Arrivals: Seeking a safe port in a world buffeted by war and tragedy

A deeply personal life interwoven with Jewish history.

(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Retired in Netanya, where she arrived in 2015, Ruth Rogoff’s smooth unlined face and calm demeanor betray little of the traumas and heartbreaks she has experienced in her 84 years.
The story begins in a small German town, Zwickau in Saxony, where Rogoff was born into a happy well-established family that was lucky to escape the Holocaust. She remembers a statue of composer Robert Schumann in the town square. Her hassidic grandfather was appointed the community rabbi in Dukla. In those days the work included being shohet, hazan and mohel.
In 1933 her father was forced to sign over his clothing factory to a gentile, as Jews were suddenly forbidden to own property. I ask Rogoff why they didn’t leave.
“No one wanted us,” she replies. “The US and Britain gave visas only to people they wanted.”
Her father, who had been active in the Maccabi sports movement became a courier and helped smuggle desperate Jews out of Germany until he was betrayed and imprisoned.
“My mother somehow got him out, probably by bribing the guards, and my parents realized they had to flee,” recalls Rogoff. “They ended up in Prague, where they tried to get visas for Palestine.’
Her father traveled to Poland to try and help his parents and sister who had been deported and then made his way to England. Her mother was left in Prague with two small children.
“My aunt in Poland wrote a stack of letters to an uncle in Palestine begging for help,” says Rogoff. “Today they are on loan to the Huddersfield Holocaust Museum.”
Meanwhile, in Prague, her mother was told she could get to England as a domestic, but without her children, who would be sent to an orphanage. She refused.
Then something happened for which Ruth and her family owe their lives. The British Consulate held a cooking competition and the prize was a visa for England.
“My mother made a Shabbat meal and she won!” says Rogoff. “It was September 1 and there was a curfew in Prague, but a woman from the British Consulate broke the curfew and risked her life to bring the visas and tickets.”
They had to leave immediately, taking nothing but the clothes they wore.
“My mother was a tall blonde beautiful woman and looked Aryan,” says Rogoff. “She wore her silver fox fur and she dressed me in a little winter suit in herringbone pattern, although it was a boiling hot day. I’ve never worn that pattern since.”
They boarded a train for Holland.
“An SS officer got on the train and came and sat next to my mother and tried to chat her up,” remembers Rogoff.
Once in Holland they were safe. A Jewish Refugee Committee was active there 24 hours a day.
“They tried to persuade us to stay in Holland,” she says. “My mother refused. She said that a woman had risked her life to get the UK visas to us and we would go to England. I remember wanting to stay – they gave me sweets and a blanket.”
The boat arrived in England and they took a train to London, where the Jewish Committee greeted them.
“It was 11 in the morning when we got off the train,” recalls Rogoff. “An announcement was being broadcast over the loudspeaker. It was Chamberlain reporting that Britain was at war with Germany. Of course we didn’t know English – but we understood.”
They were taken to a hostel in Stamford Hill for women and children, The next day her mother set off in search of her husband with his photo in her hand.
“She arrived at the men’s hostel, knocked on the first door – and my father opened the door,” says Rogoff.
Her parents, now reunited, were looking for work and Ruth and her brother were, she feels, a burden to them. When her father saw a group of children lined up with a bearded Yiddish-speaking teacher, about to be sent off and evacuated to a safer place than London, he managed to persuade them to take six-year-old Ruth as well. Her brother, who was three, stayed with their parents.
And so it was that the little German-speaking child found herself billeted on a kind gentile couple – in Caerphilly, Wales.
“I cried nonstop. I thought I’d been abandoned,” she says. “The people fostering me tried very hard and went and got me a coloring book and crayons. I was so thrilled as I’d never had any toys.”
She began to color in the pictures.
“I looked up and saw a calendar. It was black and white with some red days. I managed to ask somehow why they were red and they explained they were Saturday and Sunday. To her horror, she realized she had been coloring on Shabbat.
“I was sure the angel of death would come and take me then and there,” she says.
The simple Welsh folk who had taken her in gave an inspired response to her fears.
“Because it’s wartime, the rabbi has given special permission for Jewish children to color on Saturday,” they told her.
After the war was over, the family moved to Leeds. Ruth studied English, gaining a bachelor’s degree in 1955, and later a master’s, writing a thesis on “The Coal Miner in English Literature.” She married her husband David at 21 and taught English while he studied, finally qualifying as a dentist.
“It was the happiest day of my life,” she says. ”I was free to study and do what I wanted at last.”
She had five children; tragically, one daughter died of leukemia in 1973.
Despite a hope to do so sooner, she was able to make aliya only late in her life. Now widowed, she lives in the Netanya apartment she and her husband had bought many years before. She found her niche in Israel organizing popular and well-attended musical evenings and poetry readings for the AACI.
But for Ruth, the traumas of the past are still as vivid as though they happened yesterday.