Never Again

 

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“Never Again Begins With You” was the title of a pamphlet I picked up at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.  last week. Although I had been to the museum quite few times, on HGP field trips, Diane had never been there.  Our motivation for the trip  was a desire to revisit the story of Ragna Hamilton, a Danish Holocaust survivor we met in the 1970s when we lived in New Hope.  Ragna became a close friend and almost a grandmother to our daughter, Jenny.

Ragna’s story and friendship, totally altered how we viewed the Holocaust. The phrases, “We shall never forget” and “Never Again Begins With You”  now have layers of meaning.

A discovery several months ago of Rachel Saidel’s book and website “The Jewish Women of Ravensbruck” sparked a renewed interest in the Holocaust and more specifically Ragna’s story.  Although Ragna’s  memoir, “Det Knuste Mig Aldrig” was published in Danish, Diane and I hope we might publish an English edition. Where to start but a visit to the Holocaust Museum.

We spent an entire rainy/snowy day at the museum.  Before a ride to the fourth floor in a cold, gray steel elevator, you take an “identification card.”  My card read, “Jermie Adler, Czechoslovakia.  He lived in Belgium, was Jewish, and was arrested by the Gestapo.  Although he lived, most of his family were killed.  Diane’s card was for Nina Szuster, born 1929 in Rokitnoye, Poland.  Germans occupied her town and “immediately gathered the local Jews into a few houses . . . One night the Germans suddenly began dragging people out of our houses . . . I tried to get some clothes but a Germen grabbed me . . . I tore myself away and ran . . . Then I heard a shot: my uncle was dead.  I saw an open window and jumped out. Fortunately, it was foggy, so no one saw me slip through the barbed wire. ” Nina joined Ukraninian partisans, studied in Moscow, and in 1947 emigrated to the United States.

As we tour the museum, I increasingly realized how the Holocaust is a collection of stories — hundreds, thousands, millions. Each is important.  Ragna’s is one.  We shall never forget.

On previous visits, I was with a few hundred High School students — they move through pretty quickly.  On this trip Diane and I move slowly, watching every video, reading each sign.  Historical information I have heard before jumps out.  Wow.  The Christian church was extremely anti- Semitic.  In art work, Jews were depicted as Devils.  Martin Luther was anti-Semitic.  And then Hitler’s rise to power.  Was it quick — a corporeal in the Army, a political activist, Chancellor, Dictator.  So quick.

There are some parts of the exhibit that really interested me.  The 1936 Olympics, the German blitz, genetic research.  As I move along, I recall Scott Ralston’s fascination and reading of  “The Rise and Fall of the Third Riech”  or my first reading of “Exodus” and  “Mila 18” by Leon Uris.  I can’t watch much of the movie footage of the liberation — Russian, English and American cameras.  It’s too much and none of  it is from Ravensbruck, Ragna’s camp.  I do like the Memorial Hall, Diane and I both light a candle  in Ragna’s memory.

The museum has a registry of Holocaust survivors. Ragna is listed.  Control number 00078155.  Family number 00094416.  Are these shadow reminders of the numbers tattooed on camp inmates’ arms. Ragna is listed as  Ragna Fischer Horwitz, Copenhagen, Denmark, Marseille, France and Ravensbruck, Germany. I think I registered her in the 1970s.    But they did not have a record of her memoir — Danish book or English translation.   I am pretty certain that I sent a copy but the librarian was extremely open and friendly and I will get them a copy of the English translation and someday the Danish book.  We left with a copy of Ragna’s arrest record– in German of course, I need a translation, and her name on  list of  Ravensbruck prisioners.

In the 1980s I had Ragna come to HGP to speak.  She had just published her memoir and was willing to talk about her experience.  For a number of years I attended workshops on Holocaust education and began to bring survivors to HGP to speak.  I remember Jack who told how he broke down crying the first time he spoke at Pennsbury High School. He had never even discussed the Holocaust with his family. And there was Leonard Bass, an African American Army officer that was part of the unit that liberated Austerwitz.  Each story was a moving and memorable experience.  After Ragna’s death,  the  Holocaust Museum opened,  I visited, contributed, registered Ragna and got on their mailing list.  I wrote several newspaper articles about her.  Now decades later, my involvement continues to twist.  “Never Again Begins With You.”

I hope soon to re-read Ragna’s memoir.  Diane and I will enter it in a computer, edit it, and maybe someday see it published in English.  “We shall never forget.”

 

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We should never forget

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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.

 

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