A trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. provided closure for a Holocaust survivor now living in Ventnor.
Ruth Fisch was five years old when her mother and her sister helped her escape from Vienna to England via train in 1939, and she never saw them again.
Fisch, now Ruth Kessler, learned during a trip to the museum on Monday, April 29, that her mother, Charlotte, and her nine-year-old sister, Erika, died in a German concentration camp in German-occupied Poland in 1942.
“I found out a lot of what I wanted to know,” Kessler said in a release issued by the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey this week.
A representative of the International Tracing Service (ITS) at the museum told her mother and sister had been together in a ghetto in Vienna, according to the release.
“She also told me the area where my sister and mother were in (concentration camps) Belzec and Sorbibor, both in Poland,” Kessler said.
They were among the 2,000 Jewish men, women and children deported from Vienna to German-occupied Poland in 1941. They were then taken to Belzec and Sorbibor death camps in 1942.
Jo-Ellyn Decker, of the ITS, told Kessler “they were together, had not been separated and that meant so much to me. It was worth the trip.”
Kessler was one of 80 Holocaust survivors, World War II veterans and their families who made the trip from Margate to the museum in D.C.
The trip, co-sponsored by the Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, the Jewish Family Service of Atlantic and Cape May Counties and the Jewish War Veterans Post 39 of Margate, was held in honor of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 20th Anniversary National Tribute to Holocaust Survivors and Their Families & World War II Veterans.
Upon arriving in England as a child, Kessler was placed with with Stella and Michael Webber’s family. Stella Webber worked for HIAS, which was a nonprofit Jewish rights organization at the time. HIAS worked with Kindertransport, a group that focuses on all immigrants’ rights’ issues. She eventually reunited with her father, Henry Fisch, who had escaped to New York early on, but was unable to obtain passports and visas for his entire family.
“The irony of the whole story is she was not supposed to go,” Kessler’s husband, Louis Kessler said. “They wanted older children for Kindertransport. Her older sister was supposed to go but she would not leave her mother and they ended up in the concentration camp.”
He said his wife felt like she finally had closure upon hearing the news.
“It was like a rock off her shoulders to finally know all the particulars that are available,” Louis Kessler said.
Herb Harwood, a veteran living in Atlantic City, happened to meet the daughter of a man he helped liberate during the war. Harwood helped liberate the Flossenberg Concentration Camp, which included a man named Leon Kupferman, who died in 2002. Harwood met Kupferman’s daughter, Jeannette Binstock, on the trip.
“It was such a moving event,” said Dr. Nili Keren, Stockton’s Ida King Distinguished Visiting Professor of Holocaust Studies this academic year. “We are talking about people whose ages are between 80 to 90-plus. And they were so excited. Some of the Holocaust survivors came with their families, including second- and third-generation. … Everything was so well organized – nobody was lost among more than 3000 people who were invited. Everyone was like the only one there.”
Keren is an Israeli citizen.
The museum had people “sit at tables according to their country of origin - Warsaw, for instance,” according to Keren. “People met people who have not seen each other since the liberation in the camps. It was not something heavy, like you would think in a Holocaust event. It was something that showed people began a new life after the Holocaust.
“For me, it was something so important to give on to my students…I told them about it in class: how happy the survivors are to be alive. How important it is to say: ‘What can I do for the future?’”
Five undergraduate students who are earning a minor and two graduate students earning a Master of Arts in Stockton College’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies program also made the trip, according to the college.
“Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration & Complicity in the Holocaust” was very powerful for some students, according to Gail Rosenthal, director of Stockton’s Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center.
“They could identify with it because we all have neighbors,” Rosenthal said. “The students commented that this related to their lives and the importance of not being a bystander when help is needed.”
“The exhibits were fantastic, especially “Collaborators” – about how best friends were able to wholeheartedly turn over their Jewish neighbors to the Nazis - even without getting a reward,” said Irvin Moreno Rodriguez, 19. “It could (have been) fear or pure hatred - we can only speculate.”
Moreno Rodriguez is working toward his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Criminal Justice, with a minor in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Stockton.
“What was really special was, I actually got to walk around with some of the Holocaust survivors from South Jersey,” Moreno Rodriguez said. “They will relive their lives. You get to interact with them – I don’t even think a museum can do that. You get to see what they’ve been through and how they’ve been able to come back from tragedy.
“When I was with Ruth Zinman, a Holocaust survivor from Transylvania who lives in South Jersey now, she started dancing the tango at a special event outside the museum. It really speaks to you that they’ve been through so much and they’re able to finds the joys of life in anything – including music,” Moreno Rodriguez said. “I think one of the most memorable things she told me was – she’d been feeling ill – but she said: ‘If Hitler couldn’t kill me, nothing is.’ ”