Ruth Szabo Brand was born in 1928 near Sighet in Northern Transylvania. On Sabbaths and festivals in Cuhea village --a Yiddish-speaking enclave--the hasidim, both rich and poor, flocked to the synagogue resplendent in their streimels and caftans. Ruth lost her father at age 3, but her maternal grandparents lived with them. Grandpa Yisrael Szabo found an apt pupil in Ruth and taught her the rudiments of Hebrew, Yiddish and the vernacular. He died shortly before World War II.
Ruth’s widowed mother opened a grocery store for subsistence. From age six Ruth stood on a wooden crate behind the counter and served customers. Her grandmother made great efforts to provide food to the needy. The store went out of business, however, in the early 1940s, owing to anti-Semitic decrees. Ruth, at fourteen, now picked up Hungarian in order to learn a trade. One small solace was when her paternal grandparents boarded the last boat out of Romania in 1939 and got to America. The Nazi decrees intensified, confining the Jews to ghettoes. From Dragomirest ghetto they were assembled for mass deportation. Their bitter exodus to the distant railway station was jeered at by once friendly Christian neighbors, whose exultant eyes now shone with the light of greed. “Our messiah arrived today! We’re getting rid of the Jews.”
In 1944 sixteen-year-old Ruth and her family arrived at Auschwitz after four agonizing days and nights crammed into cattle cars. Her younger sister and brother stood throughout so their elderly grandmother could lie down. The night when the living, the dead, and the newborn arrived at that grim destination, flames belched from four tall chimneys and the air had a sickening stench. Though Ruth was selected for work, her mother, siblings and grandmother were waved aside by Mengele. The petite blue-eyed girl tried to follow her family, but a stick hooked around her throat thrust her away. Her family perished in the gas chambers a few hours later.
The girls in Ruth’s work-group at Auschwitz-Birkenau—most in their early teens --tried to close ranks and support one another despite appalling conditions, terror and cruelty. They covered for the weak ones, and in the event of a fainting spell, pushed the girl to the middle out of sight.
When Yom Kippur came the girls were sent to the area of the crematoria, to load the ashes onto trolleys. This was devastating for them, especially when their shovels revealed small v-shaped bones. The kapo told them that this was the only bone in the body that does not burn. [Footnote: Kabbalists call this indestructible bone the luz (atlas bone) and associate it with the resurrection of the dead].
As for fasting, some girls, including Ruth and her cousin, abstained from the breakfast of ‘coffee’—a dark liquid made of barley. The Nazis knew why and taunted sadistically, “So you’re not hungry today. We’ll make sure you get an appetite!”
That unusually hot day they forced the girls to run for a long time, assailing those that fell with dogs and whips. At lunchtime most ate the watery soup from despair and exhaustion. Many felt their circumstances permitted it but Ruth had resolved to fast. She thought an affirmation of faith was necessary that terrible day. She and her cousin set aside their soup but it had spoiled by evening, so they broke their fast with the two thin pieces of black bread--tasting of sawdust--that constituted supper.
The next morning the 200 girls were back to the backbreaking, pointless routine of digging ditches that promptly oozed with water and worms. Once the heavy clay soil was shoveled aside, they had to climb down onto treacherous mud surfaces. That day they were given heavy, unwieldy tools, so there was scuffling to grab the lighter ones. The SS guard cursed them, striking out viciously. Ruth and her cousin waited it out for whatever tools remained rather than get beaten up. They were unexpectedly rewarded for their forbearance by the German kapo, and told to supervise the others instead of working themselves. The woman then reappeared with a cabbage and asked her cousin if she could cook. She took the girl to a nearby barracks to concoct the soup while the SS men and their dogs followed out of curiosity.
Ruth, unexpectedly left alone as supervisor, seized the opportunity to be helpful. She yelled loudly in Hungarian, “Don’t work now! Just watch me. I will tell you when to work.”
If an authority appeared, she yelled even louder at the girls to work harder. She figured that no one would really keep track of their efforts.
The kapo later reappeared. “Du Kleine--you little one--come over here,” she shouted.
Ruth stood frozen to the spot. The game was up, she thought.
“Yes, I mean you. Why are you standing there like a dumb cow? I heard how diligent you were, shouting at the girls. You and the girl who cooked will get double lunch.”
Ruth told her cousin that G-d had repaid them promptly for their Yom Kippur fast. Years later she wondered at her own courage and defiance.
Just as she helped others, so they helped her. In January she emerged from the camp infirmary, and was sent to work with only a thin jacket to protect her, no gloves or socks, and with leaking shoes. The assignment was to move away the heavy iron tracks of the trolleys used to load ashes from the crematoria.
“That does it,” she resolved, sickly and frozen to the bone. Snow and ice lay on the ground and a bitter wind blew. “Tonight I’m going to the electric wires—I can’t take it any more.”
At this moment of despair kind friends came to the rescue. One girl took off a glove for her, and another tore the rag that covered her hands and gave her half.
Positive thinking fueled by faith kept Ruth going. The last tattooed digits on her arm were eighteen or hai (life), which she considered a good omen. She would picture herself in America with her grandmother, smartly dressed in a blue skirt, white blouse and dark red jacket. She had a vivid dream that grandfather Yisrael visited her bearing a package of cheese. “He is praying for me in heaven,” she thought, “and I will survive.”
She made her own private bargain with G-d. “I have to live so I can tell,” she assured Him. If she survived, she would tell what the world did to His chosen people.
Ruth Brand, now deep in her seventies, remained true to her promise to tell what happened. Somehow she survived the Death March to Bergen Belsen in January 1945, eating snow and mentally recording the crimson patches where the weakest had fallen and been shot. She even survived the ensuing plagues of typhus, dysentery, starvation and lice. Though she envied the dead, she clung feebly to life until the liberation when she was slowly rehabilitated. She has told her painful story numerous times, during her 25 years in America, and in Israel where she moved in 1975. She accompanied groups to Poland eleven times, and spoke there, reliving the hell of Auschwitz. Yad VeShem is soon sending her on a trip to Eastern Europe.
Ruth was privileged to raise a large family. Another noteworthy achievement was to found a Jewish school for special education in New York that has grown from four original pupils to 600 today. She also used her skills as a seamstress to sew gowns for many brides.
“Life to me has a special meaning,” she says, “When I say Modeh Ani in the morning, I do so with infinite gratitude.
In these tales, the truth and authenticity are to be found in the details that show these people were not just statistics. They were ordinary folk leading unassuming lives when the terror of the Holocaust descended upon them.
Written by Susan de la Fuente
Contact info: sdlfsusan at yahoo dot com
Written by Susan de la Fuente
Contact info: sdlfsusan at yahoo dot com