A Jew Remembers Her Escape From Nazi Germany.
I have not been writing about Israel and the Jews as often as I’ve done in the past. Why? For starters: The information is in, it keeps coming in, it’s not good, it keeps getting worse, it is simply too painful to keep pointing it out, again and again, without being able to make much of a difference.
No, I am not talking about Israel’s capacity to defend itself militarily or about the likelihood that Iran’s nuclear and imperialist ambitions might lead to a new kind of alliance between Israel and the Arab Middle Eastern states. I am certainly not referring to Israel’s capacity to achieve miracles in terms of medicine, science, and business.
Here’s what I’m talking about. Israel’s demonization is just about complete. It is a done deal. No matter where one turns, no matter what else the subject might be, the real subject is always Evil Israel, the nation that allegedly killed the arch-fiend Palestinian terrorist, Yasir Arafat, (this comical accusation was just made yesterday) the iconic Mohammed al-Dura, the pro-Palestinian unwitting shahida, Rachel Corrie, and, for that matter, the entire Palestinian population of Gaza and the West Bank. After all, that’s what genocide does and Israel has constantly been accused of commiting a Nazi-like genocide, “ethnic cleansing,” etc. And yes, Israel is also evicting Arabs who pay their rent in East Jerusalem.
These are all Big Lies—but they are devoutly believed by western poets, playwrights, academics, UN officials, European officials, American state department and cabinet appointees, human rights activists, so-called progressives, including feminists, including Israeli feminist leftists. All say that Israel (not Sudan, not Iran) must be boycotted, further cut down to size, forced, at best, to live with low-level war victories from now until eternity.
For God’s sake: President Obama is giving the infamous Mary “Durban” Robinson the Medal of Freedom.
And just yesterday, Code Pink persuaded Oxfam to drop an actress from their commercials because she also stars in commercials for an Israeli beauty product company.
I’ve been writing about all this since early 2001. Maybe I’m suffering from battle fatigue. In any event, maybe I just can’t bear to write about Israel today…. but allow me to share a conversation I had with a Jewish woman who escaped Hitler. Somehow, such stories seem important, somehow the individual matters, the individual details matter: We can grasp them, relate to them. The complex political analyses do not always touch our hearts in the same way.
Last night, I had dinner with my dear friend, Ruth Jody, someone I’ve known for more than forty years. Ruth is a “tough” woman: Fiercely independent, always on the go, formerly a champion gymnast who, to this day, although she is in her mid- eighties, swims and exercises daily. She never complains about her life, no matter what. She keeps making new friends, studying new languages, attending concerts and dance recitals, insisting that she has already seen every opera “ten times ” and there are so few movies “worthy of us” today. She is so German-Jewish.
Ruth rarely talks about how she got out of Hitler’s Germany.
Over the years, she has shared information with me only in little bits and pieces. Once, when she celebrated the Sabbath at my home, she suddenly told me that her grandparents had been Orthodox Jews who had written “the most heartbreaking letters” to her mother before they were carted off to be murdered. “Such dignified people, starving, shivering, selling off one piece of furniture after the other for the price of a meal.”
Ruth’s stepfather was a well-known violinist and concertmaster who landed a position at the Metropolitan Opera House. Ruth has often regaled me with gossipy tales about her teenage life backstage at the Met, where the leading tenors of the day routinely “hit on” her when she was a delicious, delightful, flirtatious teenager.
Last night, Ruth was different. This time, almost as soon as she sat down, she began talking about how noisy and rude, how ungovernable, the German Jewish girls were when they first came to America and became students at Julia Richman High School in the 1940s.
“We kept talking to each in other and laughing in class. No matter what the teacher said, we didn’t listen to her. We were terrible brats. Actually, we were uncivilized. How else could we behave after what we’d been through?”
Then, Ruth switched tone. “I remember the night we left. It was a cold pre-dawn morning in February. But we’d been frozen for a long time. They’d fired the Jewish teachers, then they closed the Jewish schools, then they demolished the schools. We were walking around in a complete state of shock. We did not know what was coming next, when the next blow would fall.”
“Then, after my stepfather arranged for passage on a boat to England, I remember we crept down the stairs. We felt the eyes that were watching us through their peepholes, the eyes of all our neighbors, just waiting for us to leave so that they could come in and ransack our apartment. Of course, we had to leave everything behind. I had a self-portrait that Chaliapin had done for me and signed. I don’t understand why I didn’t take it. As I said, we were in shock, not thinking.”
Ruth does not look “Jewish.” She still has red-blonde hair and blue eyes as did her stepfather, who was not a Jew. He was once the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic and on his way to America he was given the task of carrying a Stradivarius out for money; it was meant for a violinist who had already made it to the New World.
“We got to Hamburg where the boat was docked. We were very hungry. But we were afraid to go into any restaurant. They all had signs that Jews were forbidden to eat there. But finally, hunger won out. We took our chances and walked into a hotel restaurant. Well, we looked Aryan enough for them and they fed us.”
They risked death for a meal.
“In Hamburg, we were also told to strip naked by a female Nazi official who herself went through every seam in all our clothing. She wanted to make sure that we had no jewels or money sewed into our clothes. If we did, she might get to keep it and we’d be killed.”
Imagine standing there naked in front of a fully clothed Nazi bureaucrat, in front of your own family.
Ruth went to England for a year, her parents went to the United States. “The Brits were very kind to me. They even helped me rescue an aunt. Their neighbors physically went and got my aunt’s children and brought them back to England.”
Okay, let’s hear if for these brave and compassionate Brits.
Ruth continued. “Every Jew who came here had a job the day after we got off the boat. None of us wanted to accept charity or welfare. We took whatever kind of work we could find. Cleaning. Working as waiters. Sewing. My mother started an exercise class the day after she came. God knows how she found her first pupils.”
Ruth got out and never looked back. Only now, in her eighties, is she beginning to recall the details. We live at a time when other Jews are also “getting out” of Europe. This makes me very sad, a bit frightened too.
For example, last week, I unexpectedly bumped into some very sweet French Jews with whom I’ve had the pleasure of dining; actually, they are now ex-French Jews. They left France forever after the “troubles” became far too troubling for them. Now, they live in New York City: A grandfather, two adult sons, a daughter-in-law, grandchildren. They are making a new life here. And, of course, I’ve written before about my friend and comrade-in-arms, Pierre Rehov, who has also left France for good.
Are the Jews on the move again? How many will go to Israel, how many to North America? I hope that it is not too late for Europe to take a stand, to turn around, to remain “European.”
What am I saying? Just like the Islamic world, “Europe,” has had a long history of Jew-hatred and Jew-persecution. It still remains a continent that matters to me.
May God watch over us and protect us. I am not sure that Israel can count on the American Marines right now, not with Samantha (“Let’s invade Israel”) Power in office.