cruel treatment because if they did, they would all be in big trouble.
At the age of six, he was put in a mental disabled home because of his autism but soon escaped.
¨Lots of harassment and hate was going on in our lives. We were constantly in danger,¨ shared Kissel from her brother’s memoir.
In November of 1938, Kissel’s sister was called in to be informed that she and her brother can no longer attend school.
“Naturally to me this was welcoming news because I did not realize the seriousness of the situation and was only thinking about the harassment of the other students,¨ said Ruth, interpreting her sister’s words.
When the kids found out, they chased them out of the school while calling them “dirty Jews.” She went straight home to tell her parents what had happened but when she got there, she was informed by neighbors in the street that her parents were in a nearby sinica. She went to the sinica only to find it burning down and her parents crying. It was announced that there will be trouble for all Jews since a diplomat had been killed by the jewish community.
Jews paid a heavy price for the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat. He was killed by a Polish Jew in Paris who was protesting against the treatment of Jews but ultimately the events gave the Nazi leaders an excuse to blame the Jews for starting a war with them. Jews lived in constant fear for their lives and Ruth’s family was no different.
That night, their store window was smashed and her father was arrested. Ruth’s grandfather was killed during this time as well. Her father was sent to Dachau concentration camp for six weeks and was severely beaten and tortured. On one occasion, he experienced a heart attack. He recalls a time in which he was forced to clear ice off the streets with two Gestapo carrying guns watching over him. The Jews would be forced to walk with no shoes and clothes during winter season. The soldiers would give electric shocks to the Jews unexpectedly and without any reason.
¨Bullets were expensive so they found a new way to execute Jews easier and that’s when they created the gas chambers,” explained Kissel.
Her father was released after a few weeks because he had been a soldier for Germany in WWI and had received the Iron Cross.
During the time that her father was in the concentration camp, the children were not allowed to leave the house in fear of being harmed. When her father came back, he was unrecognizable. His hair was shaved and he was very thin. He also didn’t want to talk much about his time in the camp.
“ I was very frightened because he did not look the father that I remembered,” stated Kissel’s sister in her memoir.
Her father wasn’t the only one in her family sent to the concentration camps. Her uncle too was also sent there with her father. He explained the horrors he faced leading up to his arrest and the atrocities he saw in the camps. He was 30 years old when he was arrested in a hotel at 3 in the morning with ten other Jew men there. They were forced to walk two miles in the blistering cold, some of them had frostbite in the ears and feet. When they got to the destination, they encountered hundreds of Jews gathered in one area.
There, he witnessed many of the soldiers entering homes and pilling up all the furniture and materials they can get their hands on into a bundle of fire. Windows were smashed and glass was splattered all over the concrete floor. The Gestapo took any possession a Jew family owned – their house, store, pet, jewelry. Once they had burned all the materials and destroyed their homes while the Jews watched helplessly, they ordered them to get into train transporting them to the concentration camp.
“Only those who experience the concentration camps would be able to understand,” explained her uncle in his memoir.
The elders and the young were beaten and tortured. Many were left to starve to death and to experience the cold weather in little to no clothes. Her uncle was released after a few weeks because his family had a tourist visa to leave Germany so they sent him home. He arrived to the U.S in the beginning of the war.
¨All the harsh treatment my father and uncle experienced, took an affect on them later in life¨ said Kissel.
Kissel’s aunt also experienced frightening circumstanced. She wasn’t sent to the concentration camp but was in constant fear of being found and sent there. She was a Jew married to a German man. Her brother in law was a Nazi and tried to have her sent to the concentration camp. She couldn’t afford to leave Germany and so she stayed hiding during the Holocaust.
Kissel’s aunt found some people who found sympathy and compassion for her and helped her hide from the Nazis. Those people were prostitutes and pimps who provided her with poison pills in case she was found. She promised to kill herself before she ever step foot into a concentration camp. Fortunately, she was never found. After the war, Kissel´s mother found her name in a book of Holocaust survivors and was reunited with her.
“The town will always be a reminder of the crimes the Nazis committed against humanity,” mentioned Kissel’s uncle.
A few days later, a German man made a racial comment to her father in which he replied “We, the Jews, will be back one day.”
The man who he said that to reported the incident to two Gestapo soldiers. The chief of police was given order to arrest Ruth’s father and his family but it so happened that the chief and Ruth’s father were really good friend. The chief called her uncle to let him know he had been given order to arrest them but that he won’t unless they leave Germany before 10 o’clock. The uncle went to tell her mother who packed everything up and met her father in the train station with the kids to go to Belgium. He was only allowed to leave Germany if he signed a paper stating that he will never come back.
Her family knew that they needed to get out of Europe because their lives were in danger. Kissel’s family couldn’t get their hands on five visas to get in the United States and were in tremendous fear of being rejected anywhere they went. Luckily, South America was taking in Jews in several of the countries.They were able to get tourist visas and travel to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her mother sold all her jewelry in order to get the money for the tourist visa.
The family traveled by boat to Brazil. Ruth recalls sleeping on the floor with her brother with one bed sheet. They had severe boat sickness and only had $7 to their name. On their way to Brazil, Ruth remember her parents crying realizing that they merely escaped death.
Her father wasn’t allowed to work in Brazil because he was a refugee. Her parents instead served food for other refugees and lived in a shelter. They had one room and one double bed. They lived off by eating only bananas since they were free from the trees and bread. The bathroom was outside and everyone used that one restroom. They sent care packages to people who helped them from escaping Germany and the cruel intentions of the Nazis.
Ruth’s father got a sponsorship and was allowed to go to America after two years of being in Brazil. He lived in New York and was unsettled to leave his family behind.
“He said I can’t leave you in this country with three little children. My mother convinced him that this was the only chance they had to go to the United States. It was heartbreaking to see him leave without knowing when I will see him again,” expressed Kissel.
Her father lived in Brooklyn and everyday he took the ferry to New Jersey and lived in one room. Ruth’s father found an employment as a butcher and after making enough money, he brought them to America after six months. Every week he would go to Staten Island to pick up the money because there was no check at the time and he had also asked people to lend him money which he paid back afterword.
“We were having financial problem but we were thankful to have escaped the horrors of the Nazis,” states Kissel.
When Ruth and her family came to New York, the Jewish philanthropy gave them an apartment. One day, her father read a local newspaper that mentioned that the chief of police was arrested for crimes against the Jews. That was the man and friend of her father who let them escape Germany and didn’t arrest them as he was ordered to do so. Although, the chief did help get some of her relative to the concentration camps, her father still wrote them a letter during the chief’s trail stating that the had helped save him and his family and to release him on the basis of the letter, which they did.
Ruth went to a city college which was free at the time and had to walk 30 blocks to get there. Growing up, she also endured bullying for being a Jew and many students would tell her to go back to where she came from.
One time, Ruth asked her father why she can’t have what the other children have and how come they have nothing and he responded by saying “Your life is all you need.” At the time she didn’t understand what he meant but looking back realizes that their lives was indeed all they needed and that she and her family were the lucky ones.
Her father died at age 62 and her mother committed suicide after his death.
When Rita came back to Germany, she went to the house she used to live in with her family. It was taken over so she was advised by a neighbor to contact the chief of police that helped her family avoid being sent to the concentration camps in order to help her get inside the house she onced lived in.The neighbor gave her the chief’s address and so Ruth went to pay him a visit. Once she told him who her father was, he let her see her home.
The chief told Ruth that the Catholic Church rebuilt the cemetery for the Jews who had died and that some of her family members might be there. They visited the cemetery and indeed found some of her family member’s grave there. The cemetery is now a tourist attraction because before it was rebuilt, the Nazis had destroyed it. The chief died a few weeks after the brief encounter with Ruth.
Ruth’s husband wrote a letter to the town to see if anyone knew someone with her last name. The granddaughter of someone who was friends with Ruth’s father wrote back a letter saying that she had a Bible with Rita’s last name on it in which she found in a flea market.
She was given the prayer book that had her last name written on it but it turned out to be her grandmother’s Bible, not her father’s. Ruth believes that her father’s sister must have taken it with her when she left town and someone must have rainssacked her home and given it to the flea market. But nevertheless she was glad to have in possession a gift from the past that means so much to her.
Ruth had asked her uncle for knowledge on where her house was before she went to Germany. He handed her a list of people who he remembered being sympathetic for Jews.
She met a woman when she was in Germany who had a father that was a German soldier who went to jail for refusing to kill Jews. She is told that there were few German soldiers that were put in prison because they didn’t want to kill women and children.
Ruth wanted to go to the concentration camp during her visit but was with her granddaughter at the time who was very young to go inside so she couldn’t go.
“I definitely want to go there before I die,” expressed Ruth.
Maureen MacLeod is the assistant professor in history and works closely with the history club. She got in contact with the museum after it was suggested by the club’s president, Ariel Knapp, to have a Holocaust survivor come to campus. MacLeod explains how having a person who went through that situation gives the students a better idea of what happened during that time period.
¨I wanted them to feel connected to the past. It’s real when you have someone talk about their story instead of showing them a movie or talking about it in general,¨ explained MacLeod.
Knapp, who is majoring in history education, has been the president of the club for almost a year. She wanted the students to get a first hand experience from someone during the Holocaust. She had never met someone who was a survivor and figured that no one else in the school did neither so she teamed up with MacLeod to make the event happen. Just like Kissel, Knapp believes that its important to keep educating people about history so that it continues to be talked about during the future.
¨A lot of the time, history is overlooked and I wanted to share this experience with the college so we teach the stories of the past so they don’t get lost in the past,¨ said Knapp.
Kissel believes that education is an important tool to use in order to remember the past. Those that have survived the Holocaust are aging and will soon no longer be with us which is why she felt that it was important to tell her story to this generation so that it can be shared and passed down with the future generations. She believes that it is important to be aware of our history and to know what happened in our past so we don’t repeat those mistakes in the future. Educating students on what happened during that time from the people who first hand experienced it, is a great way to learn about our history.
“I hope we continue the education in school. It’s important to tell the stories before it’s forgotten. Once we are gone, hopefully the young generation passes the story,¨ expressed Kissel.