[Andy Miles] Hello, and welcome to “Resistance, Resilience and Hope: Holocaust Survivor Stories,” a podcast co-production of Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and Studio C Chicago.
The mission of Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center is expressed in its founding principle: Remember the Past, Transform the Future. The museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Holocaust by honoring the memories of those who were lost and by teaching universal lessons that combat hatred, prejudice, and indifference. The museum fulfills its mission through the exhibition, preservation, and interpretation of its collections and through education programs and initiatives, like this podcast, that foster the promotion of human rights and the elimination of genocide.
On this episode we hear from Ruth Gilbert.
Ruth was born in 1938 in Łódź, Poland. Upon Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939, Ruth and her family were forced into the Łódź Ghetto. Ruth’s father recognized how difficult things would continue to be and, with savings he had secreted into the ghetto, went to the black market and purchased fake IDs for Ruth and her mother. In 1941, he bribed a guard to let them sneak out of the ghetto under the barbed wire. His plan was to make his way to Russia and join the Russian army, while Ruth and her mother would hide with a family in Lublin, Poland, for the duration of the war. But after a short time, the Polish family was evacuated, leaving Ruth and her mother homeless.
[Ruth Gilbert] So there we were. And since my mother didn’t know what to do, she got on a train. She bought tickets and we were riding the trains like the hobos do. And it was very difficult. We didn’t have any means of bathing, and we had lice. The only food we had was what she could buy from vendors, farmers at the different stations. And we would eat raw eggs. And worst of all, Nazi officers would come on the train looking for Jews. And if they found a Jew, which they did frequently, they’d drag them off the train and shoot them.
[Andy Miles] Ruth Gilbert came to the United States in late 1949 with her mom and stepfather, first settling in Patterson, New Jersey, and later coming to Chicago, where her aunt lived. Ruth met a young man in high school, and as soon as she graduated college as a teacher, they got married. She taught middle grades in a Chicago public school and was able to help her husband through medical school. As soon as they were financially able, they moved to the suburbs with their two little boys. Ruth became a stay-at-home-mom, busy with parenting and active in the boys’ school and their synagogue. “Life was good,” she says,” but “unfortunately it did not last.” Her husband was diagnosed with leukemia and died at the age of 49. Ruth was 47 and her boys were college age. After her grief subsided, she made the decision to move to Evanston and got a job in a local synagogue office where she worked until her retirement. She met a very nice man and they spent 30 wonderful years together. He died two years ago at the age of 87. Ruth’s boys are both married now and she is the proud grandma of many beautiful grandchildren.
We spoke over Zoom.
AM: You were born in Łódź, Poland in 1938. So when the Germans invaded Poland in September of ’39, you were a baby.
AM: How would you describe the life your family had prior to the war? And I know that those are not your memories but those passed on to you by your mother.
RG: Yeah. My parents were very comfortable. My father was a businessman. He was in the shoe factory business, and they were fairly well to do. They had a beautiful apartment with very nice things. My mother didn’t work. She was at home. She had a full-time maid and she had a nanny for me. And we had a large extended family and things were very good, as they could be in Poland, which was pretty antisemitic. But life was — it was good. It was good.
AM: And like most people at the time you lived in an apartment.
AM: And where was that in the city and relative to where the ghetto eventually would be?
RG: Far, far away. We lived in a very nice section. And I always had a memory of, like, a castle being across the street — (laughs) — but it really wasn’t a castle, but it was somebody’s mansion. But ours was an apartment.
AM: So tell me about your parents, and describe, if you will, and if you can, the character and personalities that they each had.
RG: From what my mother tells me, he was an ardent Zionist, and he would give lectures about it. And had he lived, I think eventually we might’ve moved to Israel. My mother, who I know better, was somewhat of — very strong woman; very tenacious; very down to earth; very pretty but not — she didn’t take advantage of that like her sister did. Her sister was very beautiful and was very feminine and had many suitors. My mother did not.
One of my mother’s traits, strong traits, was she was very paranoid is the word that I will use, which came to serve her well later on.
AM: And were your parents Polish-born, and how did they come together?
RG: They were Polish-born. And my mother, as a young woman she used to attend, you know, Jewish lectures. She belonged to a Jewish organization, and I guess she went to a lecture that my father gave and she went up afterwards to ask him a question. And I guess they fell in love and married.
AM: When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Łódź fell quickly and life thereafter changed quickly. What did that mean for your family?
RG: It meant that we were evicted from our apartment.
AM: And was that immediate?
RG: Yes, yes, very much so.
They proceeded on their plan, which was to eliminate the Jewish populace. And the first step in that was to herd them all into the ghetto and make them helpless, really. Being in the ghetto made you totally helpless. So we were evicted from the apartment, had to leave everything behind, except for a very few necessities, like bedding and few pots and pans, a few dishes. But whatever of value there was had to be left behind — paintings, crystal, and so on.
However, my father and mother being both — they knew what was — they didn’t know what was coming, but they figured money always helps — managed to secrete some money on their person and some jewelry. They sewed things into the lining of their coats and clothes so that they had money when they moved into the ghetto.
AM: And was it quite crowded where you lived?
RG: It was very crowded. It was — well, first of all, it was a small area of the city and the slummiest, really the worst part of the city. It was dirty to begin with. And when all these people were herded into there and walled in with barbed wire and bricks and mortar, several families would have to share one apartment, and sometimes even two families in one room, with a sheet hanging in between, hung from the ceiling for privacy.
So, as you can imagine, when it’s that crowded, hygiene was virtually nonexistent. And when that happens, illness happens. So there was a lot of illness — upper respiratory and stomach issues, and so on.
AM: How soon was it — and again, I know these are not your memories, but how soon was it that people started to disappear? I mean, they were being shipped off to what was said to be German labor camps.
RG: Yes. I’m not sure about the time, but I think it was pretty soon. And they were told — as you just said, they were told they were going to German labor camps. You know, people were transported — at random, they would take a group of people and put them on trains and trucks and whatever. And pretty soon, my father — I guess rumors got around that people were being sent to death camps. And my father then immediately started thinking of ways that he could save us.
AM: And that involved securing fake IDs for you and your mother?
RG: Well, that [was] what finally occurred to him to do. He had the money and he knew that he could get in touch with people who did fake IDs. They used either IDs of Polish people who had died, or they created them. And they used a Polish name on the ID and it said “Catholic.” And they would affix the picture of the Jew on there, because in those days everybody had to carry an ID and the ID would say, if you were a Jew, it said “Jude,” and if you were Catholic, you were Catholic, you were Polish and you were not killed.
AM: And who was producing these fake IDs? Was it the underground?
RG: No, no, no, no. These were people —
AM: Just people who were opportunists?
RG: Opportunists, yeah. This was not the underground.
AM: And why did your father not get a fake ID for himself?
RG: He looked too Jewish. He was tall, swarthy, dark. The worst part was his Yiddish accent. He could have never, never passed. My mother was blonde and blue-eyed. I was a bit of a problem, but I was a child.
AM: So your father found a Polish family in Lublin and made arrangements for you and your mother to stay with them for the remainder of the war. The family knew you were Jewish, but they planned to introduce you and your mother as family from the country. How long did that work? And what was your father’s plan?
RG: My father’s plan was to also leave the ghetto. He had bribed a guard so that we could leave the ghetto at night and he would look the other way. And my father’s plan was to make his way to Russia and join the Russian army. He had been told, or he knew that a number of Jewish men were able to do that. That’s what he did. And he — when we left the ghetto, he picked me up, kissed me, said the war will soon be over and we will meet again. And of course, that was the last time I saw my father. And my mother and I proceeded to go to Lublin.
Now, in Lublin —
AM: And do you have a memory of that? And what year was that?
RG: No, I still don’t have a memory of that. So it must’ve been — I must have still been pretty young. I must have been three or four.
AM: So about ’42 this would have been.
RG: Yeah. Probably —
AM: So you were in the ghetto for some time.
RG: For some time. Yes. Yes.
So in Lublin, I don’t know how long we were there. Not very long because the father of the family was arrested by the Germans. Why? I don’t know. It was not an unusual occurrence. The Germans persecuted the Poles pretty vigorously also. They did not think of them as a good race, a high race. They didn’t want to exterminate them like they did the Jews, but there was no love lost there.
He was arrested and sent to a labor camp, I assume. And so now the mother and the three kids had no means of support and they had to leave their apartment and they decided — they had relatives in the countryside and they decided to go there. But of course, they would not — they could not take my mother and me with them.
One other thing: While we were living with this family, they did teach us the Polish prayers, the Catholic prayers that we needed to know in order to be Catholic. Polish (sic) was a very observant country at the time. We had to go to church on a very regular basis, and of course, we had to know the prayers — the rosary and whatever else is involved. So they did teach us that. And thank God they did.
AM: They taught you that, but they left you, and you and your mother were out on the street. She had no job. She had no profession. And she obviously couldn’t leave you alone as a small child.
AM: So you were in a bit of a predicament.
RG: You might say that. It was a bit of an understatement, actually. Yes, we were homeless. And as you said, my mother couldn’t get a job. She couldn’t leave me alone. In fact, my mother wouldn’t let me out of her sight because she had to trust that I would not somehow, as a child might, give us away and tell someone that we were Jewish. So she wouldn’t let me play with other kids. She kept me by her side constantly.
So there we were. And since my mother didn’t know what to do, she got on a train. She bought tickets and we were riding the trains like the hobos do.
AM: And how long did you do that?
RG: I believe my mother told me that it was a period of about six weeks, and it was very difficult, very difficult. It was difficult for many reasons. We didn’t have any means of bathing or showering. So we went that whole time without a bath or a shower. And we had lice. The only food we had was what she could buy from vendors, farmers at the different stations. And it would be different things like at some station there might be eggs, and we would eat raw eggs. Some stations would be bread or cheese, whatever she could get, but it was definitely not a full diet. And worst of all, Nazi officers would come on the train looking for Jews. And if they found a Jew, which they did frequently, they’d drag them off the train and shoot them. And if a German officer would come on the train, she would put my head down in her lap to pretend that I was sleeping, and that way they couldn’t see me and they would just see her. And she was not suspicious looking at all.
AM: So eventually she planned to turn herself in at the Warsaw ghetto.
RG: She did because she got despondent. She couldn’t go on anymore. She felt maybe it would be better to be with her own people. This is what she told me. She didn’t tell me that at that time but later on, after the war. She just couldn’t go on. She thought she couldn’t go on like this. And she had some guilt feelings also.
So she was on her way. We were on our way to Warsaw to go to the ghetto there, but she met a woman on the train, a Polish woman. And they started a conversation. And my mother told her that she was a widow and that she had no home. And the woman invited us to their apartment. She said: “You will be able to get a hot meal and take a bath and maybe you can think of something to do. You can stay with us until my husband gets home from a trip.” So that’s what we did. And of course, it saved our lives.
AM: And when he came home, he sensed that you were Jewish.
RG: He sensed that we were Jewish. Absolutely. I don’t know how or why, but he did. I mean, it was not a hard thing to guess. (Laughs.) But to give him credit, he didn’t turn us in, which he could have. He would have gotten a reward. If you turned a Jew in to the German authorities, you were rewarded with five pounds of sugar or five pounds of flour, which meant a great deal in those days. He didn’t do that. But also he said we couldn’t stay with him. He could not take the chance of endangering his family by harboring Jews.
AM: And he had a suggestion for your mother.
RG: He did because my mother cried and said: “Well, what can I do? I have to keep my child with me so I can’t get a job, and I don’t have a home.” And he suggested that she look for a job as a live-in maid. He said: “You know how to cook. You know how to clean. You were a housewife.” And there were wealthy families, Polish families, still living in Warsaw at that time, and my mother looked in the newspaper and, sure enough, there were want ads for a maid and she found one right away with a wealthy Polish family.
AM: And by this point you’ve described the family that first took you in and that was for cash compensation, of course —
AM: — and now this family. Would you say that in the experience that you had, riding the train and being under cover, essentially, that you encountered a number of people who showed kindness and compassion, or was it, outside of these examples, a pretty dark experience?
RG: It was kind of mixed, I would say, but Poles were very antisemitic at that time. I think it might be different now. But at that time, we heard all the time people singing ditties, little songs about Jews and making fun of Jews and saying things like it’s a good thing that Hitler is getting rid of them. They’re scabby. They’re devious. They’re money-hungry. They’re money-grubbing. And everything bad that’s happening is their fault. And a lot of Poles believed that wholeheartedly. There were some who didn’t and some who tried to help. And there are many stories of what we call righteous gentiles who helped Jews, but we didn’t encounter that many of them.
AM: And it sounds like antisemitism was something that you grew up knowing was all around you.
RG: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.
AM: And how would you say that shaped who you were becoming as a young person, the awareness of who you were, and how you felt about yourself?
RG: Well, I didn’t want to be Jewish, and that really came to the fore after the war, right after the war ended. But at that point, I almost came to think of myself as a Pole. I was a little girl and, you know, I absorbed a lot of this antisemitism. And here I was going to church. I had a Polish name. I think I thought of myself as a Pole.
AM: Which, really, you had to do in terms of keeping your cover.
RG: I did. I did.
AM: That was your identity for those years.
RG: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.
AM: So your mother found work, as you said; you lived in a nice apartment, had food to eat.
AM: She had you at her side at all times, which she was able to do as a maid. And she wouldn’t let you out of her sight.
RG: Yeah. Right. But this is where her paranoia came in and actually probably saved our lives. She was always on the lookout if someone suspected us of being Jewish. People would ask questions or they would look at us a certain way, or my mother just, being paranoid, just felt this. And whenever she felt it, she would change jobs.
AM: Would you just kind of leave in the cover of night?
RG: Sometimes we did in the cover of night. Sometimes she would give a reason that she had to leave for whatever; I don’t know.
So we had, during the next three years, about six jobs, and very often she might have left — her suspicions might not have been real, but very often they were. And sometimes we had a very close, very close call.
AM: And you describe yourself as being a little bit devious, threatening, for example, to blackmail your mother.
RG: I did. If she wouldn’t, like, give me something that I wanted or do something that I wanted, I would say, “I’m going to go to the Germans and tell them that we’re Jewish.” Now, of course, there’s no way I would’ve done that — (laughs) — but my mother couldn’t take the chance. And she was very indulgent with me. I mean, this was wartime Poland, so there was not much indulgence, but she was. And my mother was so protective of me. She was like a tigress, you know. And she could — her life could have been much easier without me — much, much easier. But —
AM: And even at the time, you had a sense of that?
RG: I did. I honestly did.
I don’t know how or why, and I was a young child, but when we would be out in the street going shopping for groceries or on the bus — on the streetcar, actually — I would ask her, like, “Now, you’re not going to leave me, Mom, are you?” And that was pretty suspicious behavior. And my mother had to quickly think of something to say to people around her. She would say: “Well, she’s such an impressionable child. I just read her Hansel and Gretel and she’s afraid that I’m going to leave her.” But somehow I knew; somehow I sensed it. And I think there were mothers who abandoned their children who tried to survive in some ways, you know, who escaped from camps or whatever, but not my mother. My mother was tenacious, absolutely tenacious. She loved me beyond everything.
AM: You mentioned it earlier, but in the context of you being able to work in these nice homes and have the relative security, you’ve said that she felt quite a bit of guilt. And at a time when you were in Warsaw, she would even stand by the walls of the Warsaw ghetto and look in. Can you talk about that?
RG: Well, she told me that — and I think even survivors, not just people who survived the war or, like us, were — we were in relatively good conditions. There was a survivor’s guilt. There was this guilt of why am I alive and why am I living a relatively comfortable life, and my relatives, my family, my people are dying of starvation and of killing wholesale counties?
We called it the Aryan side. If you were passing as a Christian, that was called the Aryan side, on the side where the Aryans were. So people who were on the Aryan side did feel that sense of guilt. And my mother told me afterwards that she would stand there and in some ways she was almost hoping that they would catch her and throw her into the ghetto. But then she knew that she had to be with me, that she had to keep me alive, and she would leave and come home.
AM: And during this time, did you have any sense of where your father might be?
RG: No. We had no idea. We assumed that he had made it to Russia. Thinking anything else was beyond what we could endure. And I remember a few times crying to my mother, “Everybody has a father except me. I don’t have — where’s my father?” And I would actually cry. I remember that. And my mother would say: “You have a father and you will see him. The war will be over and we’ll all be together again.”
AM: Before we talk about the last job you had before the war ended, were there any notable experiences that you had with these families, maybe a story you’d like to tell?
RG: Well, I had one story that I remember distinctly. We were with a family that was very antisemitic and they had two teenage boys. And I knew they were antisemitic because they were always saying things like, “It’s a good thing Hitler’s killing them.” And they would sing all these ditties about the Jews. It was dreadful. And my mother once went to market. She left me there at home. And the two boys — they must have by now suspected that we were Jewish because the two boys kind of cornered me in a room and started asking me questions like: “You’re Jewish, aren’t you? Tell the truth. What is your real name? It’s Rachel, isn’t it? Or Rebekah. What is your real name?” And they asked me to recite the hail Mary and other Polish prayers. And I’m standing there and crying bitter tears. But to my credit, I did not give in. I kept saying, “No, my name is Boženka,” which was my Polish name then. And I recited prayers perfectly. And they couldn’t get me to admit that I was Jewish, but, boy, did they torture me. And when my mother came home and I told her about this incident, you can be sure we left the very next day. We didn’t even tell them; we just left.
AM: Yeah. I was going to say, that must have been one of the times where you kind of snuck out.
RG: Yeah, yeah. Snuck out. Snuck out. Yeah.
AM: So the last job you had before the war ended was in a wealthy suburb of Warsaw, with a count and a countess in a villa.
AM: You’ve said it was the best place you got to stay in, with a lovely room for you, and good food and a dog and a garden and forests nearby.
AM: But in that forest, they would have hunting parties with Nazis.
RG: Exactly. Every weekend they would entertain high-ranking Nazi officers who would go hunting and then come back. They would bring rabbits home, which my mother cooked and they served and they would have — they would drink and eat and be merry. And the Nazis liked me a lot. I was a cute little girl. I was precocious. And they missed their own children in Germany so they played with me. They would bring me little presents, cookies, and little books to read and little toys to play with. And they — when they were there, they would hold me on their laps and just were very, very nice to me. And of course, my mother was petrified that one of them would either guess that I was Jewish or that I would somehow give us away. But there was nothing she could do. She had to accept that and even show that she was happy that they liked me and played with me.
AM: And how did you feel about the affection they showed you?
RG: I liked it. They were nice men. They were friendly and laughing and good looking. And they wore these beautiful uniforms with high boots. And yeah, I had no fear. I mean, it was — I was conflicted, in a way. You know, I had two kinds of feelings in me. On the one hand, I knew that I couldn’t say that I was Jewish, but once again, they were friendly to me. They liked me. They made me happy.
AM: And one of them showed you how to shoot a gun.
RG: Absolutely. One of them asked me if I knew how a gun worked. And I said no. And we went up to the second-floor bedroom, which had a balcony there, and he shot the gun, the rifle, off the balcony into the garden. And I was just delighted. And of course, my mother heard the shot in the kitchen and she was sure that I had been shot. And she ran upstairs expecting to find me dead. And instead, she found me jumping up and down with glee telling her that now I know how to shoot a gun. That was very traumatic for my mother. Not for me. (Laughs.)
AM: And how long were you there at the villa?
RG: We must have been there about a year.
AM: So you really got to know the grounds —
RG: Oh, yes.
AM: — and the frequent visitors and —
RG: Absolutely. Yeah. And it was a lovely, lovely suburb. And as I said, the villa was beautiful. And we really felt very comfortable, except for the weekends when the Nazis were there.
But I should defend the count and the countess. They were not Nazi sympathizers. They actually were agents for the Polish underground. So whatever information they could glean from the Nazis during those wild weekends, they would later relay to the underground in some way. So they were really heroes by doing what they were doing. But of course, my mother and I didn’t know that. We didn’t know that they were working for the underground. We later found out. My mother later, as the war was coming to an end and things were starting to fall apart, my mother found out and then my mother told the countess that we were Jewish. And of course, they were what you would call righteous gentiles too. She would not give us away.
AM: I was going to ask you when you were talking about the Nazis: During that year and these regular visits that they would make — as you said, you had conflicted feelings, but did you ever witness any vicious or sinister actions? You know, did you see a darker side of them?
RG: No. They were nothing but friendly when they were there.
AM: And was that true as well where your mother was concerned? I mean, they were obviously not going to treat her the same way that they, you know, would treat a child, but were they respectful?
RG: They were very friendly to my mother. They loved her cooking and they thought that she was a wonderful housekeeper and they paid her a lot of compliments. No. No, they were very respectful and nice to her.
AM: And did your mother have any contact or encounters with the underground besides, unbeknownst to her, the count and the countess?
RG: No. She would have been too scared to have any contact with anybody.
AM: So the war is coming to a close. The allies are heavily bombing Warsaw, and many of the bombs fell on this suburb that you lived in. You saw many people die and people were starving. Could you tell me more about the realities at the time?
RG: Well, there was starvation. At that point, nobody had food. People were starving. The rations were gone. I mean, you just — whatever you could grow. And there were a lot of dead horses in the field, you know, who had been killed by bombs. Poland was a pretty backward country. I mean, there were still horse-drawn carriages and so on. And people would go out into the field and cut horse meat off the dead horses to have food to eat.
You know, a siren would go off when there was bombing, and we didn’t have any bomb shelters. It was like going down into the basement, if people had a basement. But sometimes people didn’t make it in time and they were killed or they would come up after the bombing. What they thought was — when they thought it was over and they came up too soon. And I myself saw a number of people dying that way. And that was horrible. That was very traumatic for me.
AM: And are the visuals still in your memory today?
RG: No. It’s been a long time. It’s been — (laughs) — it’s been over 70 years, you know, so no. And people even ask me if it’s hard for me to talk about this now, and it’s not. Too much time has elapsed. There’s a scar. It’s not an open wound anymore.
AM: So you were liberated by the Russians and you considered them gods.
RG: We did.
AM: They were extremely kind to Jew and Christian alike, brought you food, nursed the sick. And you were one of the people that they had to nurse back to health because you had typhus, which you suspect was from the horse meat.
RG: Exactly. Yeah. And there was a Russian doctor who sat up with me all night kind of watching that my fever would break and that I would be OK. He was very kind. My memories of the Russians are nothing but wonderful from that time. The soldiers used to sing songs, Russian songs, which I learned. And they — as I said, they provided food and medical care and they also provided transportation to people like us who wanted to go back to their home towns.
AM: And the transport system was gone.
RG: Was gone. I mean, the country was totally devastated. So there was no trains, no buses that we could take. And we actually went back to Łódź.
AM: Well, in getting there, when you made the trip back to your home city, do you remember witnessing that devastation all around?
RG: Absolutely. Warsaw especially was completely rubble. I mean, honestly, you’ve never seen anything like it. It was like — I don’t think there was a house standing. It was awful. Łódź was not as, quite as bad. There was a lot of rubble, a lot of houses destroyed, but not like Warsaw.
AM: So you returned to the rubble of Łódź.
RG: Yes, we arrived in Łódź and our building where my mother was supposed to meet my father after the war — where our apartment had been — no longer was there. That had been bombed out. And there was a Jewish committee and my mother found out that my father had been apprehended and died in Treblinka. So, grief stricken as she was, she knew life had to go on and we looked for a place to stay and we found a building where her sister, my aunt, had lived before the war and that building had not been bombed. And my aunt’s apartment was intact and we moved in there. A German officer had lived there during the war and, of course, he was evicted. And we just moved in.
My aunt returned a few months after. She had been in Auschwitz. And she was very sick, emaciated, as you can imagine, but she was nursed back to health. And my mother and my aunt and I lived in Łódź in this apartment, in my aunt’s prewar apartment. And I finally went to school.
AM: During the war, did you know words like Auschwitz and Treblinka?
AM: But did you know that there were death camps and that your life was under threat in that way?
RG: I didn’t even know that so much. I just knew that if people would know I was Jewish that my life was under threat, but what could that mean to a small child? And I don’t think my mother ever mentioned names like Treblinka and Auschwitz and —
AM: But she would have known these names. She was just protecting you.
RG: Yeah. She knew.
AM: So you started school. It was a Polish school. And you continued to pass as a Polish girl.
RG: Yes. This was — as I think I had mentioned before, I really wanted to be Polish. I didn’t want to be Jewish. This kind of hatred and this horrible picture of the Jews became ingrained in me. And I was ashamed of being Jewish. So I had girlfriends in the Polish school and they — I didn’t tell them I was Jewish. I wouldn’t let them come to my house. And I used to sneak off to church without telling my mother. And of course, my mother eventually found out. I believed in Jesus and I believed in the Virgin Mary and I loved church. Church was beautiful — just the whole thing was beautiful to me. But as soon as my mother found out, she knew that we had to leave. We had to leave Poland if she wanted to keep me as a Jew.
AM: So two of the common destinations at that time for emigrating were Israel and the United States. But in order for displaced persons like yourself to go to one of those countries, you had to go to DP camps in Germany, in your case Munich. And you’ve said there was a fairly large Jewish community in Munich after the war, mostly residing in these camps.
RG: Yes. It was a very interesting time. Now, my mother did not live in a DP camp. We had an apartment in Munich. This was right after the war. This was like maybe 1946. The Germans were very docile and very apologetic. And yet, they all claimed that they didn’t know what was going on. And they even had affidavits to prove that they were not Nazi sympathizer. The German government issued those.
AM: Who did they issue them to?
RG: Any German that applied for it.
AM: So there was no truth to these affidavits whatsoever.
RG: Of course not. They knew what was going on. Of course they did.
And the Jews were kind of nasty to the German population and we took advantage of our situation. “We were survivors and you lost the war and you better behave yourselves,” so that even Jewish kids — there was a fairly large Jewish community now in Munich and there was a Jewish committee set up to deal with all kinds of Jewish issues, issuing visas, applying for certain things, and packages from the United States with food and cigarettes, and nylon stockings were sent for Jews to use. And of course, Jews would use those things kind of to sell them on the black market. There was a black market right outside on the street, outside the Jewish committee. There was a Jewish school, a Jewish day school set up for the Jewish children that had survived. They really wanted the children to go to Israel, but not everybody wanted to go to Israel.
The children were very loved and revered by the Jewish community, by the adults. We were the future of the Jewish people. We had survived. We were spoiled. We were given everything that they could give us. So that was kind of the situation there.
In time, our relations with the Germans moderated. How long can you keep, you know, calling them names and making them give up their seats on the bus for you, you know, that kind of thing? So eventually we even befriended some of these people that lived in the same building as we did, you know.
AM: And did Munich have that familiar postwar look of rubble, dust, and decimation?
RG: Yes. Yes. Yes. Munich had been bombed very badly. But kids used to play in the rubble. We used to climb the, you know, the hills that were made of the brick and stone that had been bombed out. And we were just — we just accepted it. It was part of our life.
AM: So your mother met a gentleman in Munich who had lost his wife and children. They married and he adopted you.
RG: He did. Yes. And so I took on his name. So this is now my third name. And he loved me very much. He loved me as his own. So now I considered him my father.
AM: And you all lived in an apartment in Munich —
AM: — but eventually your parents decided that life in Israel might be too hard and they set their sights on America.
RG: Yes. Yes. But in order for us to get to America, we needed to be sponsored by someone in America.
AM: So you ended up staying in Munich for about three years, and then what happened?
RG: Then we got our visa finally and we went to Bremen and got on an army ship. They used army ships to transport people. The name of the ship was the General McRae. I was 10 years old by then so I remember things — (laughs) — on my own pretty well. There were a lot of people on the boat and it was like steerage. I mean, we were everybody in one room and there were, you know, bunk beds and people were seasick, and it was dreadful. People were throwing up in the room and it stank to high heaven, as you can imagine. And it was a horrendous trip because it was November — this is 1949 — and the seas were — the ocean was very choppy and I think that was why so many people got seasick. And we finally — I think the trip took about 12 to 14 days. I’m not exactly sure. It was a long, long trip.
AM: That is long.
RG: Yeah. Yeah. And by the time we arrived in New York, it was Thanksgiving day. So that was pretty symbolic.
AM: And in making this trip to America, what did you imagine America to be? What did it represent to you?
RG: Oh, it was the golden land. And we used to go to American movies, and of course, what you saw in the movies was beautiful — beautiful cities, beautiful skyscrapers, apartments, clothing, beautiful women. And I mean, you know, it wasn’t a reality, but we accepted it as reality. We also had American magazines and they showed beautiful cities with skyscrapers and beautiful apartments, like Good Housekeeping and whatever. You know, the magazines were shipped to us and given to us by the Jewish committee. So we expected just gorgeous, gorgeous life and cities and surroundings and environment.
AM: And did it kind of represent the kind of stability of normal life that you had not experienced much in your 10 years?
RG: You know, I’m not sure that I’ve thought of it in those terms. Maybe my parents did. But what I did expect is during the war, when I complained about things, not having a father and this and that and having to move so much, and my mother would say to me, “Wait, when the war is over, everybody is going to treat us like royalty. They don’t know what we’re going through, but when they find out what happened to us, they’re going to carry us on their shoulders. They won’t be able to do enough for us. You wait and see how wonderful it’ll be when the war is over.” So this is what I sort of expected from going to America.
AM: But Patterson, New Jersey was a bit of a disappointment.
RG: You might say that. Yes. It was a lot of a disappointment. (Laughs.) First of all, Patterson, even then, was a depressed city and a good part of it was slum. And even the people that — the couple that had sponsored us was an elderly Jewish couple. And they were very sweet and they were fairly well to do, or they were comfortable, but their house didn’t look anything like what I had seen in the movies — (laughs) — or in magazines. It was kind of dumpy looking, actually. And the apartment that was provided for us by the Jewish committee was not in a nice section of the city and it was furnished with cast-out furniture.
AM: How did it compare to the apartments you lived in after the war?
RG: Worse. I mean, even though the apartment in Munich was nothing — we only had two rooms, but they were furnished nicely.
AM: So this was not only a disappointment in terms of your expectations of America, but it was a downgrade from what you had been —
RG: It was a downgrade. And, you know, rather than feeling grateful that here we were — we were no longer persecuted. We could be Jewish. We could live how we wanted. We had plenty of food. Human nature being what it is, we weren’t. We didn’t speak English. And my parents were given menial jobs. My father was given a job as a janitor and he was an engineer. My mother was given a job — I think she worked for a lingerie company sewing.
Now I’m 10 years old. I’m big. I’m tall for my age. I don’t look like the American kids. I had a big bow in my hair and just dressed differently. And they put me in first grade and I was made fun of and bullied to the point that I did not want to go back to school. I wouldn’t go to school. They just made fun of me. And I couldn’t even answer them — (laughs) — because I couldn’t speak English.
So there we were, unhappy, and my aunt, the one we had lived with in Poland, had also emigrated. She had also remarried. Her husband had been killed. And she was sponsored in Chicago. So she called my mother and said: “Why don’t you come to Chicago? At least our families will be together.” So that’s what we did. We got on another train and went to Chicago.
My parents got better jobs. My father still could not work as an engineer because he would have had to go back to school to do that. But he got a job as an electrician. And my mother was still sewing. She decided that that was the best way for her to make good money. My mother was a remarkable woman in many ways. I mean, they don’t make them like that anymore. (Laughs.)
And by this time, my English was getting better. They put me in my right grade. My purpose in life was to become an American in every way.
In a very short time, I spoke English very well without an accent. And I started dressing as much as I could like an American. I, at one time, had listened to classical music in Germany and so on. Now I listened to pop music on the radio. That was the only thing I was interested in. I ate American foods, potato chips, hot dogs, and read comic books instead of books. I was a real Yankee.
I didn’t want people to know that I was a survivor, because, unlike what my mother had promised me, that people would make a big fuss over us because we were survivors, it was just the opposite. They sort of looked down on us. We were called DPs and they thought that we didn’t know anything and that we didn’t know any modern technology, that we didn’t have radios and that we didn’t — you know, they just looked down on us. So what my mother had promised me did not come true and I wanted to be an American. I didn’t even want my friends to come to my house because my parents were obviously immigrants. They did not speak — they spoke English but with a European accent. You know, adults don’t learn languages as well as little kids do. So I didn’t lie. If someone asked me where I was born, I would tell them, but I certainly didn’t offer that information.
AM: One of my last questions relates to your identity as a Holocaust survivor. You said that the first time that your sons heard your story was when they were in high school and the synagogue asked you to tell your experiences and you agreed. At that time, was that something that you ever talked about?
RG: No. Until that time, very rarely.
AM: And why?
RG: Again, I still felt this shame about being a DP. And also, I didn’t want — I had read a book about — when my kids were very young — about survivors who made their children feel guilty. If they didn’t behave in a certain way, they would do this “look what I went through and now you’re not behaving and you’re not” — and I promised myself that I wouldn’t do that to my kids. So I rarely talked about that. It just rarely, rarely came up. My kids knew I was a survivor. I’m not sure they had — they knew the full meaning of the word. At that time, teaching the Holocaust was not mandated in the public schools so they knew very little about it.
Somehow, though, my older son, who was a very sensitive young boy, somehow got that through osmosis that his mother was a survivor and he became very religious. He became Orthodox, and he is to this day. And I think my son kind of absorbed that, and I think it was his way of showing Hitler we are Jews and here we are; we’ve survived. And he went on to have nine children.
AM: And what about your journey in this respect? Because during the war, as you said, and immediately after the war, your Jewish identity was something that you were trying to conceal, but when you came to America, how did that change? And how did that evolve over the years?
RG: Well, I was always surrounded by a large number of Jewish kids. And in high school I went to a high school that was predominantly Jewish. All the doers, all the big shots in that high school were Jewish. There were Christian kids too but — so my Jewish identity was reawakened, but not — I never became religious.
AM: But you certainly stopped having, you know, the sense of shame about it and all of that.
RG: Oh, absolutely. I became proud. I realized what strength we had and that we survived and how much we’ve contributed to the world, even though we’re such a small number of people. And yeah, the older I get the prouder I get.
AM: And at this point, survivor has become part of the fabric of who you are.
RG: Absolutely. And, you know, in a funny way, what my mother had promised me, that people would make a fuss over us because we had survived, has come true in the Museum. The people in the Museum — the staff, the president, and, you know, whoever — they treat the survivors like they’re precious and they try to give us everything that they can. So my mother’s prediction has finally come true.
Well, my last question is, why do you tell your story? I mean, why is it important to get your story out?
RG: Well, especially with the kids, I think it’s important that they know how it’s possible to have such inhumanity happen to humans and that they are the future generation and that they should be aware that this should never happen again to anyone, not Jews, not gentiles, not the Roma, not homosexuals, nobody, and that if they see something being said or done to someone who’s different, they should step in and do something, say something. And I guess the same thing for adults, because many adults don’t — they may not themselves be wanting to do any harm, but at the same time, they won’t step in. They don’t want to mix in. And I think knowing how evil can flourish, they have to know that they cannot be bystanders. They have to be upstanders.
You’ve been listening to “Resistance, Resilience and Hope: Holocaust Survivor Stories,” a podcast co-production of Illinois Holocaust Museum and Chicago’s Studio C. If you’d like to learn more about this episode and the series in general, please visit studiocchicago.com/holocaust, or ilholocaustmuseum.org. And please share this podcast, rate it, and subscribe.
I’m Andy Miles and I’d like to thank executive producers Marcy Larson and Amanda Friedeman for their assistance and guidance in bringing this podcast to fruition, Ruth Gilbert for her time and candor, and I’d like to thank you for listening.RETURN TO PODCAST HOME
Photo credits: David Seide