Over fried rice and chicken with broccoli, a six-year project to document Ruth Ravina’s tale of survival came to a close.
Denny Klein of North Caldwell, his wife Cathy, 17-year-old twin daughters Evie and Rebecca, son Joey, and Ruth Ravina of Montclair enjoyed a meal at T.S. Ma’s, the Chinese restaurant in Upper Montclair they often frequent together on Sunday evenings. But this time Brendan Rosen was filming them sitting with John Wohlstetter from the Billy Rose Foundation, a major benefactor, and people associated with the project were at the other tables. Rosen’s shots on this Thursday afternoon will form the last scene in a documentary about Ravina’s experience.
“It’s a heroic tale, an odyssey that she goes through and it tells our whole story … from the point of view of a little child,” said Klein, 68.
When Evie and Rebecca were 11 and preparing for their b’not mitzvah, they decided to participate in the Twin with a Survivor program of the Holocaust Council of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, launched in the early 2000s, which has had hundreds of participants to date. Then-director Barbara Wind, who has since retired, paired them with survivor Ravina. Usually, participants spend a year with a survivor and move on. That didn’t happen here.
When Denny heard about Ravina’s life from his daughters in June 2013, he knew immediately that he wanted to record her. “I realized Ruth has a significant story that needed to be told,” he said. Within a few months he started raising money, arranging for additional interviews, gathering photos, and bringing on a production partner.
The South Orange native was a child actor, worked briefly in Hollywood after college, and has been a member of the Screen Actors Guild since 1968, but now he works for his family’s insurance and risk management business.
Learning about Ravina caused his creative impulses to return. He started the filming himself, but ultimately hired production professionals to help with the filming and editing. He estimates that the project costs about $100,000.
They filmed in different locations, including Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove — where the Kleins are members — a film studio, their home, even the schools where Ravina spoke. In the process, she grew close with the Kleins. The girls call her their grandmother, and Denny said it’s like having another mother.
Both girls talk about the influence she’s had on their lives.
“Since I’ve met Ruth I’ve grown as a person,” said Evie. “She’s taught me how to be loving and empathetic and to see the world through her eyes.” Evie has worked on the Holocaust Council, mostly arranging speaking engagements for Ravina, and she offers free tutoring to her peers. She also hopes to go into politics one day to create a more just world. “I realized my passion for community service and public service through Ruth,” she said. “She taught me, you know, if you see a problem, fight against it, solve the problem.”
Rebecca said that the choices she makes — everything from the food she eats and the clothes she wears to her decision to fight for animal rights and human rights, and her efforts to “spread love” through art — comes from seeing the world through Ruth-colored glasses.
Ravina was 2 when Nazis arrived in her hometown of Kozienice, Poland, in 1939. Now 82, she remembers in vivid detail the horrors that ensued, and shares them with countless schools, synagogues, churches, mosques, and other organizations. Her motto, which she shares when she speaks, is “Remember and tell.”
When her parents were sent to a labor camp, a local farm family hid her for a while, but when they became too afraid, she snuck into the camp to be with her mother, who hid her in a backpack. She was 4. Together they moved to two other camps. At one point Ravina was rounded up with other children to be killed, but she jumped off the truck and ran. Through what seemed like impossible luck, a woman in a cape approached her as she was running and saved the girl by hiding her in that cape.
Sometimes she describes the screams of mothers as 200 teenage boys were shot as revenge for the killing of a single Nazi officer, and her father trying to muffle the sound so she couldn’t hear. Sometimes she describes how her grandmother hid her in an unlit oven as Nazis banged on the door of their home, or how, while hiding under the floorboards of barracks in a camp, she shared her living quarters with rats.
By the time Russians liberated the third camp Ravina and her mother were in, she was 8, her father was dead, and she was the only surviving child from Kozienice.
She and her mother made their way to the United States through Sweden, settling in Manhattan. Ravina attended City College and married Oscar, a violinist with the New York Philharmonic and professor at Montclair State University, and eventually the couple moved to Montclair.
They raised two sons, but she did not share her story publicly until after Oscar’s death in 2010. But she had always held onto the details of her story. “It’s a horrible thing to remember,” she told NJJN during the filming at T.S. Ma’s. “But definitely I was not going to forget.”
Ravina has been filmed before. For example, Michael Yashinsky of the Yiddish Book Center of America filmed an interview with her in 2016 as part of the Center’s Wexler Oral History Project. But that project, which is on YouTube, is partially in Yiddish. Denny Klein hopes his film, entirely in English, will be widely accessible. It includes interviews with Holocaust professors, relatives, and others, like Wind, as well as Ellen Goldner, a former federation president who met Ravina on a mission to Poland.
Goldner, Wind, and other people affiliated with the project, including benefactor Marcia Robbins-Wilf, were on hand at the restaurant as extras, filling the tables.
Rosen, the cameraman, kept his eye trained on Ravina throughout the meal.
When post-production is complete — Klein estimates it will take a few months — Klein hopes it will interest film festivals, historians, educators, and, of course, the general public.
Whatever happens, many of those familiar with Ravina’s story are thrilled it will be preserved. “It’s phenomenal that Denny’s doing it, because the way to keep the stories of the survivors alive is through documentaries, and through plays, and through feature films, and through books,” said Wind. “Otherwise the stories are going to fade.”