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Bearing witness to history - Couple recounts Holocaust horrors for Brooklyn students

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It was a history lesson the students won’t soon forget.

Two Holocaust survivors recounted their miraculous personal stories during a special assembly on May 8 at I.S. 187 in Dyker Heights.

Jack and Ruth Gruener, a married couple now living in Mill Basin, were invited to the school at 1171 65th Street.

Then a young girl, Ruth Gruener was kept hidden for years—allowing her to escape the Nazi killing spree in her native Poland.

Her husband Jack, who she met after the war, also survived unimaginable horrors. He endured both concentration camps and death marches.

A group of more than 300 eighth-grade students listened intently as the Holocaust survivors told their stories.

I.S. 187 has hosted the Grueners for the past three years. The school hosts the event each year to coincide with children studying the Holocaust and also Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Ruth Gruener told the student assembly that revisiting the dreadful experiences of her childhood was painful and that telling her story gave her nightmares, “but it is so important for you young people to know what happened.”

Ruth attributed her survival during the Holocaust to several “miracles.”

In 1941 the situation in Ruth’s hometown of Lvov was dire. The Germans had established a ghetto and the so-called “deportations” were underway.

“My life was saved by a Polish Christian family,” Mrs. Gruener told the students.

Friends of Ruth’s parents agreed to smuggle young Ruth into their home and hide her. The family did this, knowing that if the Nazis discovered their scheme, they would all be killed.

For the next eight months, the then seven-year-old girl hid in the bedroom of a teenager by the name of Joanna Zalucka.

“If visitors came to the house, I’d hide under the bed,” Ruth said.

She said she was only allowed to speak in a whisper and was forbidden from looking out of any windows.

Over time, Ruth became pale and emaciated. She spent so much time silent and immobilized that she had to relearn how to walk and talk.

After eight months with the first family, Ruth was reunited with her parents who had been hidden with a different family.

“It was easier,” Ruth said, “because at least I had someone to talk to.”

Her family remained hidden for another two years.

While she and her parents survived the Holocaust, her entire extended family was killed.

“I lost my family, my cousins, everybody,” Ruth told the group. “I have a photo of my kindergarten class and I am the only child that survived.”

After the war, Ruth and her family moved to Germany and later to Brooklyn.

She married her husband Jack, also a Holocaust survivor, in Brooklyn in 1953.

His survival story and path to freedom is perhaps even more harrowing.

“I survived ten concentration camps and two death marches,” Jack told the students at I.S. 187.

“Even today, I can’t figure out how I survived everything,” he said.

Jack Gruener was only 13 when both of his parents were murdered in the Krakow ghetto.

Speaking to the students at I.S. 187, he recounted one harrowing death march from Poland to Germany.

“We had wooden shoes with no socks and a uniform that provided no warmth,” he told the group. “I didn’t have a coat. It was the beginning of winter. We marched for 14 days.”

Marchers were not given anything to drink, he said. Each person was given a single lump of bread as their only nourishment for the long march.

“You had to divide your piece of bread for the 14 days,” Jack said.

Prisoners who fell ill or who lagged behind were slaughtered, Jack said.

He also described a time when he and a large group of prisoners were packed into open train cars to be transported between camps.

“We were loaded like animals,” Jack said.

“You had to sleep standing up, but the heat from the other bodies is what kept us alive,” he recounted.

Mr. Gruener said snow fell down onto the group. Starving and desperately thirsty, the prisoners would eat the snow.

“We don’t tell you these stories to scare you,” Jack Gruener said. “In the future, do not let these things happen. You can’t let people kill people.”

After a rousing round of applause, science teacher Sara Schmerler thanked the Grueners for sharing their stories. Schmerler helped organize the visit.

“Hopefully you’ve all learned a lesson today about tolerance,” Schmerler said.

“You can take this knowledge to work together to make sure that this never happens again,” she said.

Ruth and Jack Gruener have been volunteering for the past 10 years and frequently visit area schools to educate students about the Holocaust.

Ruth Gruener has written a book about her experiences. “True Story of a Child in The Holocaust: Destined to Live” has been published by Scholastic and will be available in bookstores later this year.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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