Houston, Texas — Friday, January 27 marked the 72nd anniversary of the day the Red Army broke through Nazi resistance and freed the prisoners of Auschwitz. All week long, Holocaust survivors, their children, and Houstonians of all backgrounds have been remembering those who were tortured and killed during some of the darkest days of human history. Amazingly, their message is one of hope.
Ruth Steinfeld is a Texas school teacher and Holocaust survivor. In Germany though, she was 5 year old Ruth Krell.
“In a normal world, most 5-year-old girls play with dolls, learn how to become ladies, and dream about what their lives will become,” Robert Stanton wrote in a 2001 Houston Chronicle piece. “But on Nov. 9, 1938 … [Ruth] watched helplessly as ax-toting Nazi soldiers smashed up her family’s home in Germany in a night known as Kristallnacht, or ‘Night of Broken Glass.’ She could only watch in horror as the rampaging soldiers led her father and grandfather away — the last time she would see them alive.”
On Friday, Ruth shared her harrowing and profound story with Houston children at Clements High School in Sugarland. Ruth does many such presentations, helping to ensure that future generations take warning and never forget the danger of evil.
Back in 1940, on October 20, Ruth, her sister Lea, and her mother, Anna Krell, were taken from their home and held prisoner at Gurs, a concentration camp in France near the Pyrenees mountains. While not an extermination camp, over 1,100 people died in Gurs of disease, malnutrition, abuse, and neglect. Many of the prisoners were eventually deported to camps such as Auschwitz where they were murdered.
“The screams and cries did not diminish when we arrived at our destination,” Ruth recalled. “It was dirty, there was mud and no toilets. The mud was human excrement. We were given straw to sleep on and a bowl to eat with. We heard loud screams day and night.”
In 1941, members of the Agency for the Rescue of Children, disguised as Red Cross workers, came to rescue Ruth and her sister Lea. Unfortunately, the could only take the girls.
“We had to get on the rickety old bus and we were taken to a castle where we were hidden,” recalls Ms. Steinfeld, “and they kept their promise. We survived. We were always a step ahead of the Nazis.”
But that was the last time Ruth and Lea saw their mother, Anna.
“We saw our mother for the last time as she waved to us,” Ruth recalled. “I believe she gave us life twice.”
The girls were told to tell people they were Christians, and remained hidden for some time with a Christian family who was very poor, but provided for the girls and kept them safe. When a catholic priest betrayed the girl’s true identities, they were whisked away to America before the Nazi’s could capture them.
Ruth spent the rest of her childhood in New York City, and eventually made her way to Houston where she married her husband, Larry Steinfeld. They have three daughters. She struggled to push the bad memories and pain from her mind. However, in 1981, Ruth attended the first international gathering of Holocaust survivors in Israel.
That was where she learned the tragic fate of her beloved parents. Anna and Alfred Krell had been gassed to death upon their arrival at Auschwitz on September 9, 1942. It was then that Ruth knew that she could not remain silent.
“I knew I had a purpose, to speak for the 1.5 million children who never had a chance,” she told the Chronicle. “I knew that my new sense of peace came from a sense of forgiving but never forgetting.”
The Houston Holocaust Museum also devoted this week to a special time of remembrance. Free admission was offered on Friday for all who wished to learn and pay homage.
Their current exhibit, A Celebration of Survival, by Barbara Hines, runs through May 30, 2017. The exhibit addresses the story of the Holocaust framed in a message of forgiveness and redemption, inspiring visitors to focus on “what could be” rather than the horrors of history.
“Barbara Hines is known for using art as a way to bring understanding and peace into the world,” said Dr. Kelly J. Zúñiga, CEO of Holocaust Museum Houston. “Her work is breathtaking with its incorporation of different light, colors, sounds, textures and interactive technology that stimulates all of one’s senses to contemplate her message.”
As they enter A Celebration of Survival, visitors pass through “Veils of Remembrance,” transparent silk veils printed with life size portraits of the children of the Holocaust. The effect gives visitors a sense of walking among the shadows of these children, imagining them as they were when they lived.
“Portrait Walls” throughout the exhibit honor 16 righteous non-Jews of the 26,000 “Righteous Among the Nations,” who rescued Jewish people during the Holocaust. Beautiful quotations of wise words and profound memories from local survivors and Jewish leaders are projected on walls and veils.
“Holocaust Museum Houston gives us the opportunity to reflect about what choices we are capable of making in the face of adversity,” said Barbara Hines. “’A Celebration of Survival’ is my first solo multimedia exhibition and I’m honored to host it in the city I call home.”
For more information on the Celebration of Survival exhibit, please visit the holocaust Museum Houston website at http://www.HMH.org.
Holocaust Museum Houston is free each Thursday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. General admission for non-members is $12. College students, children under 6, and school children under 18 can attend for free. Special rates are available for seniors.