By Stefanie Sadocha and John Tiberia
Most kids celebrate their birthdays with their friends and family. Ruth Mermelstein celebrated hers in Auschwitz, a concentration camp established by the Nazi regime during World War II. In late March, Mrs. Mermelstein visited Oyster Bay High School and spoke to students in grades 7-9 about her experience as a Holocaust survivor.
Mermelstein was born in Transylvania, in northern Romania, in 1929. At the time, Transylvania’s population was one-third Jewish.
When she was just a young girl, Mermelstein’s life changed drastically after a Nazi soldier showed up at her door one day. Her father was drafted to the border to participate in forced labor after Hungary claimed Romania, a German ally. While there, her father was forced to endure inhumane conditions.
Six months later, her father returned. One day she overheard her him say that when he was at the border, the Nazis marched a group of people into the woods and shot them all. Mermelstein also heard her father tell her mother that he saw a group of Nazis put labor workers in a building and light it on fire.
Eventually, Mermelstein was forced to travel in a cattle car on the way to what she thought was just a relocation; she was wrong. On the train, conditions were horrible. The soldiers in charge of transporting Jews provided only two buckets—one for the bathroom and the other for food.
Mermelstein arrived at Auschwitz Concentration Camp in May of 1944. Conditions at the camp were horrendous. Each prisoner slept in a small cubicle and received little to no food each day. Mermelstein watched as fellow prisoners were beaten and killed.
Upon arrival at the camp, prisoners had to leave their belongings behind and separate from their families. Mermelstein was fortunate enough to stay with her sister, Elisabeth, throughout the tragic journey, but most survivors did not have that opportunity. Although she remained with her sister, she was separated from the rest of her siblings and her parents. People were told that they would be reunited with their families at a later date, but that never happened.
Mermelstein eventually became severely ill and was brought to a hospital in Sweden. Shortly before Mermelstein became sick, she and her sister, Elisabeth, were separated; it was a miracle that after two weeks of relentless searching, Elisabeth eventually found Ruth at the hospital.
Mermelstein held on to hope that the rest of her family survived and she would be reunited with them as well, but she eventually found out that her siblings and mother were sent to gas chambers.
Surprisingly, Mermelstein revealed that this time in her life did teach her to have a positive outlook in some respects. “The Holocaust did affect me in a positive way. It taught me to value human beings. Everybody has a right to live. The Nazis took that right away for millions of people.”
Mrs. Mermelstein also shared, “The impact of what I went through still gives me nightmares, but I think that I am stronger for having survived those horrors, and I value life more.”
Ninth grader Anna Silver stated, “It is great that she came to speak, so that she can pass her story on to other generations, and history will not repeat itself.”
The Holocaust was one of the darkest times in history, and Ruth Mermelstein was fortunate enough to survive along with her sister. Mermelstein’s father once told her that one day she would be free, and she would be able to tell her story. He was right.
Through her experiences, Mrs. Mermelstein continues to share her important story with young students across Long Island, and she continues to provide a message of perseverance and hope.