The story of Holocaust survivors who lived, married, moved to Israel

It is difficult to ask someone who survived the Warsaw ghetto to tell an abridged version, so I settle back and listen. 

 NOW. (photo credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)
NOW.
(photo credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)

My interview with Ruth and Shlomo Berlinger at the Beit Moses assisted living facility in Jerusalem is scheduled for 2 p.m. and I am running late, which makes me nervous because Ruth, by the sound of her voice on the phone, seems like a prompt, businesslike person. We meet in the lobby, and I apologize for my tardiness, but she smiles and says, “In Israel, coming 10 minutes late is practically being on time.” 

Petite and energetic at age 90, Ruth briskly leads me to the apartment she shares with her husband Shlomo, 92. Although she uses a walker, she maintains a no-nonsense pace. Entering their airy and spacious apartment, Shlomo is sitting at the computer and greets me in the living room.

Ruth and Shlomo Berlinger have lived through one of the most dramatic – and traumatic – periods in Jewish history, in a story that includes love, war, rescue and redemption.

“Do you want me to tell a short or a long story?” asks Ruth. It is difficult to ask someone who survived the Warsaw ghetto to tell an abridged version, so I settle back and listen. 

 THEN, ON their wedding day. (credit: Courtesy Berlinger family) THEN, ON their wedding day. (credit: Courtesy Berlinger family)

RUTH PIZYC was born in Warsaw in 1931. Her sister, Miriam, was nine years her senior. Ruth’s father, who had a successful lumber business, came from a wealthy hassidic family, while her mother came from a secular, poverty-stricken family of musicians.

“It’s impossible to imagine that they would meet and marry,” says Ruth. “They fell in love and married against the will of both families, but they were an exceptionally loving and wonderful couple. 

“I had a happy childhood,” she recalls, “and the most important thing was that I was allowed to keep a lot of animals at home – a dog, birds, an aquarium and white mice.”

As a child of five, Ruth did not like to eat, and her parents consulted with doctors to find the cause. “I don’t remember any of the doctors,” she says, but then Dr. Janusz Korczak came.” Korczak, whose real name was Henryk Goldszmit, was a renowned doctor, educator, author, pedagogue and the director of a Jewish children’s orphanage in Warsaw. Years later, in 1942, Korczak refused sanctuary and stayed with his orphans when they were sent to Treblinka, where they were all murdered.

“I loved Dr. Korczak from the very beginning,” says Ruth. “He was so funny and so personal and joking with me. We had a lot of fun.” Dr. Korczak treated her several times, and Ruth says that he told her mother that there was nothing wrong with Ruth other than that she was spoiled. 

“My mother was not happy to hear that,” she smiles. 

Ruth’s father came from a Zionistic family and dreamed of following in the footsteps of his younger brother, who had moved to Palestine in the 1920s. 

In 1937, two years before the war began, Ruth’s parents visited Palestine with her aunt and uncle. They returned full of tales about the sunshine and the wonderful atmosphere, but at the same time mentioned the lack of towns and roads and nonexistent communication between cities. They decided to postpone the decision to move for two or three years. 

“They always regretted not going,” says Ruth. “They didn’t know what was in front of us. But then, who knew?”

Ruth was not quite eight when Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. “I remember the beginning of the war and the bombing of Warsaw. Houses were destroyed and people were killed. By chance, our house was not hit,” she says. Three weeks later the Germans conquered Poland, and German soldiers patrolled the city streets. Young Ruth could read and write and sensed the antisemitism in the air. 

“I noticed that there were different laws for Jewish people and non-Jewish people,” she recounts. “I asked my parents and my sister, ‘Why is there such discrimination, and how did we deserve this?’ My father said I was too childish to understand the problem, but he promised me that he would try to answer this question when I had grown up a bit.” 

Ruth pauses for a moment and then says evenly, “I still don’t have an answer to this question because 80 years later, there is no logic and no answer. I can never understand the reason for this hatred for Jewish people.”

During the first year of the German occupation, Ruth heard the term “ghetto” bandied about but didn’t know what it meant. In November 1940, the Germans announced that the Jews in Warsaw would be transported to the ghetto. 

Ruth remembers being in their apartment with her mother when the Nazis came to claim their family’s possessions for the Reich. Somehow, Ruth’s mother convinced them to allow them to take their piano with them. Together with 10 other people, the family found themselves in a ghetto apartment with a piano. 

“The ghetto was terrifying from the very beginning,” says Ruth. There were children on the streets who had lost parents and siblings and had no place to live, and the crowded conditions caused the spread of diseases like typhus. 

Recalling the ghetto selections, Ruth says that people were ordered to come outside and stand in four rows of four. Those selected were taken to the train station in the middle of the ghetto; from there they were transported to the death camps.

“Their main goal was to get rid of the Jews of Europe,” says Ruth, “and they succeeded quite well.”

Ruth’s family somehow managed to survive because they were “employed” as slave labor in various factories within the ghetto which were deemed essential to the German war effort. Her father worked in a furniture factory, and her mother and sister sewed in a factory.

I sit rapt throughout Ruth’s monologue, and her husband, who has undoubtedly heard this tale many times, looks on quietly. He rises to prepare coffee and mutters a few words in a foreign language to Ruth. “He said I should hurry up. He’s right.” She pauses for a beat and says, “Almost always right,” and laughs.

Ruth found living in the ghetto to be frightening. “There were people who found joy in treating Jews worse than animals,” she says.

She mentions a man named Frankenstein who randomly shot children for a hobby. “Once, he stopped me outside my door and told me to turn and go back to my door. I knew that I would be shot. He pulled out the revolver and pointed it at me before I turned my back. I felt it pointed at my head, but nothing happened. He went around the corner, saw another little girl, and shot her instead.”

SOMETIMES, life can pivot in an instant, and Ruth recalls another such moment. When the last major selection took place in the ghetto, her family decided to allow themselves to be taken in place of their elderly grandparents and younger cousins, who would go into hiding. 

Ruth, her sister and her parents stood before two German soldiers, who would decide their fate. If the soldiers pointed to the right, they would be permitted to remain in Warsaw. A gesture leftward meant that their destination was the train station, which would lead to the concentration camps and certain death. 

“My father and one of the officers looked at each other, and they realized that they had been old friends before the war and had done business together,” she recalls. “He had visited our family in Warsaw for dinner several times.” 

The German soldier couldn’t forget his earlier friendship with his father and, risking his life, pointed to the right. When Ruth and her family returned to their apartment, their grandparents and cousins had been discovered and taken away.

Another time, they bribed German soldiers and managed to survive. “It was just by coincidence,” says Ruth. “My husband believes, but I don’t believe, in a higher power who would give us life instead of death.”

Ruth and her mother left the ghetto and went into a hideout that could only accommodate two people. Her father and sister escaped from the ghetto two weeks later, during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Ruth, her parents and sister continued hiding in different places during the following two years. During those two years, Ruth and her family had to remain virtually invisible to the outside world for fear of being discovered and handed over to the Gestapo. 

“We could not go near a window, wear shoes, or light a lamp. In fact, only 5% of the Jews who went into hiding survived,” she says.

After the Russians liberated Warsaw in January 1945, Ruth’s family decided to leave Poland. Her father had business connections in Sweden before the war, and they moved to Stockholm, where her parents spent several years recovering from both the physical and mental damage they had suffered. Ruth’s sister made aliyah in 1948, moved to Tel Aviv, and married in 1949, where she remained for the rest of her life. 

Ruth was 14 when the war ended. She learned Swedish, finished high school, and then studied art. It was then that she met Shlomo Berlinger, then known as Salomo.

SHLOMO WAS born in 1929 in Schlesien, Germany, near the Polish border, where his father, Rabbi Eliezer Berlinger, served as the town’s rabbi. In 1932, Shlomo’s parents decided to leave Germany because they were concerned about the future of the Jewish community there. His father was a candidate for rabbinic positions in both Paris and Malmo, Sweden. 

“I am not a survivor,” says Shlomo, “but if my father would have received the job in Paris, that is what I would have become, in the best of circumstances.” Rabbi Berlinger became the rabbi of Malmo, which was the only Orthodox Jewish community in Sweden at that time, and the family remained there until 1946 when he became chief rabbi of Finland. 

Though Sweden was not involved in World War II, the war years were a dramatic period in Malmo. When the Germans decided to deport Jews from Denmark in August 1943, Danes organized a rescue operation and helped six thousand Danish Jews reach the coast. They were eventually ferried to Sweden. 

In the spring of 1945, the Swedish Red Cross and the Danish government rescued concentration camp inmates in areas under Nazi control and transferred them to Malmo, in an operation known as Operation White Buses. Shlomo’s father played a vital role in assisting the refugees who arrived.

Shlomo and Ruth met in 1949 in Stockholm, when he was serving in the Swedish military, at a social get-together between Swedish Jews and Jews who had arrived after the war. 

“I was very charmed,” he smiles. “I said, ‘Let’s have a cup of coffee.’”

Ruth and Shlomo fell in love, but Ruth was in a quandary whether she should remain in Sweden and marry Shlomo, or move to Israel with her parents and be reunited with her sister. 

“It was a very hard decision, but I decided to stay, and I never regretted it,” she says. “It was a good choice, and this December, we will celebrate our 70th anniversary.” 

Ruth’s parents moved to Israel in 1951 and lived in Tel Aviv. While Shlomo and Ruth remained in Stockholm, they visited her parents frequently in Israel. Shlomo and Ruth had two daughters, Dina and Noomi. 

Dina married and lived in Holland but became ill with cancer. She wanted to make aliyah and die in Israel, and she passed away in the hospice at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. Noomi married and made aliyah almost 40 years ago and today lives in Jerusalem with her four children and her husband, Michael. 

Shlomo was a sales agent for chemical products in Sweden and was very active in the Jewish community and Jewish communal life. He sat on the board of the Jewish community of Stockholm for more than 30 years and served as its president for six years. He was a member of the Executive of the European Jewish Congress and was active in the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, as well as the gabbai of the Jeshurun Orthodox synagogue in Stockholm for more than 40 years. 

Shlomo successfully lobbied the Swedish prime minister Göran Persson to initiate a general Holocaust Remembrance Day observance in Sweden before all other European countries. After his proposal was accepted, Shlomo was chosen as chairman of the governmental committee which established its observance.

Ruth studied art, worked for an opinion poll institute, and was secretary on a committee that helped Soviet Jews in the 1970s. The couple took several dramatic – and risky – trips to the USSR during that time. 

After Ruth’s parents died, Shlomo and Ruth purchased an apartment in 1997, and though they officially made aliyah, they remained in Sweden for most of the year. In 2016, they retired and returned to Israel. Ruth frequently lectures on the Holocaust at Yad Vashem. 

“I can’t say that I do it with pleasure, but I understand the need,” she says. “Most of the time, I speak to non-Jewish people. It is scary knowing how little people know about the Holocaust.” 

Shlomo and Ruth are happy living in Beit Moses – “please add that we are happy to be in this house, and the people are respectful and wonderful and warm, and take care of us,” says Ruth – and they live just 20 minutes away from their daughter and her family. Shlomo is responsible for the monthly Shabbat and High Holiday services at Beit Moses.

“We are very blessed,” says Ruth. “There are not many couples still together here, and we are thankful every day for being together, to wake up together.” ■

THE BERLINGERS: RUTH, 90, AND SHLOMO, 92FROM STOCKHOLM TO JERUSALEM, 2016