‘You feel the presence of who’s alive’: How 15 San Diegans who survived the Holocaust are sharing their stories
The RUTH Exhibit intends ‘to wake you and shake you,’ its curator says. Now some are calling for it or a similar local exhibit to be made permanent.
On June 7, 1941 — his 13th birthday — Ben Midler watched as Nazis occupied his hometown of Bialystok, Poland, fill the synagogue with people and set it ablaze.
In the years to come, Midler would survive six concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He would be the only member of his family left after the war ended.
What have helped him survive, he says, have been hope and a mantra: “Yesterday is gone, today is today and tomorrow will be a better day.”
Midler, now 95, has since dedicated his life to educating others about the Holocaust.
He is among 15 of San Diego’s Holocaust survivors who are sharing their stories with younger generations through an exhibit at the Rancho San Diego Library in El Cajon.
At the RUTH — Remember Us the Holocaust — exhibit, on display until May 2024, life-sized cardboard cutouts allow visitors to stand next to survivors as they walk through the exhibit. The cutouts are accompanied by artifacts from the time and details on the history of what happened during World War II.
“It’s very important to share our stories so people can know what happened and make sure it never, ever happens again,” said survivor Anita Fuchs.
The exhibit focuses specifically on the living survivors who found refuge and started a new life in San Diego.
Darren Schwartz, chief planning and strategy officer for the Jewish Federation of San Diego, said that educating people only about the history of WWII doesn’t do the Holocaust full justice.
“We have over 6 million Jews that were killed — but those that survived, many went on to thrive, and they become examples to everyone about resilience,” he said. “This is about learning from our past and who we want to be as a society.”
‘It was so unbelievably shocking in the moment — and even more shocking was the silence of every single commissioner and county staff,’ said one local Jewish leader who attended the meeting where antisemitic remarks were made
The exhibit’s curator Sandra Scheller was inspired by her late mother, Ruth Goldschmiedova Sax, who was herself a survivor, and created the exhibit in her memory.
“As you go through the exhibit, you feel the presence of who’s alive,” Scheller said. “The idea is to wake you and shake you.”
As viewers walk through the exhibit, they are met with a replica of the entrance to Auschwitz, as well as a sign bearing the infamous message “arbeit macht frei” — “work sets you free.” Above also hangs a cardboard replica of a boxcar in which the Nazis would transport people to camps.
At the very back is a separate room, called TRUTH, that shares the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. A video of Scheller’s mother telling her story plays as viewers look at blown-up photos of the conditions in the camps, as well as a gas chamber and barrels that read “giftgas,” or poison.
“In this room, the photos tell the stories,” Scheller said.
As more than a dozen seniors from the La Costa Glen retirement community in Carlsbad visited this week, some were surprised to learn that five of the survivors featured were their neighbors.
“These are our friends,” one woman could be heard telling another.
Scheller began leading a tour of the exhibit by recounting the stories of each of the Holocaust survivors, including Mike and Manya Wallenfels, who met in Hungary after separately fleeing the Nazis and hiding to avoid capture.
Manya Wallenfels spoke directly to her neighbors, urging them to bring their grandchildren. “You can never forget what happened,” she said.
Fuchs teared up as Scheller recalled how when she was a young child in Romania her mother would tell her to hide under the bed whenever anyone knocked.
“It means a lot to me to realize that people don’t want to forget the worst parts of our history,” Fuchs added. “And it’s a good thing for the new generation to learn about what Jewish people went through.”
The exhibit was made possible by the county Board of Supervisors, who last year approved putting $25,000 in Neighborhood Reinvestment Program funding toward helping the Jewish Federation of San Diego pay for it.
“It’s all about teaching the Holocaust not so much from my perspective … or my dad or mom’s … but so that lessons can be learned so that it never happens again to any minority group,” said Bob Gans, whose parents both survived the Holocaust.
Mike Wallenfels is among those who agree that the exhibit or another local one that commemorates the Holocaust should be made permanent.
My grandmother had worn the dress in Auschwitz and in Oederan (a work camp). She had worn it on a death march and in a Nazi cattle car.
“There’s a real hunger for something permanent in San Diego,” added Schwartz. “Other major cities in the country have a Holocaust museum or exhibit, and we don’t really have that here.”
The Jewish Federation this month launched a committee to explore the possibility of creating a public monument or mobile museum or education center to share the history and lessons of the Holocaust locally.
The RUTH exhibit can be seen during business hours at the Rancho San Diego Library, located at 11555 Via Rancho San Diego in El Cajon. Tours are also available from 10 a.m. to noon Thursdays upon request.
For more information, contact the county’s Arts and Culture Commission at email@example.com.
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