Survivor offers instructive ‘look backward’

Survivor offers instructive ‘look backward’

Mayor: Shoa memorial designed to ensure end of bigotry and racism

At Newark’s Holocaust Remembrance Day observance, Ruth Ravina holds a proclamation issued in her honor by Mayor Ras Baraka — who called her “an eloquent voice for those who can no longer speak” — surrounded by other survivors
At Newark’s Holocaust Remembrance Day observance, Ruth Ravina holds a proclamation issued in her honor by Mayor Ras Baraka — who called her “an eloquent voice for those who can no longer speak” — surrounded by other survivors

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka honored Holocaust survivor Ruth Ravina with a plaque and a speech, calling her “a resilient, eloquent voice for those who can no longer speak about these horrors and an inspiration for future generations to create a world free of bigotry, racism, and genocide.”

His remarks came during the city’s 29th annual Holocaust Remembrance Day on May 27 in the auditorium of the Newark Museum.

Citing an African proverb, the mayor said, “In order to go forward you have to look backward. We need to take a look at what happened and make sure it never happens again — not just to the Jewish community but to any community in the world.” 

With remembrance of the Holocaust, Baraka said, comes a realization of “how easy it is to devolve into a situation where we become our brother’s oppressor, not our brother’s keeper. The logical end to intolerance and racism is always genocide.” 

Slowly and deliberately, Ravina spoke for more than an hour, beginning her story with her birth in 1937 in Kozienice, Poland. 

After Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and her parents were imprisoned in slave labor camps, Ravina was protected by grandparents and cousins. Her grandmother stashed her in an unlit oven when German troops pounded at her door. “Luckily they didn’t find me, but you can imagine how petrified I was,” she said.

At the age of four-and-a-half, she sneaked into the camp where her mother was incarcerated. Her mother hid her small daughter in a backpack, and stuffed clothes around her to prevent her detection. “Had I been discovered, every one of the women in that barracks would have been punished,” she said. “They were all heroes. They were women — from the doctor’s wife to the laundress — who used to come to my grandmother’s laundry. Nobody snitched.”

In a second camp, she hid under the floorboards of the barracks with the rats that became her pets. “I named them, I identified them, and sometimes they would bring food back — and I was always hungry.” 

Ravina watched as the rats would grab half-eaten apples and scraps of sandwiches tossed away by camp guards. She, too, would seize the remnants of the soldiers’ meals, until one day she was caught.

“I was taken to a camp commander who had a horrible reputation. He had this horse-sized dog named Mensch at his side, and Mensch always went for the jugular,” she said. She was sure the dog would be ordered to attack her, but instead, the Nazi forced her to sit on the floor below him at meals and catch in her teeth scraps of food he would throw at her.

Several weeks later SS troops arrived to round up the children and take them to be killed and buried in a mass grave. Ravina jumped off the truck and ran. “I didn’t know where the hell I was running,” she said. Then she spotted a woman walking toward her, who hid her inside her cape. The woman, a nurse at the camp, brought the child to the infirmary. “She is one of the angels who saved me,” said Ravina. 

Shortly thereafter, the prisoners discovered that the daily train scheduled to take them to extermination at Auschwitz had stopped running, and there were no longer guards manning the watchtowers. The inmates spotted fires indicating that the Russians were battling the Nazis a few miles away. 

When their camp was finally liberated, some 350 women had survived, including Ravina’s mother, who placed her daughter in an orphanage “so that I wouldn’t have to starve.” Once they received word that her father had been killed when an American bomber plane blew up a Nazi train bound for the death camp at Birkenau, she and her mother moved to Lodz.

After the war, Ravina left Soviet-occupied Poland for Sweden, then Canada, and, eventually Manhattan. She attended night school at City College and began volunteer work at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. There she met her husband, Polish-born Oscar Ravina, a violinist with the New York Philharmonic and a professor at Montclair State University until his death in 2010.

Ravina lives in Montclair and has two children and seven grandchildren.

As he opened the program, Newark real estate developer Miles Berger told some 200 middle and high school students in the audience the observance was designed “so that as you grow up and mature and eventually become the future leaders of this city, this state, and this country you will be able to pass down what you learned here today about the Holocaust so that the world will not let this enormous tragedy ever happen again.”

Then Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, led seven survivors and a Catholic nun, Sister Victoria Robinson, in the lighting of candles commemorating the victims of the Nazis. Robinson was a student of Sister Rose Thering, who challenged and forced the revision of her church’s one-time anti-Semitic teachings.

The Apprentice Chorus of the Newark Boys Chorus School, whose students study the Holocaust as part of their curriculum, performed two musical numbers. Steven Kern, director and CEO of the museum, and Rabbi Levi Block of Chabad of Newark also participated in the program.

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