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Photo of child survivor aids in her teaching
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Photo of child survivor aids in her teaching

Educator is in iconic picture of youngsters liberated at Auschwitz

Among the iconic photographs from the Holocaust, there is one that shows child survivors of Auschwitz pulling up their sleeves to show the numbers tattooed on their arms. Since the start of her career, Sarah Ludwig, a survivor who has been teaching in Jewish educational settings for more than four decades, used the photo when teaching children about the Shoa. It helped connect them to the story, but there was another reason, too: “Whenever I looked at the little girl in the front, I felt a connection, something very powerful — I didn’t know why,” she said.

In the early 1980s, Ludwig finally mentioned the photo and her feelings about it to her father, Leon Racimora, who was active in survivor circles in the Bronx. “That’s you,” he said. “I told you about the picture a long time ago.”

She had evidently buried that piece of information, but since then, that visual record of a time she can barely remember turned out to be a treasured asset for Ludwig. A teacher with a degree from Kean University and a certificate in special education, she had long been committed, as she put it, “to instilling the love of Hebrew and Eretz Yisrael in my students.” She taught at the Bohrer-Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County, now in Randolph, for 36 years, and at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, the Reform synagogue in South Orange. She is now Learning Center coordinator at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, where she lives with her husband, Bill, and where she also teaches adults preparing for their b’nei mitzva.

She had always worked hard to promote knowledge of the Holocaust. Knowing that she was a central figure in that picture gave her a way to do more than tell her students she was a witness to the tragic events and use the photo as a dramatic image from that time; she could also give them visual proof.

Ludwig is 73 now, with a grown son and daughter and four grandchildren. In 2002 she was a recipient of a Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. Together with the rest of the Family Education team at Beth Shalom, she was honored by the Conservative movement for their Shabbat Museum, a program they created and presented to the congregation.

In addition to her responsibilities at Beth Shalom, she also works with Elizabeth Best, giving joint presentations to schoolchildren across the region. Best, who lives in Westfield, was the principal at Sharey Tefilo-Israel when Ludwig worked there, and they have been friends ever since. In recent months, they have addressed groups together at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, at Temple Emanu-El in Edison, and at Princeton Day School in Princeton, combining PowerPoint presentations and history with Ludwig’s vivid personal anecdotes.

“There are still people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened,” Ludgwig said, shaking her head, talking in her home. Spread out on the table in front of her and Best were photographs of Ludwig’s parents and grandparents from before the war, when they lived in Radom in Poland.

Among the faces, there are some who didn’t survive, including her grandmother and her great-uncle Schmulik. It was he, as a Jewish policeman in the Radom ghetto, who warned her parents about the imminent liquidation. The two had been sent to the nearby Pionki labor camp, leaving Sarah in Schmulik’s care. Her father managed to get back to the ghetto with a truck. Aided by friends and, apparently, a German soldier, he hid Sarah in a sack, and piled it on the truck with a load of potatoes. When they reached the relative safety of Pionki, she was tossed out with the other sacks, into her father’s arms.

In August 1944, when Sarah was four, the family was sent to Auschwitz. “I remember being on the train, one of the ones they used for cattle,” she said. “It was very hot and there were no facilities. It smelled bad.” She remembers crying in her mother’s embrace as numbers were tattooed on their arms. It hurt, but probably not as much as the separation that came next — though she doesn’t remember that part. After liberation the following year, she was sent with other children to an orphanage in Cracow. Her mother and grandfather, astonishingly reunited on the same train, came there searching for her. They found her father being cared for at an American Air Force base in Germany.

The family moved from one country to another, finally ending up in Israel in 1949. They lived there for five years. By 1954, when they came to the United States, Sarah could speak Polish, Yiddish, French, and Hebrew. She was fairly fluent in English within a year.

She settled into her new life easily, but she was astounded by how little her classmates knew about the war. “When they saw I was a Holocaust survivor, they looked at me with blank faces,” she said. And when their questions about the number on her arm became too distressing, her parents took her to a doctor to have it removed. The scar is a smooth, glossy patch on her inner forearm — yet another reminder of the events she is determined no one should forget.

She said, “We have to make sure that when the survivors are no longer here, there are others who know enough to make people aware that the Holocaust really did happen.”

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