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On November 24, 1997, Ruth Minsky Sender, Holocaust
survivor, was interviewed by students at Cold Spring
Harbor High School in New York. Ruth, who is loved by
all who meet her, travels all over to talk with young
people about her experiences in the Holocaust. She has
many roles in life -- author, teacher, wife, mother,
and grandmother. (Thank you to student Shasta White,
who transcribed our interview notes.)
Ruth Minsky Sender Meets with Students
"As long as there is life,
there is hope."
RUTH MINSKY SENDER
My fourth book is called Remember Your Name, and it's the story of me finding a cousin that I didn't know existed because he was ten years old when they put us in the Lodz Ghetto, and I was thirteen years old. He's a distant cousin; we didn't know each other. I didn't even know he existed, and while I had three brothers with me in the ghetto, he had no one, and he was on his own since he was ten years old, looking for family. He didn't even remember what his mother's maiden name was, so he couldn't even find us because I am from his mother's side, "Minsky."
There is a Holocaust memorial in Miami. The walls are just like Washington where they have the Vietnam Memorial with the names of the people who were killed. At the Holocaust memorial, there were names of people who had perished. He was there with his wife. Before that, he found a Polish woman. He said that he would like to go back to Lodz. He always thought he was born in Germany because he spoke German; he didn't know why he spoke German. In the camps, the other prisoners gave him a birthday because they looked at him and said, "Oh, you look about thirteen years old." So they gave him 1932. Actually, he was born in 1929. They told him he was born on January 1 because it's easy to remember. They gave him a name and identity and told him he was born in Germany.
Then he had the woman's son in Poland go to Lodz simply because he knew he had been in the Lodz Ghetto. He said, "Maybe there are some documents, some pictures of my family," and that's the reason he wanted them to look, because he didn't know that he was born in Lodz. And the Polish gentleman went into the town hall and he had to bribe them in order for them to look up the documents, and he came back with my cousin's birth certificate. He was born in 1929 on May 27, not January 1, 1932. He found out his mother's maiden name was "Minsky." He didn't remember his mother's name; he didn't remember anything. He must have wanted to block everything out, because he remembers very little as a child, and so, when they came to the Holocaust memorial in Miami, and they looked at the names, they saw "Minsky" and they started searching. Maybe, maybe, and sure enough, some of the first names were the same names as his family members. It took him three weeks until somebody, because they didn't want to give out private information, finally gave him the information, and it turned out we were related. Our grandfathers were brothers.
He said he found his past. He knew a name, and he thought he didn't have any relatives, and all of a sudden, he had relatives, so that's the story in Remember Your Name, because those were the words his mother had said before he jumped off the truck.
His mother perished, but he survived by hiding under the truck. She had told him, "Remember your name, and jump!" It's amazing how a child could survive, and not only did he survive, in spite of all that he was surrounded with, with all that hate, he is a wonderful human being. The environment didn't destroy him. I just saw him two days ago.
The book is at the publisher now, and I hope that they publish it. It's up to them now, and if they don't publish it, I'll find somebody else. The first book was a little bit tougher, but now I learned. The Cage is in paperback; it's very hard to find now in hardcover.
This is the new jacket [Ruth holds up the new cover of The Cage], and I think the jacket is wonderful because it looks like it would be a picture of me, but it's not a picture. The artist made it look like a picture.
The Cage -- I know you read it -- is about me, my little brothers, my family, and most of them are not here. If you go into the library and find a book called The Lodz Ghetto, look at the jacket of the book. The back jacket of the book is this [Ruth holds up the jacket with a photograph on the cover].
This picture was of a demonstration in the Lodz Ghetto. In fact, I wrote about it in The Cage. There was a demonstration; it wasn't planned. It just happened. People started marching. They wanted more food and jobs and schools.
According to The Chronicles of the Lodz Ghetto, edited by a cousin of mine, Lucjan Dobroszycki, there were 700 people there. I remembered there were thousands. Maybe there were 700 the way they put it there, and my mother and my little brother and I went to the demonstration.
Then when I got the book, which is years later, I looked at the jacket and there's a picture. There was a photographer in the Lodz Ghetto; there were several of them that were officially taking pictures for the Chronicles, and this was an official picture. Some pictures were later found in milk cans. When I saw the picture, I said, "Well this little girl here looks like me, but I don't remember what I looked like. I don't have any pictures to compare it to, and I looked at the two little boys and said, "They could have been my brothers, but no. It's impossible. How could we, from all those people -- 180,000 people -- happen to end up on the jacket of the book?"
And then I said, "Well, the girl is wearing a winter coat. I had a coat like that," and I kept struggling with the thought; why was I wearing a winter coat? The demonstrations were in the fall. Then I started researching something in the book, The Chronicles of the Lodz Ghetto; in fact, my cousin, the editor, had given it to me when he came from Poland in 1968. I started researching in that book, and, all of a sudden, I came across an entry. There was another demonstration in February, and that's why I had a winter coat on. Then I said, "Well, I'm not crazy; it is me!"
Then my daughter Nancy said, "Why don't you take the jacket and go to the photographer and have him make a negative and take a picture?"
I went and, once I saw the picture, I started crying, because it was clear it was me. [Ruth shows us the picture.] This is Motele, and this is Laibele, the brother who died in the ghetto. I wrote Dobroszycki's widow and asked her if she had any pictures, because I knew she had private archives that her husband had left behind with pictures.
She said there was a documentary called The Lodz Ghetto on TV and on videotape that people can buy. When they had the grand opening, there was a reception in the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. They sent out invitations, and this is the invitation [Ruth holds up the picture]. The invitation picture was the jacket of the book; she sent it to me.
I remember my mother making that coat for me. This is Laibele here. There is a picture that we have of Laibele that we found. We found it in the garbage with books. Remember, we had a secret library in our house, and the books were in the garbage, and people that came back and looked for the books found the books. When the people came to salvage the books in the secret library, they found pictures of an uncle of mine. He was a prominent educator; they wanted to save his pictures, and stuck like glue to the back of his picture, was this picture of Laibele, a school picture from 1939. The picture is the jacket of The Holocaust Lady. So that's why I have a picture of him, and that's a picture of my mother which was the picture I took with me to Auschwitz. A family that we have in Argentina sent us this picture. And this one, in the ghetto, was taken in 1941 and is on the jacket of The Lodz Ghetto.
You can see Motele wearing a yellow star. I had a star over here, and it's covered with the lapel of the coat. I don't know who these people are [Ruth, looking at the photo of the people in the Lodz Ghetto demonstration]. I have no idea if they survived. I might be the only one who survived.
Ruth with her brothers, Laibele
and Motele, in the Lodz Ghetto
My second book, To Life, deals with life and survivors going back to Germany, because we couldn't live in Poland because of antisemitism. Hatred never stopped in Poland. We had to smuggle our way out from Poland back to Germany to a former concentration camp, a displaced persons' camp, and we lived there for five years, going from camp to camp. I had two children in those camps.
I found my two sisters, and my brother, who escaped to Russia in 1939. They were finally allowed to leave Russia and come back to Poland, and they expected that they'd come back to family in Poland. They didn't know what happened in Poland. They were going to tell all the harsh stories that happened to them, but there was no one to listen, and their harsh stories were nothing compared to what they found in Poland. We lived for five years in a former concentration camp, waiting for the world to open its doors.
My third book, The Holocaust Lady, tells the importance of the teaching of the Holocaust and the effect it has on the children and grandchildren, because it definitely affected the grandchildren. One is going to be sixteen years old in two days. When he was five years old, he asked my husband, "Who put the number on your arm?" and my husband didn't know what to say, and he said, "Bad people put it on my arm." Now this was when my grandson was five years old. Now he talks about it. He makes sure that his teachers have my books. Even his younger sister, who is eleven, told me she took the book in to the teacher and the teacher read it.
My children were always afraid it might bring up hurtful memories, so they asked very little questions, but the grandchildren do. It did affect them all, and that is what my book, The Holocaust Lady, is all about. Now if you ask me some questions, I will answer some.
Question: You were talking about your relationship with your children. I did an interview with a woman survivor who had a similar problem with her children. She never brought it up with them. She never sat down and frankly discussed what happened in the Holocaust. What do you think of this?
Ruth: You can't do it. It's not something you're going to sit down at the dinner table and say, "Okay, now we're going to talk about it." It only comes out in bits and pieces. When you're asked a question, you get upset, and they don't want to upset you, so you don't talk about it. My kids learned about the Holocaust from my articles and my books. My daughter attended a lot of my courses. She heard me speak, so she knew more and she wasn't as much afraid to ask a question as my sons. So many survivors would not talk about it at all, and some of them talk too much. They talk to the point that their children feel they're in Auschwitz, that they're responsible, that they're guilty because their parents were in Auschwitz, and that's going to an extreme. I think family members should leave their memories on tape. It's pretty hard to talk in front of other people, especially with your children.
Last week I was speaking at Barnes and Noble Bookstore, and I knew that my daughter was there. Maybe I'll start crying, but because she was there, I was avoiding that. We're protecting one another, but it's important that survivors should let their children read Holocaust literature.
Once I spoke to a group of senior citizens, and there was a lady there, and I could see that she was crying, and she was nodding at the right places. I had a feeling that she knew what I was talking about. Then she came over and said she had been in the Lodz Ghetto, but her children didn't know. She didn't tell them anything. I found out later that she did buy books and give them to her children to read. Sometimes you kind of break the barrier. I understand it's pretty hard to talk and tell your children. There are lots of things we don't talk about and we don't tell our children, because it's too painful.
Question: At what age should children in school first learn about the Holocaust?
Ruth: I think eighth grade is alright, but I've been to schools where the teacher has read The Cage to younger kids; they were a little too young, but the questions from those kids were just as intense as the college kids' questions are. There are books for young children, picture books such as The Number on My Grandfather's Arm.
Question: What languages are your books translated into?
Ruth: There are several languages -- Dutch, Danish, Foroya. I keep getting phone calls almost every day saying, "Thank you; it's a touching book." I get lots of letters, and I answer them. One girl about fourteen years old said that when she used to ask about the Holocaust, adults would say it was terrible and not talk about it. And she wrote that I took her hand, "and I went with you and I cried with you and I laughed with you, and I applauded when you took a bath." Remember, in The Cage when I finally got to take a bath?
I had another interesting experience. The lady who is the director of the Holocaust Center in Buffalo called me and said that she teaches with TV about the Holocaust and she uses The Cage in her classes. She wanted to know if her students could speak to me. Could we have a phone conference, and I said sure. Then she called and asked if we could arrange a video conference, so I went to a place in Hauppauge, a computer place. I sat at a table; there was a screen and microphone. There were four sections on the screen. I was in one of the sections, and there were three different schools in three different places. It was wonderful, because the kids were asking questions. The next day I got roses and beautiful letters. Some students said that I was their role model.
Lots of kids ask me about suicide. Did we ever think of suicide? I know it's a very touchy issue because those things did happen. Yes, we did think of suicide. But the amazing thing was that very few people committed suicide. The idea was "if I hold onto life, I'm defying the Nazis, so why give in?"
In the ghetto it was different. If you were lucky, you still had some of the members of your family. We could still live together; we could still share whatever there was. But in the camps, you were all alone. Most of us were all alone. It was very seldom that someone had a sister or a mother. One of the girls in the camp Mittelsteine [Germany], tried to commit suicide. She didn't succeed. You would think they would have compassion and feel sorry for her, but they were angry and asked, "Why did you do it? Why did you show them you were weak?"
In the TV interview, one of the kids asked me if I still hold onto "as long as there is life, there is hope." I said, "Absolutely, because as long as you are alive, tomorrow could be better."
At the beginning of the year, I had some serious health problems, and I was going to go speak to a school in Northport, Long Island. The doctor called and told me I was going to need surgery. She wasn't sure if it was cancer, so when I went to speak at that school, my mind was thinking about the surgery and maybe cancer.
I had 300 books that day to autograph for the kids, and I autographed the books and I wrote, "As long as there is life, there is hope" 300 times. By the time I was finished, I felt strong.
Obviously it's true. I'm here, and I'm well, so I still hold onto Mama's legacy: "As long as there is life, there is hope."
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