I usually do not find cliche statements like “we should never forget” interesting or appealing. But in the late 1980s-early 1990s, I wrote several articles about the Holocaust with the theme “we should never forget.” The motivation for the articles was the death of a close New Hope friend, a Holcaust survivor, Danish born, Ragna Hamilton. It was also the time the United States Holocaust Museum was being built in Washington D C (dedicated in 1993). Around this time I also attended several teaching the Holocaust conferences with HGP students at the University of Pennsylvania. Featured were many survivors willing to tell their story. A few years before her death in 1989, Ragna came to Holy Ghost Prep and talked to my classes. In subsequent years I hosted other speakers. One of the most powerful was Leonard Bass, an African-American army officer, Bucks County educator who had been part of a unit that liberated camps.
Ragna’s story rushed back to me in June when I read an article in the Holocaust Museum’s newspaper. The article was a review of “Fiorello’s Sister: Gemma La Guardia Gluck’s Story.” Much to my surprise NY Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s sister was a survivor of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. The camp where Ragna spent about a year and a half. The author of the article was Rochelle G. Saidel, who had written a book “The Jewish Women of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.” She also is the founder and director of Remember the Women Institute — check out the website. I immediately looked in a wooden box full of Ragna’s papers that had been at HGP since the Yardley flood in 2004. There was an copy of a English draft of the memoir she published in Danish, “Det Knuste mig Aldrig” — in her English translation the title became “Luck Helps.”
Diane and I met Ragna and her English husband, Rodney when we lived in New Hope with the Pagliones in the early 1970s. We knew that she was a survivor but she never talked much about her experience until after Rodney’s death in 1977; and after the publication of her book in the mid 1980s. This was not an uncommon occurance. I vividly remember a survivor who spoke at HGP who started his talk explaining the first time he accepted an offer at Pennsbury High School to talk, he stood on the stage and broke down in tears. He had never told his story. Not even to family. After the first speech, he spoke often, so “we would never forget.”
In the 1980s (with Rodney gone) Ragna became a grandmother to our daughter Jenny. Many Sundays we visited her in New Hope. Jenny slept in a bedroom (beautiful quiet baby) and Ragna prepared us an elegant Scandanavian style brunch. We talked and we talked into the late afternoon. Conversations were about the war, the resistance, and Ravensbruck. We also learned of her meeting Rodney in Ireland, their adventure in Australia and how they eventually settled in New Hope. Politics was also always on the table. Ragna was quite political.
One year Diane, Jenny and I traveled to Denmark and spent a several days with Ragna in Copenhagen. What an experience. Another trip, Diane and I actually visited the Napoleonic fort in Ireland that Ragna and Rodney lived in, trying to raise pigs. A diary kept by Ragna at that time swung from emotional highs to thoughts of suicide seemingly timed by the Irish weather. Homesteading in a tent in Australia was no more successful that pig farming in Ireland, so they came to the United States. Florida, New Jersey, eventually New Hope where we met them — they were the only other straight residents of Old York Road in the early 1970s.
I wrote to Rochelle Saidel soon after reading her article in the US Holocaust Museum newspaper. I ordered her book “The Jewish Women of Ravensbruck” and “Fiorello’s Sister.” I eventually sent her an English copy of Ragna’s memoir and the articles I had written. Since then we have corresponded several times. She is currently in Israel — not the quietest part of the world. She has offered to help publish Ragna’s memoir in English — not an easy task. Publishers aren’t interested in another Holocaust memoir. But it is something I would really like to do. We should never forget.
Yesterday I finished reading Rochelle’s book. The title was intriguing, why “the Jewish women.” Ravensbruck was primarily a work camp for women. There was a Siemens factory nearby. Although there was a gas chamber, the camp’s main mission was not the extermination of Jews. Many of the prisoners were political, gypsies, or misfits. Few were labeled Jewish. Fortunately, although Ragna was Jewish, she was arrested in Marseille while part of the French resistance, and taken to Ravensbruck as a political prisoner. The title of the book and purpose of the Saidel’s website is to document the story of the Jewish women who passed through Ravensbruck. After the war when the camp became a memorial (let us not forget), the Russians told the story of the political prisoners, socialists, communists. Jewish women didn’t matter. Rochelle Saidel didn’t want the world to forget “the Jewish women of Ravensbruck.”
Most of her book is based on interviews supplemented with some written material. Rochelle met many Ravensbruck survivors during and after the 50th anniversary reunion in 1995. Although Ragna returned to the camp for reunions, she had died before the 50th Anniversary, she is not a character in Rochelle’s book. But many of the women’s stories bring back memories of Ragna’s experience.
There are many stories from the book I wou ld like to share. But before I do that, I want to re-read Ragna’s memoir. I want to read Gemma La Guardia’s book and several other Ravensbruck memoirs I have recently purchased. I am also planning a trip to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. I have been there several times on HGP class trips (unfortunately there have been no trips in recent years). But a visit now will offer new perspective for me and Diane has never been there. Years ago, I sent the Museum an English draft of her memoir and I believe a Danish edition. But I want to integrate or relate Ragna’s experience with the stories of other survivors. I want to make sure her story is not forgotten. Cliche, maybe, but I do believe we should never forget. More later.