Delivered at B’nai Jeshurun — Yom Kippur, 5777
It is an honor to share my mother’s story with my congregation and I want to thank the rabbis of BJ for giving me this opportunity. I also want to thank Myriam Abramowicz who encouraged me to continue with the difficult process of writing the story.
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My mother, Ruth Thal, nee Wurzburg and her parents, Willy Wurzburg and Herta Wurzburg, née Lewin, immigrated to the U.S. in 1947. Two years later she married my father, Rudolf Thal. I was born in 1951 and my brother Gary arrived four years later.
Until I was nine my family lived in Washington Heights, a neighborhood nicknamed the “Fourth Reich” and almost everyone we knew were German Jewish Refugees and their children. It was an optimistic neighborhood of young families. I have lovely memories of the playground overlooking the Hudson River and Shabbat family strolls in Fort Tryon Park. Yet, there was never a time when I did not know that the Holocaust was the fundamental family narrative; that “before the Nazis came and after they took power” would always be the primary fact of my parents’ lives and subtext in the life of our happy family.
Whenever my mom was mad at my father, she called him “De bauer aus der Mosel” (the farmer from the Mosel River) because he was from Bernkastle, a small town set in the hills above the Mosel; whereas, my mother’s family was far more cosmopolitan. My father was the only Jewish boy in his age range and as the Nazi movement grew, he was tormented and beaten up by former friends who sang the Nazi “Horst Wesel” anthem: “When Jewish blood flows from our knives, then all will be well.” Thankfully, his family was able to leave in 1937 and settled into Washington Heights.
My mother, Ruth, was born in August 1923 in Hamburg, Germany. Her sister, Susanne, was born in January 1926. My mother described her sister as a sweet, shy child, her mother’s favorite; whereas she was robust and independent. Her father was a businessman and the family lived very comfortably until Hitler came to power when she was ten years old. One day, when my mother was 11, her father did not come home from work. He had been arrested and detained for being a Jew. After his release, he began planning the family’s escape.
Like many of the details of her story, I only learned of her father’s arrest a few years ago. As my mother’s internal defenses weakened with age and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, memories returned at seemingly random moments and I would scramble to find a pen and a piece of paper — the back of an envelope or a napkin if we were in a restaurant — to record her story.
In June of 1936, the family packed for their vacation to visit relatives in Holland. When they crossed the border, her father announced from the front seat, “This is your new home.” My grandfather had arranged to base his business in Amsterdam and had leased an apartment in a lovely neighborhood. My mother’s fondest childhood memories are of the next four years, skating, sailing, making life-long friends. Then on May 10, 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Holland. My grandfather sent my mother, then 16, to the port to try to book passage, but by May 15 the Dutch had surrendered and it was too late, the port had closed.
Life continued, but with increasing restrictions. My mother’s most painful recollection of this period was seeing her father, whom she always thought of as her hero, tremble as the family lined up to hand in all valuable possessions: radios, jewelry, bicycles. The Nazis took particular pleasure in humiliating Jewish men and this occasion was no exception.
In July, 1942, my mother and her sister were called up to report for transit to “work camps.” The family went underground within days. My grandfather had made arrangements for the family to hide together in Amsterdam. This lasted for six months. Susanne, then 16, had a friend who was to join them in their hiding place and the teen had shared this information with a Jewish friend, who turned out to be a collaborator. As the SS came to arrest the friend, family who was hiding him quickly sent their son to my mother’s hiding place to warn her family. It was Hanukkah, 1942, and the family fled immediately, my grandparents to one hiding place, my mother and her sister to another in Hilversum.
With the S.S. now on their trail, my mother and her sister were soon separated. Over the next two years or so, my mother ended up hiding, for a few days, a few weeks, or a few months, in twenty different places in Holland — in Amsterdam, small cities, in villages, and on farms. She never knew when she would have to flee and whether the knock at the door would be the resistance to help her or the S.S. to arrest her. She dyed her dark hair red and had a fake passport and somehow she survived, mostly intact, a feat of dissociation. I never saw my mother cry as a child or young adult, not even when her beloved parents died. She was perennially light-hearted and loving. She would say that she had used up all her tears during “hiding time.”
Toward the end of the war, she was briefly reunited in her hiding place with her parents, but her sister could not join them. She had been cast out by the resistance and was on the run from them as well as from the Nazis. Susanne, then still in her teens, and in hiding alone in Amsterdam, had been sneaking out of hiding to date a young Czech national, who had been conscripted into the German Army after the annexation of the Sudetenland. The family hiding her understandably felt obligated to tell the resistance and Susanne was taken from her hiding place and had her hair shaved off, the standard treatment for women considered collaborators due to their romantic entanglements.
The resistance had come to my grandfather to tell him that his younger daughter was on the run. Somehow, in the night, Susanne managed to find her way to her family’s hiding place wearing a frightful wig. For several weeks she would hide in the bushes during the day and sneak in to be with the family at night. If the family hiding my grandparents and my mother had found out that she was there, all my relatives would have been cast out of hiding. My mother described this as the most terrifying time of the war. My grandfather managed to arrange a hiding place for Susanne through another resistance network in another part of Holland. Susanne left for her new hiding place via train. It was on that train, the day she left, that she was caught by the Nazis. First, she was sent to Westerbork transit camp and shortly after to Auschwitz, where she died. For a time, the family thought she was safe in her new hiding place.
My mother was in hiding in the countryside during the second half of 1944 when she saw American paratroopers floating down in the sky, signaling that the south and east of Holland was liberated. It would be months before the north and west of Holland, where the family believed Susanne was in hiding, would be free.
My mother soon rejoined her parents in Amsterdam. It was then that she learned of her sister’s capture and death through friends that had seen her at camp. For six months she withheld that information from her parents because she wanted to protect them. My mother thought that if my grandmother knew that her daughter had been captured, she would give herself up to the S.S. In the winter of 1944-1945, the occupied part of Holland suffered a famine, the “Hunger Winter.” As my grandmother scrounged what she could to send a care package to her younger daughter, my mother had the unbearable task of telling her the devastating news.
For more than 25 years, my mother kept the story of her sister a secret. We knew she died in Auschwitz, but she did not tell anyone of the circumstances of her capture. She never told my father, to whom she was married for more than 55 years. When she shared the story with me as a young woman, I had to promise not to tell anyone.
My mother is 93 now and is in the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease. The psychological defenses that had protected her so well since the war softened in the last five years and she has been sad, at times, in a way that she never was before the disease progressed.
Several years ago I sensed that she was ready to talk about her feelings and not just repeat the facts. “I’ve been thinking about my sister, she said. “I love her so, but I can’t forgive her. I’m a bad person because I can’t forgive her and I don’t understand how she could have gone out with a German soldier.” I offered to act as her sister and she accepted. As Susie, I apologized for putting myself in danger leading to my death and for putting her and their parents in danger. As Susie I said “I was so young and frightened and alone, I didn’t know what I was doing. Please forgive me, can you?”
Tears flowing, my mother nodded.
“Please forgive yourself for being so angry at me. I understand,” I replied.
We held each other with soft tears of mother/daughter/sister mingling.
My mother thrived after the Holocaust. She has lived a long and full life with loving children, grandchildren, and in the last two years, great-grandchildren. I will never know, but want to believe that she was finally able to forgive her sister and herself 70 years later.
Susan Thal has been a member of BJ since 2009. She is actively involved in the Refugee & Immigration Committee. Susan is a retired attorney and happy grandma.