GLASSBORO – Glassboro Intermediate School students had a glimpse back in time recently as Holocaust survivor Ruth Fisch Kessler visited the school and recounted her tragic story of loss and survival.
Born in 1933, she lived in Vienna with her sister, her mother – a homemaker; and her father – the owner of a haberdashery shop.
Times became dangerous for Jews, and her family faced a tough decision. Great Britain offered Austrian, Czechoslovakian, German and Polish families the chance to save children by placing them on Kindertransports (trains, boats and sometime planes) bound for England where foster parents and caretaking organizations awaited.
Kessler’s mother could only choose one child to send, and the choice was made simpler by the fact that Kessler’s sister would not venture away from her mother. Kessler was only 5 at the time, but she vividly remembers standing on the train platform and calling out to her family, “Will you be coming soon?” That was the last time Kessler saw her mother or sister.
She spent years with a kind foster family, the Webbers, in London.
As World War II got underway, life in London was dangerous, too. Air raids were frequent. “We walked everywhere – all of us carrying gas masks. One day I played with a friend; the next day her house was bombed and she died,” said Kessler.
Kessler and other Jewish children were sent to a hostel in the countryside for safety and later returned. When she was 12 and the war was ending, Kessler’s father, who had escaped by visa to New York, sent for her. After such a long separation, Kessler didn’t feel she even knew him. Still, she traveled by boat to New York.
Kessler found out that her father had originally come over to New York believing that he could secure visas for her mother and sister. However, he couldn’t do so. She learned that correspondence from her mother and sister had mysteriously ceased in 1942.
Shortly after her arrival, Kessler also discovered that her father was too poor to raise her. She bounced between foster homes until she was 17-years-old and an aunt took her in. From that point on, life improved. Kessler finished her last year of high school while living with her aunt in Philadelphia, and in 1951, she met her soon to be husband, Lou. Kessler credits her husband with providing her with the love and stability she needed to put the tragic years behind her
It wasn’t until years later that Kessler found out what had become of her mother and sister. At the museum in Israel’s Yad Vashem, their names and birth dates were entered into a computer and Kessler found out that her mother and sister had been deported to Poland and perished. Kessler later learned that the two had died in a concentration camp. She drew some comfort from the fact that her sister and mother were kept together.
Today, Kessler celebrates the life she shares with her husband, three children and grandchildren. She lives in Ventnor, and has written a book entitled, “The Blue Vase: A Memoir of a Vienna Kindertransport Child,” with Maryann McLoughlin. A blue, crystal vase is one of the last treasures Kessler has of her mother.
GIS Language Arts teacher Lynn Berman arranged for Kessler to visit the school. Berman’s parents are friends of the Kesslers.