Early one morning in July, Ruth Rosenfeld was awakened by her telephone ringing. The call was from the Israeli embassy in Poland, announcing that the Christian woman who rescued Rosenfeld from the Shoa had been selected as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.
“It was news I had been waiting to hear for a long time,” Rosenfeld, 69, told NJJN in an interview in her home in Interlaken. “They invited me to attend the ceremony in Poland, just three weeks away. My first groggy response was, how can I go on such short notice?”
But, said Rosenfeld, “it soon became clear to me that if Julia Wala was being honored, how could I not go?”
Rosenfeld’s husband, Gerald, and their children, Ginni, 46, Aaron, 43, and David, 42, scrambled to make arrangements so they could accompany her.
On Aug. 1 at the Jewish center in Bielsko-Biala, the Rosenfelds met the family of the late Julia Wala, who hid three-year-old Rosenfeld for two years in her small farmhouse in Buczkowice until the war ended. Rosenfeld’s sister Helen, a year older than Ruth, was also hidden in a nearby home by Julia’s sister Anna.
The girls’ parents, Aaron and Sara Kriczer, perished. After the war, the sisters were brought to displaced persons’ camps in Prague, then France. They were adopted by an American couple, the late Eleanor and Sam Banker, and moved to Interlaken in 1949, where both sisters still live.
Helen’s daughter, Tami Berman of Fair Lawn, and several of Ruth’s cousins and friends from Israel joined the Rosenfeld family in Poland.
Ruth’s and Julia’s families met in a tearful encounter that David described as “beyond amazing.” Ruth’s emotional speech to the 90 guests and dignitaries present was translated into Polish, a language she and her sister lost.
“I am grateful beyond words for the kindness and compassion that Julia Wala displayed in risking her life and the lives of her family in order to protect me,” Ruth told the audience. “Julia’s courage not only saved my life, it has also enabled me to live with optimism and hope because I was blessed to experience goodness even in that time of horror.”
Ruth told the gathering she regrets never having had the chance to thank Julia, who died before she was able to locate her. “I look around me today, and I see Julia’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who might not have been born had she been caught, and I see my children, who would not have been born had she not taken me in.
“How many souls are not here because there weren’t more Julias?”
‘Perpetuate the legacy’
Before presenting the Yad Vashem certificate of honor to Julia’s granddaughter, Halina Macher, Ruth spoke about the responsibility “to perpetuate the legacy that Julia has left us; that each of us has the power and the obligation to make a difference in the world.”
For the Rosenfelds, the weeklong trip was also an opportunity to discover landmarks from their family history. They visited Ruth’s parents’ house, which still has a magen David etched into the wood door; the grave of her grandmother; and the houses where she and her sister were hidden. They attended a festive gathering at Julia’s granddaughter’s house, just two doors down from where Ruth was hidden.
They also visited Auschwitz, where Ruth’s mother was killed. Ruth’s father was shot while trying to escape with his daughters to Czechoslovakia. An innkeeper friend of the family, whose identity Ruth is still trying to uncover, took in the girls until they were moved to the farm village of Bielsko-Biala.
“Seeing these sights and the bridge where my mother and her sister met every day when they were in hiding brought all the abstract stories to life,” said David. “It gave me a real sense of identity.”
Throughout her life, Ruth said, she has always guarded herself against sorrow by keeping her feelings at bay. Her children said they were deeply touched by their mother’s expressions of emotion throughout the trip.
Ruth wept as she and her family recited prayers in front of the house where she was hidden, and she broke down at the gravesite of her rescuer while reciting the El Malei Rahamim.
The trip also provided a sort of closure. “My mom is a very empathetic person who cares deeply about people,” said David. “She is driven to do good for others, partly because of the good that was done to her. It was very gratifying to see her give thanks for her salvation in such an emotional way.”
In the flood of photographers and reporters at the ceremony, the Wala family was overwhelmed with pride. “It was so nice to see that the values Julia had are very much a part of their family’s values. It really was unbelievable to see our families together,” said Aaron, who lives in West Long Branch and serves as executive director of the Ruth Hyman JCC in Deal.
“There is a lot that has changed within me from this experience of seeing my mother’s roots. I’m still processing it all,” said Ginni, a physician who lives in Los Angeles.
The Rosenfelds attended Shabbat services at the 457-year-old Ramah Synagogue in Cracow, the only Polish synagogue in use today. They witnessed the resurgence of Jewish culture in the city, which boasts a Jewish community center and a flurry of Jewish-style restaurants. They also visited a Jewish museum in Ruth’s hometown, Wadowice.
“I feel relieved and satisfied that I accomplished this mission of recognizing Julia,” Ruth said. “It’s been a long process of uncovering our past, and I am thrilled that my family was with me to share this experience.”