Ruth Heiniman

by Ruth Heiniman

I was born the second oldest daughter. Edith, the oldest, Hilde, 15 months younger than I and Ilse, three years younger. The daughters of Karl and Selma Simon in Cloppenburg, Germany, about 150 miles miles Northwest from the Dutch border. We had among the nine Jewish families our own synagogue and cemetery.

Ruth and Hilde Simon

In 1936 it was no longer permitted for Jewish students to attend local schools. That meant that the nearest Jewish school was a two-hour commute. Meanwhile my mother’s sister obtained affidavits for each one of her oldest siblings to immigrate to America and a family portrait was taken.

November 10, 1938

Due to my sister Hilde recuperating from surgery I took the train myself to class. As I approached the school adjacent to the synagogue, I noticed they were both in flames.

What to do?

I rang the doorbell of the nearby rabbi’s residence and was told they were all gone. I was told to go home and “hope you find your family”. On the train home the Gestapo were celebrating their accomplishment.

At home all was dark. The house was plastered with swastikas. My sisters were in tears as was my mother as they told me our father was taken away. The next day my mother got word that my dad might have been left behind in a hospital and I was sent to check the hospitals in the area… to no avail.

When my mother got word she could send two of her children to England in a transport, Hilde and I, the two middle girls, were the ones to leave with one thousand children in early December. Later that month my father was released. Meanwhile in England we had a rough crossing and arrived in Harwich, a holding camp for summer campers.

As many Jewish and English came forward to offer their homes, Hilde and I chose to go with a Jewish group of congregants offering twenty-five girls to care for in a hostel in Harrogate Yorkshire for religious girls. We were fortunate with the care and education we received, and later even learned a trade to help support the younger girls.

Death Certificate of Ruth's family - Click on picture to enlarge ca. 1950

In May 1939, my parents boarded the fateful trip on the St. Louis to Cuba only to be turned away. Coasting around the Caribbean and south Florida, the ship was turned away back to Europe. England, Belgium, France and Holland offered refuge to more than nine hundred passengers. My parents went to Holland. When Hitler invaded they were sent to Westerbork, and in May of 1943, succumbed in the Sobibor Concentration Camp. We learned this after the war!

Meanwhile my sister Edith had left Holland for America. We arrived in the USA in January, 1945.

Recent Visit

Ruth and Hilde at Cloppenburg cemetary - October, 2007

A while back, a cousin’s daughter who had, with her siblings, escorted their late father back to his hometown offered to escort Hilde and I. We were receptive. My daughter Susan and Hilde’s daughter Sharon set out in early October for Amsterdam. We rented a van. After seeing the Anne Frank house we took the three hour trip to Coppenburg. This was the first time I had been back in sixty-nine years.

We met the following morning at the well cared for Cloppenburg Jewish Cemetary. We recognized the names of those that were buried – all prior to 1938. Our house was unrecognizable because it had been

rebuilt. The first floor remains of the old synagogue but it is now used as a morgue by the hospital who takes care of the cemetery in return.

The first morning Hilde surprised me me telling me she had sought permission to set a memorial for our late parents and sister Ilse. As we set out for City Hall we saw a sign posted for a speaker that afternoon from Israel, a Holocaust survivor. We attended the program sponsored by Jewish-Christian education. It was well attended by the public and the press. When we introduced ourselves guests came forward to welcome us and the press requested an interview from us.

Memorial for Karl, Selma and Ilse Simon - Cloppenburg, Germany

As a result of the newspaper interview, former classmates and families visited with us and brought pictures albums of our earlier years. In an interview in German I was told that I was the first survivor returning as a witness of the burning synagogue.

On Friday night we attended services in a synagogue in Osnabruk that was built after the war. It was a Orthodox synagogue with many Russian congregants. The President was the son of a survivor. It was very moving to attend services the first time I was back in Germany and to be praying with families for a better future for all.

On the Shabbat before we set out for our return home we dedicated the memorial stone in a  setting with good local attendance. We set it at the foot of a 150 year old oak tree. As we recited the Kaddish, I noted to those in attendance – the press and many local people – that I was reading from the German-Hebrew prayer book book that belonged to my late mother and that was found among my late sister Edith’s belongings. She had taken this prayer book from Germany to America, and we were fortunate to be able to have brought it back to Germany for this occasion.

In March, 2008 I visited Israel with a delegation from Temple Beth Kodesh from Boynton Beach, Florida under the leadership of Rabbi Michael Simon, and deposited, at Yad Vashem Jerusalem in their archives, that above mentioned prayer book!