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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Into the arms of the angels: Saving the Kinderlachen

Published: November 11, 2011
Section: Features

During the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to reunite my grandmother’s third and fourth cousins, Rolf Hess, Ruth Hilb Hamburger and Hanne Hirsch Liebmann. Not only do Rolf, Ruth and Hanne share a common lineage, they also each survived the Holocaust. They were the sole survivors of their family because of the efforts of social agencies like OSE, a humanitarian agency that helped children during the war, and the Red Cross.

Long before I ever met Rolf, Ruth and Hanne, my mother explained to me that the night of Nov. 9 through the morning of Nov. 10 was a terrifying time for my grandma. Although she has been deceased for nearly three years, I could not help but think of her story and the story of her relatives when looking at the date on my phone a few days ago.

Seventy-three years ago, my grandma’s childhood was destroyed. She lived in southwest Germany near Heidelberg, in the small town of Malsch, with her parents; her siblings had fled to the United States a few years earlier. Malsch was once a city with more than 200 Jewish people but, by 1938, the Jewish population had dwindled to about 10 families. Few children remained but her best friend and cousin Ruth Hamburger and her younger cousins Rolf and Kurt Hess remained. They were all just children on Nov. 9, Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass. The children woke to the sounds of destruction, shattering glass and gunfire. They soon witnessed a fire that burned throughout their town, their home.

Years later, Ruth recalled that the “Judenschule,” the temple, was destroyed in the fire but Rolf’s grandfather ran into the temple to save the Torah. Rolf’s grandfather, Simon Hess, gave the Torah to Kurt Hess’ parents, Adolf and Clara Hess, to take with them to America when they immigrated a few months later, on Dec. 22, 1938. Our family is still trying to trace the whereabouts of the Torah.

That night in Malsch, mobs formed throughout the cobblestone streets and stormed into houses. After about two hours of chaos, Ruth recalled, “a voice through a bullhorn demanded that all Jewish men come outside.” That voice would haunt the children of Malsch for the rest of their lives. Ruth’s father and grandfather, Rolf’s grandfather, my great-grandfather and Kurt’s father were taken away.

Two days later Ruth’s father and grandfather, Rolf’s grandfather and my grandmother’s father (my great-grandpa) were released. The other young men were sent to Dachau concentration camp and were tortured for many months. Eventually, my grandmother and Kurt’s family were lucky enough to immigrate to the United States; however, the damage had already been done, as each and every day they felt a sense of guilt for surviving when the other people of Malsch did not. Two years after my grandmother immigrated to the United States in January 1939, her relatives Ruth, Rolf and Hanne were deported to a concentration camp in France, which was followed by the second deportation of Jews that were still alive in Camp Gurs to Auschwitz in the 1940s.

Nevertheless, Rolf and Ruth survived because of the kindness of Alice Resch Synnestvedt, the Angel of Aspet. Resch was a Quaker who was acting in concert with OSE, Oeuver de Secours aux Enfants, a French-Jewish organization that persuaded the local Vichy authorities to allow the 50 children to leave the barbed wire confinement of Gurs. Ruth and Rolf were only two of the 50 children Resch rescued. Rescuers like the Angel of Aspet never sought recognition. Since much of her work was done quietly so as not to jeopardize any additional lives, Resch’s heroic acts of kindness have become lost in time. Nevertheless, her actions speak louder than her lack of recognition, as 250 orphans helped by OSE, including my relatives Ruth and Rolf, survived the Holocaust and many eventually immigrated to the United States.

Surprisingly, my relative Hanne Hirsch Lieberman was not one of the 250 orphans from the Aspet home who made it to the United States; despite not being a part of the group that Ruth and Rolf were in, Hanne still survived the Holocaust. In August 1941 one of the OSE social workers approached Hanne’s mother and asked if she could arrange for her to be placed in a children’s home. In September 1941, Hanne left Camp Gurs with six other teenagers and was sent to the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Unlike Ruth and Rolf, who were placed in a Maison des Pupilles de la Nation, a children’s home in France, Hanne lived in a home run by the Swiss Red Cross.

In Hanne’s personal testimony she shares that “Huguenot village sheltered about 5,000 Jewish people from 1940-44, during the most difficult times and at the risk of their own lives.” Her words once again underscore the notion that rescuers lived in secrecy and as a result, they were not eager to discuss their acts of kindness with the rest of the world.

Seventy-three years later I believe it is time finally to give the rescuers the honor they deserve. On the anniversary of Kristallnacht, we must not only recognize the strength and determination of Rolf Hess, Ruth Hamburger and Hanne Liebmann and memorialize the memory of my grandma, Terry Hess Pniewski, and Kurt Hess, but we must also honor righteous gentiles like the Huguenot villagers and the Angel of Aspet, Alice Resch, as their actions show us all that just one act of kindness has the ability to save a life.