Posts tagged Ruth Maier

Children: Lost and Found

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Among the manifold tragedies of the Holocaust, one of the greatest was the destruction of Jewish families.  Worried parents were often faced with agonizing choices regarding the fate of their children: keep the family intact and hope for the best, or send them away rather than risk their futures to an increasingly dark future.  Sometimes this required packing them off to foreign lands, into the hands of strangers, for indefinite periods.  Other times it meant sending them into hiding, or giving their children new (non-Jewish) identifies to ensure their safety.  Ilse Weber sent her 7-year-old son off on the Kindertransport to England, and later Sweden.  Ruth Maier went off alone from Vienna to Norway, age 18.

Of course, once in the maw of the concentration camp, family separation was all but assured.  Anne Frank, age 15, was separated from her father Otto when she was sent on to Bergen-Belsen and he remained in Auschwitz. Elie Wiesel, age 15, separated from his mother and sisters when the family was arrested in Hungary in 1944.

Tom Buergenthal was no exception.  Upon arriving in Auschwitz in August 1944, Tom, age 10, was immediately separated from his mother, who was placed in a women’s subcamp.  Thereafter he had only one, fleeting, glimpse of her through the wire, a few months later, before she was transported to Ravensbrück in Germany. Around the same time, Tom’s father was also sent away—first to Sachsenhausen and later to Buchenwald—where he would succumb to pneumonia in January 1945.  All Tom knew was that both his parents were gone, destination and fate unknown, and he was alone.

At least Tom’s story had a somewhat happy ending.  After the war, a clerk in the Jewish Agency in Palestine somehow miraculously noticed Tom’s name on a list of those wishing to emigrate to Palestine and the same name on a list of missing persons.  Absent this discovery, who knows whether Tom would ever have been located by his mother, despite the fact that she, like so many parents, had never stopped searching for him.  After all, had he not been labeled ein Glückskind—a lucky child—by the fortuneteller?

Once located, Tom embarked on yet another transport—a happy one—from Otwock, Poland to Göttingen, Germany where his mother eagerly awaited him.  Seventy-four years ago today—December 29, 1946—Tom arrived by train at Göttingen station.  By now the war had been over for nineteen months, and it had been almost two and a half years since mother and child had been together.

“I could not contain my excitement. I spotted my mother even before the train came to a stop.  As I try to describe the emotions of that moment, I realize that I am incapable of putting into words what I felt.  And even now, so many years later, tears well up in my eyes as I see her standing there, nervously scanning the slowing railroad cars for a glimpse of me.  While the train was still moving, I jumped out and raced over to her.  We fell into each other’s arms and stood there long after the train had moved out of the station, hugging each other and trying in just a few minutes to recount all that had happened to us since that August day in 1944 when we were separated in Auschwitz.”

The meeting was also bittersweet:

Und Papa?” I finally asked.  She did not answer right away but kept shaking her head as tears ran down her cheeks.  Right then I knew that my father had not survived the war that was now finally over for my mother and me.

A Young Thomas Buergenthal

While so many Nazis and their helpers were trying to destroy families, Odd Nansen was trying to save them.

In 1938, following the Anschluss, Odd Nansen’s relief organization, Nansenhjelpen, helped Jewish children travel from Vienna to attend summer camp in Norway. As conditions in Austria worsened, the children were allowed, reluctantly, to stay in Norway, at a Jewish Children’s Home headed by one Nina Hasvoll,* herself a refugee from Russia and Germany.  The following year Nansenhjelpen brought children from Czechoslovakia to the children’s home in Oslo as well.  Nina continued to look out for her young charges in Oslo for several years, until late 1942, when conditions for Jews in Norway worsened.  On the morning of November 26, 1942, acting on a tip, Nina was able to spirit all of her 14 children away from the home a mere two hours before the Norwegian police arrived to round them up for deportation. [Virtually all the Jewish children who were rounded up were ultimately murdered in Auschwitz.] She helped the children escape to safety in Sweden with the help of several friends, a taxi driver and two border pilots, all of whom were later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Nina Hasvoll

One of the young children in Hasvoll’s care was Berthold Grünfeld, who had arrived from Czechoslovakia as a 7-year-old in 1939 through the efforts of Odd Nansen.  As a result of Nina Hasvoll’s care, attention, and quick action during the Jewish roundup, Grünfeld survived and later became a prominent psychiatrist in postwar Norway.  In 2005 he was appointed to the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav in recognition for his “distinguished services rendered to Norway and mankind.” Berthold never forgot Nina Hasvoll, and named one of his daughters Nina in her honor.

Berthold Grünfeld

That daughter, Nina Grünfeld, has in turn produced a wonderful film about Nina Hasvoll and the Jewish Children’s Home.  Called “Nina’s Children,” it is available to rent on Vimeo.  Here is the link.  I highly recommend it.  If you watch and listen closely, you will see and hear references to Nansenhjelpen in the movie.

So, as we celebrate Tom Buergenthal’s’ good fortune in being miraculously reunited with his mother 74 years ago this day, let us honor the actions of Odd Nansen, Nina Hasvoll, and others like them during the Holocaust.  But let us also remember the loss of Tom’s father, as well as tragic fates of the Frank family, the Wiesel family, the Weber family, the Maier family, and all those countless other families that would never again be made whole—a lasting, indelible tragedy of the Holocaust, and a tragedy which is still being perpetrated today.

*Nina married after the war and is often referred to as Nina Hasvoll Meyer.  She had no children of her own.

The Meaning of November 26

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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, the day set aside for Americans to give thanks for their manifold blessings.  Although celebrated in America in one form or another since 1619, it was not until President Franklin Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress on December 26, 1941, that the date for Thanksgiving was finally set as the fourth Thursday of November.  This year that day falls on November 26.

Unfortunately, for some, November 26 evokes memories of pain and loss and suffering.  On that day in 1942, German soldiers and Norwegian policemen rounded up all remaining Jewish women and children in Norway and delivered them to two ships awaiting in Oslo harbor: the SS Donau and the MS Monte Rosa.  There they were joined by Jewish men and boys, aged 16 and older, who had already been rounded up exactly one month prior—October 26.

SS Donau about to depart Oslo harbor

The Donau (with 532 Jewish prisoners) and the Monte Rosa (with 28) sailed for the German port city of Stettin, where the prisoners were forced onto railcars headed for Auschwitz.  Of the 532 Donau prisoners, 345 were murdered within hours of their arrival in Auschwitz; the remainder were to be used as slave labor in Birkenau.  A final transport of another 158 Jewish prisoners departed Norway on February 24, 1943.  Some of these prisoners had been incarcerated in Grini, the same detention camp holding Odd Nansen.  Here’s what he wrote on that date about their departure:

Wednesday, February 24, 1943.  Mild weather and misery.  Last night the Jews were given notice to parade in mufti at eight o’clock this morning.  They went off later in the morning.  No doubt for Poland.  It was a melancholy band. Dr. [Wulff] Becker’s face shone out among them. A splendid fellow. ‘Well, good-bye, Nansen; thanks for everything and au revoir!’ No doubt he had his suspicions of what awaited him, but he had evidently made up his mind not to show it.  [Dr. Leonard] Levin’s good-bye was more somber, but he smiled, too.  The others were in a worse state.  It hurt to see them going off.”

All told, approximately 772 Jews were deported from Norway during World War II; only 34 of those deported survived until the end of the war.

Another approximately 1000 Jews and others escaped from Norway—many just hours prior to the roundup.  Most were smuggled to Sweden, and a smaller number made it to England.  [One of the earliest escapees was the Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, Sigrid Undset, who ultimately found sanctuary in America.]

Last month I was honored to moderate a film discussion as part of the 23rd Annual Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival.  The film—perhaps not surprisingly—was a Norwegian film about Jewish refugees trying to escape to Sweden.  It is called “Flukten over Grensen” [literally, “Escape over the Border,” or more colloquially, “The Crossing”]

“The Crossing,” which was produced in Norway, focuses on two sets of siblings: Gerda (age 9) and her older brother Otto (age 14?), and Daniel (age 14-15?) and his younger sister Sarah (age 7-8?).  Daniel and Sarah have been hiding with Gerda and Otto’s parents ever since their own father fled the October 1942 roundup of Jews.  However, when Gerda and Otto’s parents are arrested on Christmas Eve, and Gerda’s father meaningfully explains to her that “the Christmas presents” are in the basement and need to go to their aunt (who lives close by the Swedish border), it’s up to Gerda and Otto to uncover the hidden children and safely see Daniel and Sarah to freedom in Sweden.  It’s a wonderful film, replete with helpful adults, fascist sympathizers (including one who reenacts a scene right out of Hansel and Gretel), chases, near misses, as well as Otto’s dawning realization that the two young Jews in his care are not the “other” to be feared and despised, but human beings just like him.

If you ever get a chance to see “The Crossing,” please do—it’s well made, meaningful on multiple levels, and heartwarming.  Young Gerda is sure to steal your heart. My commentary as part of the film discussion can be found here.

As noted above, not all Jews in Norway were as fortunate as Daniel and Sarah.  One of those Jews on the Donau was Ruth Maier. Ruth was born in Vienna, Austria in 1920.   Until 1938 Ruth led a typical, happy life in Vienna.  But on March 12, 1938, the Anschluss occurred: Germany annexed Austria and German forces quickly moved in and took control.  Just as suddenly, Ruth and her family were social pariahs.  Through the international connections made by her father (who had died in 1933) Ruth and her younger sister Judith were ultimately able to escape Austria: Ruth to Norway; Judith to England.

Ruth Maier

For a time, Ruth thrived in Norway.   She soon became fluent in Norwegian, and attracted the attention of some leading artists: she modeled for painter Åsmund Esval, as well as the famous sculptor Gustav Vigeland.  His sculpture of her, titled “Surprised,” is permanently displayed in Vigeland Park in central Oslo.

“Surprised” by Gustav Vigeland

Ruth’s idyll ended on November 26 when she was arrested by two Norwegian policemen.  Upon arrival in Auschwitz on December 1, 1942, she was immediately murdered in the gas chambers.  Ruth was 22.

From 1933 to 1942 Ruth kept a diary, which fortunately survived in the possession of her close friend Gunvor Hofmo (whose uncle, Rolf Hofmo, was with Nansen in Grini and Sachsenhausen).  Hofmo tried to get Ruth’s diaries published in 1953, but was rebuffed.  Following Hofmo’s death in 1995, Norwegian poet Jan Erik Vold went through her papers and discovered the diaries.  After editing them, Vold was able to publish the diaries 2007; they were translated into English in 2009.  Ruth Maier’s diaries have been well received; she is now sometimes referred to as “Norway’s Anne Frank.”

According to the English version of her diary, Ruth Maier’s last words come from a letter she wrote to Hofmo that was somehow smuggled off the Donau before the ship departed.  The letter includes these lines:

“I think it’s just as well that it happened this way.  Why shouldn’t we suffer when there’s so much suffering?  Don’t worry about me.  Perhaps I wouldn’t even change places with you.”

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • April 12, 2021: Sons of Norway, Milwaukee, WI (Virtual)
  • May 4, 2021: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC (Virtual)
  • May 5, 2021: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, Fargo, ND (Kringen Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, St. Cloud, MN (Trollheim Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Tuesday Open House, Mindekirken, Minneapolis, MN
  • June 9, 2021: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 19, 2021: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

People are talking


“Thank you so much for making the visit to Guilford [College] and presenting the honorable life of Odd Nansen. . . . Without your effort, we would never have been able to know Odd Nansen. With it, we have a history to rely upon as a moral compass for acting with integrity in the face of human rights violations. May we live up to it!”

– Jane K. Fernandes
President, Guilford College
Greensboro, NC

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