We are in a time of grieving right now, a time of uncertainty and sadness, and, for many, a time of mourning loved ones who have died from complications of COVID-19. As we are painfully aware, Holocaust survivors are in the highest risk group for this virus due to their age, and some have already died of it. We lament the loss of these members of our community. One such example is Ruth Bachner, whose childhood during World War II was both tragic and miraculous.
Ruth Bachner witnessed Kristallnacht as a child in Austria, an event she recalled as terrifying. She didn’t understand what was happening, except for the dawning realization that her parents wouldn’t be able to protect her.
From Austria, her father was able to escape to Belgium. Soon after he left, Ruth, her brother, and her mother were forced out of their apartment in Austria by the building’s young janitor wearing his SS uniform. The janitor moved into the apartment, which confused the young Ruth even further. How could that happen? Why would her mother allow it?
With forged passports, Ruth, her brother, and her mother boarded a train to Germany in January 1939 in the hopes of making it to Belgium for a reunion with Ruth’s father. Heading into Germany was terrifying, but it was the only way the family could get to the Belgian border. They crossed the border at night on foot. Ruth remembers hearing the German soldiers and their dogs howling in the distance.
An attempt to leave for America was stalled by Germany’s invasion of Belgium on the day Ruth’s family had an appointment at the American consulate. Ruth and her family, like all Jews, were made to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothes.
As living conditions and the political situation became more desperate, Ruth’s parents sent her to a convent and her brother to a Catholic orphanage – both under the direction of Father Bruno Reynders, a priest who saved nearly 400 Jews. Though Ruth felt abandoned by her parents at the time, she later understood that entrusting her and her brother to Father Reynders was an act of love.
Life in the convent was a challenge. Ruth spent much of the time worried that she would be found out by authorities. The nuns changed her name to Marie Renée Le Roi and told her to never divulge that she was Jewish.
After the war ended, Ruth wanted to become a nun, having been told at the convent that she would burn in hell if she wasn’t baptized. But her mother took her from the convent to be with the rest of the family. Though Ruth didn’t want to leave the convent initially, she left her affiliation with Catholicism behind when the family emigrated to the United States. As she said, “My father was a believer, who used to say he had a pact with the Almighty, and I’m a believer, too.” Her immediate family, as well as all four of her father’s siblings, her mother’s two siblings, survived the Holocaust. “What happened to my family was a true miracle.”
Ruth married Fred Bachner, a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau. Though Ruth didn’t talk much with her parents about their Holocaust experiences, or life before the Holocaust, she and her husband did share their life stories with each other. And in 1961, the couple watched the televised trial of newly captured SS leader Adolf Eichmann with their two young daughters. At first, Bachner wasn’t sure they should allow their daughters to watch, as both girls were under 11 years old. But her husband said they girls should watch, and that he and Ruth would answer any of their daughters’ questions.
In the late 1980s, Bachner and her husband took their children to visit concentration camps, as well as the Belgian convent where she lived in hiding. “We felt it was important to show our children and it was important for me to go back.” She described what happened at her family’s former apartment building in Vienna: “I was trembling as I rang the bell to our apartment. I saw it was the same janitor who had forced us out. I wanted to come in, but he would not allow me. He slammed the door in my face and I cursed him out in German.
“Somehow by expressing my anger at this man, who was himself only a teenager then, I felt cleansed in a way.”
Ruth Bachner died on May 11. May her memory be a blessing.