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Free but Trapped

Esther Teichtal

There are many Holocaust accounts of camp survivors and forest fugitives, but precious few testimonies from children whisked away. The story of Chlini — Ruth Kusmierski (née Salomon) — is one

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

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I n the Steiger’s two-story house, a narrow staircase snaked from the attic to the basement. It was covered in old carpet, with worn wooden parquet exposed on either side. Frau Steiger — known to the family as Mutti — eyed the carpet cunningly. With her two youngest boys back in school, she had plans for the four-year-old girl left at home.

“It’s high time you were put to good use,” she said. Ruth was short for her age, but she had plenty of energy. Starting from the top, she worked her way down the stairs with a long-handled wooden brush and a dustpan. Swish. Swish. The rhythmic sound of stiff bristles was her only company. But she kept at it. Because if Mutti came to check and didn’t like what she found, Ruth would feel her ire.

Sitting today in her elegant salon, Ruth’s deep black eyes hold mine with a bottomless gaze as she mitigates the experience. “It wasn’t that the work was so hard, but I was constantly anxious that I might do something wrong.”

This is one of Ruth’s earliest memories.

Then there was the time when Mutti’s finger discovered an errant pool of dust and furiously etched schwein upon the grainy surface. “I was five. I could read,” says Ruth. At the time, she had no clue that she wasn’t a Steiger, but she sensed the frost. “I knew nothing about anti-Semitism. I blamed myself, thinking I hadn’t been good enough.”

In 1942, responding to a government call, Mrs. Steiger registered for war work in the telegraph office. Only five years old, Ruth was now responsible for warming up dinner so that it awaited Mrs. Steiger upon her return. This, in addition to her regular household chores.

“One day, Mutti placed the food in a pressure cooker and instructed me to switch it on at 12 p.m. I was told to watch the clock and then lower the flame.” Ruth vividly recalls her fear. “‘If you forget to reduce the flame, the pot will explode, and you’ll get hurt!’ Mutti said. ‘But,’ she had been quick to add, with a wag of her finger: ‘you’ll still have to clear up the mess!’” Ruth gathers her thoughts before continuing, “I was under a huge amount of pressure.

 

There was all this housework that had to be done, and I still had to spend all that time on a stool, watching the pot…”

Prewar Memories

Life hadn’t always been so difficult. Born into the Salomon family in 1937 Berlin, Ruth was an only child. In 1938, her father was taken by the authorities and never seen again. Her mother, sick with tuberculosis, couldn’t leave Germany for the sanatorium that may have restored her health. Instead, she was admitted to a local hospital, where she passed away two years later.

Ruth was placed in a children’s home. From there, she was whisked away by her distant cousin, Charlotte Salomon (an artist of some renown who later perished in Bergen-Belsen). With no recollection of the frayed snippets of her childhood, any information Ruth has today was painstakingly pieced together after the war. “Charlotte rescued me from the children’s home and transferred me to France. Soon after, the Berlin children’s home was raided by the Nazis, so that was a narrow escape!” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 591)

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