For many years, Debbie Smith has been curious about the lives of her German-born mother, grandmother, grandfather and great-grandmothers during the Holocaust.
The Roslyn Heights resident knew that her Protestant grandmother — Helene Englehardt — was an anti-Fascist, who never married her longtime boyfriend because Smith’s great-grandmother didn’t want her to marry a Jew. Instead, the couple lived together for 10 years and had a child — Smith’s mother, Ruth Englehardt Spivack Meyers. By the time Ruth was born in 1934, the Gestapo had taken away her father for his political activism, says Smith, and he likely perished in Dachau, a concentration camp. To this day, Smith doesn’t know her grandfather’s name.
What she does know is that her family history will live on in perpetuity, thanks to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. After Ruth’s death in 2015, Smith donated many of her mother’s possessions to the museum, which it will photograph, scan and digitize for future research and educational purposes.
In addition, three of Ruth’s artifacts — a charm bracelet; a photo with her Cleveland foster family, who welcomed her into their home during the war; and her letter — expedited by the Red Cross — to Helene, then in an internment camp, are part of the museum’s new exhibit “Americans and the Holocaust.”
The exhibition, which opened at the Washington, D.C. museum in April and runs until fall 2021, counters the prevailing belief that “Americans didn’t have information” about Jewish persecution in Europe, says curator Daniel Greene.
“I’m glad the museum took these items, because to me, they’re priceless — and are about my history and my heritage,” says Smith, 58, who attended the exhibition’s opening event. “I felt that my mother’s story needed to be told, and now everyone can know it.”
AN INSPIRING PHOTO
A picture of a 7-year-old Ruth, with the number 30 dangling on a string from her neck, is included in the exhibit. The photograph, taken by noted photographer Roman Vishniac, served as Ruth’s official photo ID upon her arrival in the United States in 1941 — two years before her mother‘s release from the Gurs Internment Camp in southwest France. Greene said he first saw the picture in the International Center of Photography’s online collection of Vishniac’s work; the compelling image of the young girl sparked the museum’s interest in conveying her story, according to Greene.
“A number of our team members were taken by the picture and wanted to figure out who is this girl, and what happened to her,” says Greene.
The curators used Google, Ancestry.com and other genealogy tools to locate Ruth. Their search led to her obituary, which mentioned Smith and her foster sister Sherry Melchiorre as Ruth’s survivors. The museum contacted Melchiorre, who put them in touch with Smith.
Since then, Smith has learned more about her mother and grandmother’s hardships. The Holocaust Museum directed her to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, one of the largest repositories of Holocaust primary documentation in North America; it gave Smith more than 300 pages of documents, including letters between Ruth and Helene. Grateful to the museum for helping her connect some of the dots in her family history, Smith says she gave the institution any of her mother’s artifacts it wanted.
According to the YIVO papers, soon after Ruth’s birth, Helene and her infant daughter left Germany, winding up in France in 1936. Four years later, Helene was arrested for stealing or hiding military materials and until 1943 was a prisoner in Gurs. During those years, Ruth lived in at least two children’s homes run by a French-Jewish children’s aid society.
“My mother didn’t tell me too much,” said Smith, who is married and retired from managing the office of a Bronx display company. “I had given her a journal, but she didn’t write a thing in it. I think some parts were too painful, or she didn’t remember that much.”
Survivors typically find it difficult to discuss their experiences, which leaves their children with “missing pieces of their story,” says Gayle R. Berg, a licensed psychologist in Roslyn Heights. Donating artifacts to a museum can help their offspring “therapeutically attain some closure,” and allows them to claim their legacy with “tangible evidence” and move forward — while keeping their family’s story alive, Berg says.
COMING TO AMERICA
As Smith tells it, her mother’s early years were not without happiness. After arriving in New York Harbor in 1941 on a rescue convoy organized by the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children, Ruth lived comfortably in a Cleveland suburb for seven years with her foster parents, the now-deceased Gladys and Joseph Spivack, who owned a successful discount pharmacy business, and their daughter, Melchiorre. The Spivacks had wanted to adopt Ruth, says Smith who refers to the couple as her grandparents and Melchiorre as her aunt.
About two years after the war ended, Helene came to the United States to reclaim her daughter, then 14, and the two moved to New York, where Helene found work as a baby nurse. But, Ruth, upset about leaving the Spivacks, tossed into an incinerator — without ever reading it — a journal that her mother had given her and that had shed light on their shared and separate experiences. Ruth never told Helene that she hadn’t read her mother’s journal, and she regretted discarding it, says Smith.
She notes that learning about her mother’s and grandmother’s past is “still a work in progress.” Smith is currently having her grandmother’s personal papers, which were among her mother’s possessions, translated into English from German.
Smith grew up in Island Park with two brothers -- Jeff, who died in 2011, and Glenn. Their father, Tony Meyers, died in 2015 — just one month before their mother’s death. Helene, who never married and often baby-sat her grandchildren, lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side until she died in 1974.
Supplementing Smith’s recently acquired information about her mother and grandmother is a small suitcase filled with snapshots Ruth left behind — as well as two professional-quality photos joined in a dual frame — of a young Ruth and a handsome man; the pictures used to sit on a shelf in her mother’s bedroom, says Smith, who can’t help but wonder if the stranger is her nameless grandfather.
OTHER LI CONNECTIONS
Besides Ruth Englehardt Spivack Meyers, a longtime Island Park resident, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum features other Long Islanders in its current exhibitions.
In the “Americans and the Holocaust,” which encompasses 125 artifacts, 16 video programs and four touch-screen programs, there’s a postcard that Fred Lifschutz, now 85, received from his mother in Vienna while he was staying in a Pennsylvania retreat.
Married, with two daughters and seven grandchildren, the Woodmere resident arrived in the United States in 1939, as part of a rescue effort of 50 Jewish children from Vienna that was spearheaded by Eleanor and Gilbert Kraus, of Philadelphia.
Upon arriving in the United States, Lifschutz — and the other youngsters — went to a Pennsylvania retreat that was under the auspices of the Independent Order Brith Shalom, a Jewish fraternal organization. There, they studied the English language, civics and U.S. history. Afterward, Lifschutz lived with two aunts in the Bronx until his mother joined him in 1940.
“My father didn’t make it out,” said Lifschutz, a manufacturing rep in the toy industry. “He was shot in a field.”
The exhibit also incorporates a photograph of Yaphank-based Camp Siegfried, an initiative of the German American Bund; the pro-Nazi organization for Americans of German descent “demonized Jews and Communists and dreamed of a fascist America,” according to a museum representative. “Campers wore uniforms of the Hitler Youth and carried Nazi banners.”
In another current exhibit, “American Witnesses,” individuals who served in the U.S. Army relate their experiences encountering Nazi camps at the end of World War II. The presentation includes liberation footage taken by Alexander Zabin, who was born and raised in Malverne, according to the museum.
-- Cara S. Trager