she lived in constant terror of exposure


Story from the Holocaust


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Yiskor for Ruchela and all our Karbonim

By Annette Keen

Uncle Alex called with sad news.

He is really not an uncle. Alex is the husband of my father's first cousin Ruta, Dad's only relative to survive the Second World War, and thus always called Aunt Ruta. While my father survived the Holocaust by following the Russian Army out of Poland and slaving for Stalin in Siberia, blond, hazel-eyed Aunt Ruta stayed behind, masquerading as Christian.

She had escaped from a general round up of Jews in the city of Lublin, slipping away to a small town she remembered from childhood visits to relatives, among them my father's family. By the time Aunt Ruta showed up in Father's town, all the Jews were gone. Here she lived through the entire war, protected by a forged baptismal certificate, working as a house servant to a Polish family. Never sure what Semitic gesture might give her away, she lived in constant terror of exposure. Each Sunday she followed her employer and his family to church, fervently following the liturgy and rituals, the dangling silver cross pressing heavily across her heart.

My father's town! It lives always in my soul. It floats up from a deep pool of love and longing created by my father's brilliantly nuanced Yiddish story telling, which always began with in der hime …(back home) or bar untz in shtetelle …(in our little town). Marbling comic aspects through the most tragic recollections, Father made his stories acceptable to a child. He transported me into the changing world of Polish Jewry, through the tumultuous 1920s and 30s, and through the horrendous war years that obliterated it. Deftly, if not consciously, he laid an enduring personal connection, the foundation for a deeper, darker understanding, later in my life.

We had deep roots in this little town. For many generations, it had spawned a diverse clan. Some stayed, others moved on. There was a poor but highly respected scholarly branch, which included my father's family. He, his father and his four brothers lived simply and serenely, steeped in worship and study. There was a worldly, urban branch, business people, which included Aunt Ruta's family. They lived in Lublin. Nor was the clan without its intellectual, artistic segment. They lived in Warsaw, thriving in the heady cultural world of Hebrew and Yiddish poets and writers.

A clan of hundreds, of which only two would survive. And each had a story.

This is Ruta's story. In 1944, Russian troops arrived in Father's town, now empty of Jews, except for the hidden Aunt Ruta. Alex, then a handsome Red Army quartermaster searching for housing, entered the large house where Aunt Ruta worked, and noticed the blond beauty. Their eyes met, and he knew instantly that she was Jewish. He took her under his protection and eventually brought her to a displaced persons camp in Munich. Here she was reunited with her cousin, my father, and met the woman he had married in Russia, my mother.

Alex and Ruta were soon married and like most other displaced people in the camp, quickly had children. By 1950, both families had immigrated to a small farming community in New Jersey, where they learned from the locals to run a chicken farm.

As I was growing up on our farm, observing my father's scholarly readings and listening to his marvelous stories molded my interests. However, for more worldly enthusiasms, Aunt Ruta showed the way. Her elegance, her poise, her efforts to develop sophistication instructed and dazzled me.

It was she, who sparked my interest in opera, simply by mentioning that she had ordered a ticket to the "Met." I would soon learn that this is what cultured people called the Metropolitan Opera Company in Manhattan, to which Aunt Ruta drove herself from our sleepy farm town to see a live opera production, because, she told me, with pride not tainted by bitterness: "There is more to life than struggling for a living on a chicken farm."

The lesson was not lost on me.

Aunt Ruta never spoke about her life in Poland. She spoke grammatically correct and alluringly accented English. Her Polish was erudite, and she preferred Polish to Yiddish.

Uncle Alex told me her story many years ago.

In her late 80s, Aunt Ruta's memory began to fail. Her vivacious personality soured and her beauty coarsened. A deep rage began to emerge. And yesterday Uncle Alex telephoned with sad news. Aunt Ruta had been placed in a nursing home for Alzheimer's care.

Aunt Ruta no longer calls herself Ruta, which was her Goyish-Polish name. She answers only to her Yiddish name, Ruchela, and when she speaks, she speaks only in Yiddish. But she is more and more just silent. Silent and agitated and melancholy.

I suspect that what happened in the end to my father is happening to Aunt Ruta. The past is reclaiming her. In the gathering darkness, she wanders through the streets of my father's Polish town, dragging the weight of her survival, in search of our lost Jews.

My heart aches for Ruta, for my father, dead now 10 years, for all the Holocaust survivors, robbed of so much in their lives, except the memory of the Holocaust, which accompanies them to the grave.

Annette Keen is a freelance writer in upstate New York.


from the March 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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