In 1933, 8-year-old Ruth Wachner, who was living in Berlin, Germany, experienced anti-Semitism for the first time. “I had a lot of friends from the playground that I went ice skating with and Clara and I were very close. Her mother was very ill and whenever my family was going on an outing, like to the zoo, Clara would come with us. She was Christian, but that didn’t seem to matter. That was until one day, I ran to her house to play and her mother wouldn’t let me in the house. I couldn’t understand why. She said that Clara is now a member of the Hitler Youth and she cannot play with Jewish children. That was the first experience I had where someone didn’t like me because I was of a certain religion,” Ruth Wachner Pagirsky, now 91-years-old, recalled as she sat at a table in her Belle Harbor home.
That memory was just the beginning of a harrowing story of how Pagirsky, a Jewish youth, endured World War II, and came out as a survivor of the Holocaust. She was the only one to live, out of her close family members. After the war was over and Pagirsky stepped foot in America on June 19, 1946, no one was interested in hearing her story. But it was the last words her father ever said to her that had carried her through horrendous hardships and later led her to share her story over and over again. “You my child shall live, you shall live to tell it all,” Jehoshua Wachner told her, as he kissed her goodbye, before being taken away by German guards in April 1942.
After gaining the courage to tell it, Pagirsky has made it her mission to share her story. She volunteers at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where she shares her story with visitors, makes school visits as a guest speaker, and in 2013, she published Memoirs, a written account of her story so that her family would have something to hold onto and a way to let her story live on.
Memoirs isn’t an easy read. It’s even harder hearing Pagirsky share her story in person, as she recalls the horrific details of her past. On May 9, a day after Pagirsky’s 91st birthday and the 72nd anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, she shared her story with The Rockaway Times.
Ruth Wachner was born in Berlin in 1926. Before the war, she had a happy, comfortable childhood with her brother, Benjamin, her mother, or Mutti Regina, and her father, Jehoshua. In the 1930s, as Adolf Hitler became more powerful, anti-Semitism became more apparent. Being told she couldn’t play with her Christian friend, Clara, was just the beginning.
Her father owned a company that was a large importer of rugs and he would often travel to places like Persia and Turkey for business purposes. It was common for him to send gifts from his travels back to his children. Pagirsky specifically remembers the dolls she received from different countries. In 1936, while her father was supposed to be on a business trip, she received a package. “I was so excited, thinking it was a new doll. I opened the box and found my father’s clothing, everything down to his underwear, completely soaked in blood,” she said. The clothes were accompanied with a note that read “Juden Raus”- “Jews Get Out.” A few weeks earlier, her father was approached by an employee who demanded that he hand over the rug business to him, simply because he was Jewish. Her father fired the man. Two weeks later, her father was on the way to the train station to go on a business trip, when he was arrested and taken to Camp Dachau, where he was beaten mercilessly. The box of bloody clothing was the first sign that something was wrong.
Shortly after, an SS Man, under Hitler’s rule, came to the family house and told them they had 48 hours to leave Germany. On May 2, 1936, Pagirsky, along with her brother and mother, were put on a train to Poland, where her parents' family lived, and where the anti-Semitism was even stronger. Despite the hatred, Pagirsky and her family were able to live a relatively normal life. Her father was released from Dachau and located his family. They lived together in an apartment in Katowice.
Aside from the hardships of war, Pagirsky faced personal struggles as a child who suffered from several illnesses. In August 1939, she became extremely ill with a fever, and became incapacitated. Doctors presumed it was polio or rheumatic fever and gave her two weeks to live. In September, as bombs rained down around them, living in Katowice became too dangerous. Her father was forced to assist the military because of his ability to drive. Pagirsky and the rest of her family had no choice but to relocate by horse and buggy. They made their way towards Krakow as Pagirsky’s condition worsened. As they came across a Catholic hospital along the way, Pagirsky’s mother pled that they help her ill daughter. A nurse told her, “There is no room for Jewish children.” A Jewish man came across Pagirsky’s crying mother and offered to let the family stay with him and his wife as Pagirsky recovered. After coming back from Temple one day, the man approached Pagirsky and called her a blessed child. The Catholic hospital near Krakow had been hit by a bomb, leaving several casualties.
After hearing Pagirsky’s story of survival, it seems that the man’s claim of Ruth being blessed, had some truth to it. “That’s what happened throughout my life in the war. There was always somebody who was sent to help me,” Pagirsky said. But it’s hard to believe she came out alive.
Pagirsky and her family eventually made their way to Brzostek, where her grandparents lived. Her grandmother, who was a healer, used natural remedies to nurse Pagirsky back to health, and she overcame her illness, despite being told she wouldn’t make it. The Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and the cavalry took over the town of Brzostek, forcing most Jewish families into a confined part of town, with several families living together in a few homes. Around Purim 1942, Pagirsky awoke to the sound of bullhorns. Everyone was forced out of bed and told to gather in the town square and get in groups of men and boys, women and young children, and the elderly. The men and boys were told they were needed for work and would return home shortly. Pagirsky watched as her brother, Benjamin, was herded onto a truck. Noticing that he didn’t have a jacket, she ran back to her house to grab it, wrapped it around a loaf of bread, and ran back to the truck to throw it to her brother. He blew her a kiss. In response to her action, an SS Man smashed Pagirsky in the face with the butt of his rifle, causing her to fall and crack her head on a cornerstone, and black out. That was the last time she saw Benno, as she called her brother.
A short time after, as the children were playing, the bullhorn boomed again and the children were told they would be taken to a place to be cared for as their parents would be taken to work in Germany. They started to be loaded onto trucks. Pagirsky watched as her little cousin Jeshiale, held onto his mother, with his arms around her neck, as a German guard pulled him off of her, and smashed his head into her grandfather’s house, killing him instantly.
She watched as Jewish men with beards were rounded up in the town square and forced to have their beard cut off. Her grandfather Bezalel was among them. A guard handed her grandmother a pair of scissors and told her to cut her husband’s beard. She refused, saying, “enough, no more” and spat in the face of the soldier. As Pagirsky’s mother held her tightly, she could hear two gunshots. Both her grandparents were killed right then and there. As bullets rang around them, Pagirsky’s mother told her to run. She ran as far as she could before tripping and falling into a ditch. She passed out due to fear. Pagirsky awoke to a heavy weight above her and clawed her way through the dirt to escape the ditch. The weight on top of her was from corpses.
Pagirsky had recalled her parents telling her to go to a Polish farm outside of town, had they ever been separated. There, she was reunited with her mother. The Germans came looking for her father, who had also managed to make his way to the farm, but they knew they couldn’t hide him forever. He was valuable since he had a drivers license. When the Germans took 10 hostages in exchange for Pagirsky’s father, he surrendered. Her father had an opportunity to say goodbye, and it was then that he kissed Ruth and whispered the words that carried her through. She never saw her father again.
Pagirsky, her mother and her cousin, Renie, were forced to leave the farm. After spending some time wandering around a nearby forest, they came across a fenced in area with barracks, where they saw people being dropped off. Thinking they might find some of their family members, they walked to the fenced in area and joined the others. They had just entered Camp Pustkow. As the occupants were asked to line up outside the barracks, Pagirsky, her mother and Renie joined, until someone realized they weren’t supposed to be there. A woman grabbed them and told them to go into the barracks and hide under the bed. It was Regina’s cousin, Mania Tugenthaft. For several weeks, Mania hid her family in the roof of the barrack. “It was a tin roof and it would get so hot during the day, that it was like being in an oven. You would get burned if you touched it,” Pagirsky recalled. Pagirsky became sick with dysentery and continuing to hide in the barrack became too great of a risk. Her Uncle Josef, who happened to be in another section of the camp, found out about the situation and decided to help her and her friend, Tuska, escape by creating fake birth certificates for them and urging them to go to Germany to live as Polish slave laborers. Ruth and Tuska were able to escape successfully, but her mother and Renie stayed behind. One of the last things Regina told Ruth was not to speak, because her German accent would reveal that she wasn’t from Poland.
Pagirsky held her tongue for three years as she worked on a farm in Kummelbacher Hof in Neckargemund, Germany. The farm was owned by I.G. Farben, the company that produced cyclone gas used in concentration camps, and it was operated by Catholic nuns. Pagirsky lived as a Christian and remained mute as she performed various duties as a slave laborer. The farm presented its own challenges, but the worst was when Pagirsky was sent into a nearby town to retrieve a clock in the spring of 1944. On her way back, she was gang raped by three German soldiers who had been drinking. “I lost faith in God after that. They left me on the road in my own blood. I started digging a hole, put my face in it, howled like an animal and said, ‘God, this is where I bury you. I couldn’t forgive him for what was done to me,” Pagirsky said.
Pagirsky wasn’t liberated until April 1945. A United States soldier had stepped out of a jeep and approached Pagirsky and her friend Tuska. Pagirsky noticed a Jewish star on the man’s cap. “The driver stepped out of the jeep and translated for the lieutenant who said the war was ending soon and we could stay or we were free if we wanted to go,” Pagirsky recalled. “That word ‘freedom’ was intoxicating.”
After the war had ended, Pagirsky found what had happened to her family. A man who claimed he had been at Auschwitz with her father and brother, tracked Pagirsky down. “He said, ‘Your father, every morning, led prayers and made sure that food was divided so that no one was without it. He was active in trying to create an escape route and somebody found out about it and reported it.’ On Yom Kippur, the holy holiday, my father was hanged as an example. My brother had to cut him down and dig a ditch. My father was thrown into the ground and my brother was shot and thrown into the same grave,” Pagirsky said. Many years later, she learned about what happened at Pustkow, where her mother and Renie were. Around Chanukkah in 1942, Pustkow was liquidated. Able-bodied workers were taken to another camp while the women and children were shot and thrown into a mass grave. “This is most likely what happened to my Mutti and Renie,” Pagirsky said.
After learning the fate of her family, Pagirsky vowed not to bring children into the world. One of the soldiers who liberated her, David Tanzman, convinced her otherwise. “He asked me, ‘And who will make this a better world?’ He told me the legend of Tikun Olam, which said there will always be 36 righteous people in the world whose purpose is to rebuild and repair it. ‘Who knows why you survived and what your offspring will do to better this world.’”
Despite enduring what she did, she remembers most, the people that showed kindness and helped her survive. “People can be good, there are good people always in the world.” Pagirsky went on to rebuild her life in America. She married her husband, Irving, found a home within Rockaway and went on to have three children, 12 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. Through her storytelling and book, Memoirs, they, and future generations will know what happened to Ruth Wachner Pagirsky during World War II. “Before I tell my story, I always say, ‘pappi, do you hear me?’ He gave me something to fight for by telling to me to tell it all. He gave me a mission. Each time before I speak, I tell him, Pappi, I’m doing it.”
Memoirs by Ruth Wachner Pagirsky, can be purchased on Amazon.BLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS