GLOVERSVILLE – The Knesseth-Israel Synagogue was filled Friday night as a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Luxembourg shared the story of how she and her family escaped from Europe.
Ruth Mendel, 81, of Bethlehem, does not like to characterize herself as a survivor of the Holocaust, she said, adding she was never a prisoner of the concentration camps.
As part of the Albany group Holocaust Survivors and Friends, she goes to schools, synagogues and other events to share her story.
Mendel spoke during the annual Holocaust Memorial Observance on Friday at the synagogue.
Ruth Levinton, president of the synagogue, said that as she grew up, their was no talk of the Holocaust, despite members of the community surviving it.
“As the years went by, survivors realized they had to speak and had to tell their story,” Levinton said.
“The passing of time makes it more and more emotionally difficult for survivors of the atrocities committed in the camps to speak about their experience,” Mendel said, going on that others can’t due to their old age or demise.
Along with the loss of people who experienced the Holocaust, Mendel said the increasing number of people who have publicly denied the Holocaust happened have spurred many people to speak out about their experiences.
On May 10, 1940, 9-year-old Mendel – who lived in Luxembourg – was woken by members of her family, telling her to rush and get dressed. Looking out the window of their apartment into the courtyard, she saw a “sea of khaki” as members of Luxembourg’s small army were mobilizing to meet Nazi Germany’s invading army. As their family made their way to her grandparents, she encountered her first incident of anti-semitism: A pastry chef who owned a shop in the building ran a thumb across his throat and said “now is going like this.”
Staying with her maternal grandparents, who owned a dry-goods store, Mendel said that she and her family lived through some of the increasing restrictions towards Jews in Luxembourg. After being forced to quit school, the closure of her grandparents’ store and increasing air battles between England’s Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe, Mendel’s parents bought exit visas in Brussels to make their escape.
“But it did not mean we could pack up, take what was important to us and leave,” Mendel said.
According to Mendel, the Germans said only clothing and a limited amount of cash could be brought, forcing the family to leave the rest behind.
Guarded by German soldiers, they were escorted by train to Paris, Spain and Portugal, where they were supported by family in America. Eventually they tried to enter the United States, despite the attempt to block their immigration due to the family’s Polish ancestry. At the time, America had a quota system for immigration, allowing a maximum of certain ethnic groups to enter.
“After nine months of waiting, and weekly visits to the American Embassy in Lisbon, my father was finally told we could immigrate to the United States,” Mendel said. They entered the United States in 1941.
Mendel said members of her family on her father’s side were killed in Poland during the occupation.
Many in the crowd found the presentation very touching.
“Very moving and very beautiful,” Alan Mendelsohn, of Broadalbin, said.
Levinton said the reason behind honoring the memory of those who passed was to ensure no other Holocaust would happen.
Levinton said her mother, a survivor of the Holocaust, said after the liberation that there was no way it could happen again.
“Now, I wish I could say what she said was true,” Levinton said.