Survivor STORY

Ruth Lowenberg (nee Grunkraut) was born in the southern Polish town of Bielsko in 1925. She attended a secular Jewish elementary school before enrolling in a convent-run high school, the finest girls’ school in town. Even prior to the onset of the Second World War, antisemitism was prevalent in Ruth’s life; in June 1939, all the Jewish girls were expelled from the convent’s school. Ruth recalls that ironically, only the Germans, Austrians, Italians, and Swiss accepted Jews into their universities. Ruth recalls that the Poles thought that Jews “should be wiped out from the surface of the earth”.

Poland was only able to resist the Nazi and Soviet onslaught for a few weeks, and had surrendered by mid-October. Ruth, her parents, and younger brother were forced to move into the Krakow ghetto. The family was able to survive as Ruth’s father, an Austrian-educated merchant, worked as a bookkeeper for the Nazi authorities.

The family remained in the ghetto until 1942 or 1943 and were then sent to the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp. Erected in 1942, the camp housed Jews from the Krakow ghetto and was ruthlessly ruled by the infamous war criminal Amon Goeth, who was later tried and executed for the murder of tens of thousands of people. Ruth and her mother were used as slave labor in an upholstery workshop while at the camp.

By late 1944, the Soviets had advanced into eastern Poland and were beginning to threaten Nazi garrisons in Warsaw and other occupied cities, while the Western Allies had liberated Paris. The Nazis, realizing this, began to accelerate deportation rates, and all remaining children in Krakow-Plaszow were sent to Auschwitz. Ruth and her mother were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August. Her father was not sent with them, and Ruth never saw him again. She later found out that he perished in Mauthausen in 1945. Ruth and her mother were shipped to Bergen-Belsen, where her mother died in her arms only six days before liberation.

After being liberated, Ruth and her fellow survivors were terribly weak. Typhus and other diseases ravaged the camp. The British took Ruth to a hospital where she recovered. Neutral nations were beginning to accept Jewish refugees, and Ruth chose to settle temporarily in Sweden. The Swedes were extremely friendly to Ruth and treated her injuries. Displaced persons camps were established by nationality, thusly Ruth was relocated to a Polish camp in the Swedish mountains. King Gustav V visited the camp, and Ruth was able to thank him for his hospitality.

Ruth had previously taught herself English from a German-English dictionary and therefore moved to England to stay with her father’s cousin. She lived in England for 11 months before moving back to Sweden and marrying Natan Lowenberg, a fellow Polish survivor. They moved to New York in 1950, where her husband eventually owned a chain of bakeries. While never religious, Ruth and her husband retained their Jewish heritage. They belonged to a temple and their sons had Bar Mitzvahs. The Lowenbergs had four children, all of whom attended college. Ruth, now widowed, currently lives in metro-Atlanta.

While the Swedes treated Ruth with nothing but kindness and generosity after the war, she faced some discrimination in America. People made fun of the number tattooed on her arm by the Nazis at the concentration camp, and a neighboring Irish woman humiliated Ruth and her family until the point where Ruth slapped her in the face. The woman took Ruth to court, where Ruth won, claiming that “in America even a Jew has the right to live”.

Ruth briefly returned to her hometown after the war in search of her father, only to find that the Jewish community had been practically annihilated. As her mother, father, and brother had all been murdered by the Germans, Ruth was alone in the world; however, Ruth was able to survive both the war and the psychologically traumatic post-war years. When asked what personal qualities enabled her to survive the emotional and physical hardship, Ruth responded, “I think the hatred against the Nazis, what they did…they took the blood from my veins. I think that hatred, that we can stand up and be human beings again…”. Ruth was a strong woman, surmounting the incredible physical and psychological hurdles to rebuild her life after the war. Her desire to overcome the hatred, to stand up and be a human being once more, enabled her to overcome the unimaginable emotional pain she felt in order to live life.

Survival and Life in Europe

At the very end, my mother was very sick. In Belsen-Bergen was terrible. The typhus, the starvation alone, no water and no bread, nothing, only such a mush they gave in the morning, I guess flour and a little bit of water. And she said to me, I used to shake her up, "You must live; you must live for me." So she says, "I don't have the strength any more." And the last minute she said to me, she was completely conscious, she says, "You want to live; you will survive. Six years of war is too much for me." And then she gave such a deep breath and said, "If you ever have children and they are in a small percentage as good to you as you were to us, you will be very lucky." You see, I had, and then she was finished. I put those four fingers in her mouth; she was cold.

Liberation

And then we were free, but there was nothing to do, and they told us that we can go to Sweden. Some people said maybe to Spain, but I only heard Sweden, so I registered for Sweden, I figured this is a neutral country. And, I think it was in June that they took us through the Baltic Sea to Sweden, and again the English language helped me so I could learn easier how to speak Swedish; because this is a language for itself. And I went from Trelleborg to Marma, which is a beautiful, beautiful city; and we stayed there in a quarantine. They were afraid that we bring some bad diseases. They were friendly, very friendly, the Swedes. And there were doctors. They pulled our teeth without Novocain, which was very good. But later on, they sent us to camps by nationality. So, being that my father was a Polish citizen, I, we went to a Polish camp, very, very high up where the king's lodges were there, for hunting lodges. And I saw the king, King Gustav V, I mean. He came by and the lady in charge... said "Pick up some flowers and give it to him and tell him what you want." So I said, "I want to thank you, Excellence, for letting us come to Sweden." And he says "Welcome, now welcome." He was already an old man.

Making a Living

To tell you the truth I didn't think I have a future. I was alone. I had no education and, nothing, nothing. Then it was lucky that Sweden took us. Sweden was the only country that opened the doors. But there was an agreement between America and England that they have to help to rehabilitate those people, so they needed young people to work. And this is what it was. We went to work. The wages were very, very small. It was hardly enough to ... They took away for food and lodging, which was right, because we probably wouldn't know how to handle it. And in later years we had it better, you know. I worked as seamstress; it was easier. My husband got always a job, because they needed, they eat a lot of sweets, cakes and stuff like that. So, and he learned the trade there.

And we came here to New York. My friend that promised me the affidavit rented an apartment in Kew Gardens. It was 91 dollars and my husband made 42 dollars a week. But later it was easier. I passed by a nice bakery and I walked in and I asked if they needed a good conditor, and he says, "Well, how do you know he's good?" I said, "Because I know he's good." So he said to me, "You know what, tell him to come in the evening." This was in walking distance; we didn't have a car. So he gave him one bag, and said, "Bake a few cookies." He says, "You're hired." And he doubled his salary, which made it already easier.

My husband was the most decent person on earth, a wonderful husband, a father, and a grandfather. Papa we called him, Papa. Yeah, always hard working, never on (what is it that people take?) welfare, always ... When we came, the next day he went to work. My friend found him a job in a factory where they make those little statues for cakes, so he worked there for maybe two, three weeks and then I found the job in the bakery.

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Ruth Grunkraut Lowenberg