An Interview with Ruth Sender
By Kevin Johnson
Cold Spring Harbor High School, New York
Ruth Sender is an author of books about the Holocaust. She has written workss of poetry and books, in many different languages, that describe her experiences as a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Some of these books include The Cage, To Life, and The Holocaust Lady.
Today Mrs. Sender is a Hebrew Teacher, a grandmother, and a spokesperson for the prevention of another mass genocide. She enjoys answering questions on the Holocaust and travels around Long Island and the United States to educate today's youth.
Ruth Sender talks with interested students.
When I was interviewing Mrs. Sender, the Holocaust took on a whole new meaning for me. Prior to the interview, my knowledge of the Holocaust had been confined to books and learning from what others have said. However, the genocide that occurred during World War II was so atrocious that it is impossible to see the full magnitude of the event from books alone. Her interview allowed me to see the Holocaust, and its effects, at a human level.
Mrs. Sender's interview was a real eye opener for me. Prior to the interview, I thought that something like the Holocaust could never happen in my country. But Mrs. Sender's description of her life in Poland before the Holocaust made me realize that her existence there wasn't that much different from our lives today. Certainly, no one then thought that a "Holocaust" was possible, let alone imminent. The reality Mrs. Sender gave me is that genocide can occur anywhere that intolerance and hate exist, even in my world.
Mrs. Sender is committed to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. Her dedication to Holocaust education is reflected in this interview alone, as she was willing to take time from her busy schedule to spend an afternoon at Cold Spring Harbor High School just to discuss her experiences with some of the students involved in the Holocaust/Genocide Project. I was impressed with her on a number of levels and was glad to not only have met her, but to be given the chance to interview her. I hope that readers will find her answers to my questions as enlightening as I did.
Please Note: The following text represents my notes on the interview with Ruth Sender. Her answers to the questions have been paraphrased. I have attempted to keep the interview as true to her expressions as possible; however, some of the answers may contain my interpretation of what Mrs. Sender said.
What were your earliest memories of the Holocaust?
I was 13 years old when the Nazis captured Poland.
What was life like before the Holocaust?
It was normal, like any other country, Poland had schools, libraries. The standard of living wasn't as high but culture was very developed, with the exception of antisemitism. During this period of time, antisemitism was particularly harmful, and on Christian holidays, Jewish people had to keep a low profile because they would be ridiculed, harassed, and become the subject of antisemitic persecution. It was worse on Christmas and Easter when the Christians blamed the Jews for crucifying Christ.
How quickly did the German takeover come?
In one week, the Germans totally took over Poland, which actually came as a surprise because the Polish army was fairly powerful and until the Germans actually came, everyone believed that what happened in Czechoslovakia wouldn't happen in Poland because of the size and power of the Polish army. So it was quite a shock.
How do you feel about the German people as a whole now?
I feel no hostility toward the young Germans because it is unfair to blame them for the actions of the older generation. However, whenever I hear someone speak German, I cringe when looking at them, depending upon their age. If they are near my age, I can't help holding some prejudice as I don't know what role they may have played in the Holocaust. So I still cannot totally forgive the older generation.
Do you have any recommendations about books we should read about the Holocaust?
I would recommend Night by Elie Wiesel.
Have you ever returned to Poland or would you ever want to?
No, I've never returned to Poland; however, now that my brother's grave is there I may consider returning. Two years ago, when I first came here I said no, I wouldn't go at all. So slowly I have been changing. But I don't know if I would or wouldn't. Someday I think I may, and other times I think I should not go back.
If you went back would you ever revisit the camps or your old neighborhood?
I would revisit some of the camps, with the March of the Living, and I would like to go back to see my house, but the only reason that I would go would be to see the graves. Currently HBO is working on a movie based on my book The Cage, and they went back to the city where I used to live to get some footage -- the city looks exactly the same, even some of the old signs are still there. The houses need a little paint, and the books of the secret library were found in the garbage. A new Jewish library was started from these books.
Who do you blame for the Holocaust?
I blame the whole world because it was silent and indifferent. Hitler didn't do it himself; he tested the world and when no one stopped him, he just continued.
Have your beliefs in God changed since the Holocaust?
My beliefs haven't changed. I come from a secular Jewish family; however, my husband questions his religion and sometimes asks "Where is God?"
What is the most important thing we can to do prevent another Holocaust?
To teach everyone to be tolerant! You don't have to love me, but you don't have to kill me because you don't love me.
What have the effects of the Holocaust had on your outlook on life today?
I realize that life goes on. Sometimes we put too much importance on little things, but life goes on.
You mentioned your sisters earlier; were you separated and how did you re-meet them?
In 1939 I was separated from my sisters for 7 years when they went to Russia for refuge. Then after the war, my husband and I went back to Poland but we had to move to asylums soon after because we were still being abused because of our religion. Along our trips from one asylum to another, we left letters for my sisters to see if they could catch up with us. Fortunately, they eventually did catch up.
Why didn't the world stop the Holocaust?
The countries knew more about what was happening than they let people know, but they just didn't care.
Why doesn't the world care?
I guess if something doesn't concern people directly, they don't care.
How are survivors dealing with the revisionist interpretation of the Holocaust?
It makes us angry; at first survivors were quiet, but today many have stepped forward and are talking against it. And it's a relief to see that some younger Germans are fighting against it.
Do you think that computers are too cold a way to spread information about the Holocaust?
Information about the Holocaust should be spread by any tool that works.
What countries do you think should be involved in the Holocaust/Genocide Project?
All countries should be involved in studying the Holocaust.
Could you give us one of the bad catch phrases from the Holocaust?
"When the Jewish blood flows from the knife, then everything is much better."
What kept you alive during the Holocaust?
Hope -- hope was the reason to live through the camps. One of the things I remember about the Holocaust is that there was one woman who would perform a little ceremony to God in her bunk every night. There weren't candles or anything as they were all prohibited, but she used to say some prayers in her bunk. Because the bunks were three decks and if you lifted your head you would bump it against the bunk above you, maybe the opening was only a foot wide. But because we were so close, you could hear everything. But every night when she did this ceremony, everyone used to ridicule her and tell her that prayer was useless. But even that little ceremony gave us all some hope. So the hope came from everywhere.
Did you ever give up hope?
There were times when I did give up. One poem I wrote during the Holocaust describes how I wanted to give up. But it's funny how events turn around. At one point the Germans were making us clear off the train tracks so that a train of Russian prisoners could get through, and we were all working very close to the tracks, and wanted to give up. But while I was very close to the tracks, a Russian prisoner threw an apple out of the train for me and that apple gave me hope.
What are your feelings toward the PLO and Israeli peace talks?
If cooperation with the PLO will stop the killing and bring peace, it is the right thing to do.
I don't know if you are aware of this, but a year ago racial slurs and antisemitic graffiti were written on the walls of our school. What do you think about such modern day incidents?
Stupidity and ignorance are behind such behavior. It's all a game to some people.
At the end of the interview, Ruth remarked that as problems arise in a society, people often look for a scapegoat. This certainly was true in Germany after World War I, and, unfortunately, this may still be true in some parts of the world today.
The interview with Ruth Sender was a real eye opener for me and the other students who were present. Her vivid recollections of the Holocaust and her penetrating analysis of that awful event deeply impressed all of us who met and spoke with her. She is a wonderful resource on the Holocaust, and I hope have a chance to speak with her again sometime.
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