Amanda Dryer '13 helped reunite two Holocaust survivors
Published: Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 23:05
January 26, 1939-Nazi Germany. The last boat leaves to America. On board: Therese "Terry" Hess. Left behind: family, including cousins Ruth and Rolf Hess. Some family members perished, while some survived. Some were missing, assumed dead. About 2 years ago, a month before Amanda Dryer's '13 grandmother, Terry Hess, passed away, Dryer inquired about a white box containing old photos, which had resided in her grandmother's closet for many years. Her grandmother, however, said that all of the people in the pictures had died, and she didn't want to talk about it. Dryer decided not to pry.
Last semester, Dryer took Prof. Anthony Polonsky's (NEJS) "The Destruction of European Jewry" course. One of the class assignments was to interview a Holocaust survivor, and Dryer decided to interview her grandmother's cousin Ruth Hess.
Ruth, who was born in 1931 in Malsch, Germany, was transported to Camp Gurs, a concentration camp in France, at the tender age of 10 along with her mother, father, maternal grandparents and other relatives.
A few months later, Quakers arrived at the concentration camp to save young prisoners, knowing what could potentially happen to them.
Ruth and her cousin Rolf Hess, who was born in 1935 in Malsch, were among the lucky ones who were taken to a French orphanage called Maison des Pupilles de la Nation. Ruth eventually came to America in 1947, while Rolf came in 1942.
After hearing Ruth's history, Dryer decided to look at the pictures that her grandmother had kept with her throughout the years. Dryer mentioned to Ruth that her grandmother "often spoke about a little boy who m she babysat for 10 cents a day." Ruth identified the little boy in the photos as her cousin Rolf.
"The last time [Ruth] heard, he came over on a refugee boat and stayed with his uncle in Ohio, but [she] hadn't spoken to him and didn't know what happened [to him]," Dryer said.
Rolf and Ruth hadn't tried getting in contact with each other because the Holocaust was something they didn't speak about, according to Dryer. Their lives continued on in America without much talk about their pasts.
"I went home and said, 'I'm going to find Rolf, because I have all these baby pictures of him and pictures of his mother and his family,'" Dryer explained.
To start, Dryer simply typed "Rolf Hess" into Google and unexpectedly found an article written in summer 2010 by the Holocaust Memorial Center in Michigan, telling of a Holocaust survivor named Rolf Hess who had come to the museum to find out more about his past.
Until then, Rolf had never spoken about his past or about escaping the terrors of the Holocaust.
"I was in the closet. What got me out of the closet was about 2 years ago; my granddaughter at school was asked if she knew of any immigrants who came over to the U.S. Up to that point, the only thing my family knew was that I was a survivor," Rolf said in a phone interview with the Justice.
Opening up to his family pushed Rolf forward into an investigation of his past, as well as sharing it with others.
"About 6 months or so ago, I went to the Holocaust [Memorial Center] in Michigan, and I had letters translated. ... The name Ruth came up, as well as other names, and of course I had no idea who Ruth or anyone else in the letters were," Rolf said.
He had only a few specific memories from the first 7 years of his life before he came to America, including the catastrophic light from the fires on the night of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, and his mother comforting him in his room. However, he did not remember Ruth.
After reading the article, Dryer contacted the museum, which put her in contact with Rolf.
Despite not remembering Ruth, Rolf agreed to meet her and Dryer. "So about 2 weeks ago Rolf and Ruth reunited. ... I was really nervous all day. ... I don't know why, it was a great thing to be doing," Dryer said.
"I went there without any expectations. ... I had no idea what to expect as to what [Ruth] looked like," Rolf said.
Dryer showed him the photos her grandmother had held on to. Prior to this rendezvous, he only possessed a few pictures of himself as a baby with his grandfather and mother. "I couldn't believe it," he said.
Rolf, his wife and three children visited Ruth and her husband at their apartment along with Dryer. "At the beginning of the reunion, it was as if two strangers were meeting," Dryer said.
The two reminisced about their life in Malsch, in Camp Gurs and in the French orphanage. "Rolf asked Ruth questions; since Rolf was so young in the orphanage he didn't remember that much," Dryer explained.
They talked about how they held on to their Jewish identities, even throughout their tumultuous childhoods.
"It was difficult at the beginning, but once they talked about their childhood more and more, they were comfortable with each other. They cried and hugged, [and] it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen," Dryer said.