Logo Image

Helen and Sol Krawitz Holocaust Memorial Education Center

Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center

Logo Image

Descendant Profile








    Ruth Zelig has been a long time member of the Bridgewater community with her husband Len Oppenheimer and her two children, Emily and Gideon Oppenheimer. She has devoted major time to voluteering at Temple Sholom, her synagogue, where she has served as Sisterhood President, member of the Board of Trustees, eventually serving as President of Temple Sholom. An ardent supporter of women’s participation in Judaism and leadership roles at the synagogue, Ruth has travelled widely, grew up abroad in Israel and Brazil and speaks multiple languages. She is also a Master Gardener. In 2017, Ruth and Len relocated after Len’s retirement from J&J to New York City and upstate New York. In October, 2022 Ruth saw Tom Stoppard’s play Leopoldstadt. This editor received the following email. For an update on Ruth’s reflections, see below.


     Reaction to seeing Tom Stoppard’s play, Leopoldstadt by Ruth Zelig 

    Email: October 16, 2022 

    During the last scene of Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” on Broadway, a series of photographs is projected unto the backdrop of the stage while some of the characters are speaking their lines.

    I don’t know how we do it, but watching a play, we can listen to the actors talking, listen to the background music, observe the lighting and staging, all the while taking in the scenery including a projection of a series of photographs.  Split second timing for any of it: a spoken phrase, a photo, an ambiance. Sometimes some of these things don’t even register (there’s always a chance to see the play again.)


    The top left section of the photograph below was projected onto the back of the “Leopoldstadt” stage, among other historical photographs, and with a jolt, I recognized it instantaneously. My immediate emotional reaction was to tell someone.  And then to start crying.


    The recognition is irrefutable.  I have seen this photo in my parents’ photo album since I was a toddler. In the past few years, I retrieved it from the internet, after doing a more lengthly research into “Aliyah B”, the clandestine exodus of surviving Jews at the end of the Holocaust from Europe to Palestine.  My parents and aunt were among the 75,000 survivors who were transported during “Aliyah B”, and among the 2,446 passengers on this particular ship.


    I shook Len’s arm, but he was immobile.  I then shook Miri and told her “That’s my parents ship!” and she immediately responded and held my arm.  Miri understood what I was feeling. The fact that my parents survived and left Europe on one of the “Aliyah B” ships (a few months after the Exodus) is not a reason for me to start crying.  My parents and aunt were saved.  What unsettled me was that this photo was shown where and when I was not expecting it.  And further, the topic of the play “Leopoldstadt” hit home rather un-comfortingly. So, uncontrolled, I became very emotional and tearful. Recollection can be triggered by a single element, a “madeleine”, but to be powerful, it also needs the tea, the setting, and a concurrent ruminating mood.


    This image is seared in my mind: with the lettering “HAGANA SHIP – JEWISH STATE” and in smaller Hebrew letters “Medinat HaYehudim”.  My parents’ ship.  With almost all of thousands of passengers crowded on deck, and the British military standing casually on the docks.  Behind it is the sister ship, the “Geula”, the two ships having departed from the port of Burgos, Bulgaria, at the same time, both intercepted by the British. This was a photograph taken after the “Jewish State” collided with the British destroyer, then taken to the port of Haifa. The passengers were not allowed to disembark, they were all subsequently taken to Cyprus where British internment camps awaited them. So close and yet so far, locked up once again.


    This is a photograph that reverberates with meaning for me: the view of decommissioned ships and boats, enlisted by organized Jewry (ha’Mossad – The Agency) in the effort to transport survivors no one wanted; floating from port to port looking for a haven.


    My parents and aunt were teenagers then. They never said, from what I heard growing up, that they suffered during this ordeal. (Just imagine the latrines on board, and the fact there were no dining rooms to choose from, they ate what they packed in their rucksack or were handed out at departure.) They were so young and so excited. They were full of hope, and finally full of relief from persecution. What they never felt was being welcomed anywhere, until they arrived in Palestine and Israel gained independence.


    I was born right after, and the feeling of belonging was unmistakable after Israel was declared a state. Jewish Holocaust survivors finally found a reprieve from their torturers and could snub their nose at the countries that didn’t want them and some gentiles who thought to themselves, Drats — so many survived, or Ho-hum — well, they got what they deserved.  Hatred of Jews did not end with the end of the Great War. Sadly, the price for this freedom was very high, and years of war with Arabs, Palestinians, Intifada and terror, charged Israel with an invoice too high to measure rationally.


    One cannot dispute, however, that every single soul that is visible in this picture standing on the deck of this rusted tub (it used to be the cutter USCG Northland, purchased as scrap), eventually found refuge and composure. My parents did, at least for a short while, until the damage done to them reared up in later years, in dislocation, mental frailty and self-sabotaging instincts.


    One photo, in one instance, dislodged reams of emotional flutter, like ripping open a package of a ream of print paper which then skitters willy nilly from its orderly packed and tidy containment.


    Editor’s Note:

    As of 2023, Ruth Zelig has completed a manuscript titled Letters from Brazil. The manuscript is an epistolary memoir about friendship and migration. We look foward to its publication. 


    For Descendant Submission, Select "Reflection" Above by Ruth Zelig

    Reflections on a Holocaust Legacy, First and Second Generations

    by Ruth Zelig

    I was born right after Independence and was surrounded by my family of survivors.  Israel in 1948-50 was a survivors’ asylum.  People with tattoos did not open their mouth.  Having been deported, having been in lager, was not a topic for open discussion.  If spoken about, then it was only briefly and in whispers.  The trauma was still raw, and today’s talk about the Holocaust would have been offensive and disturbing.  The stages of grief and the passage of enough time had yet to take place.  This is not easy to describe to American Jews whose parents and grandparents arrived prior to the Holocaust.  Those generations of East Europeans were the repository of stories of the Pogroms, but too many generations have passed already, and no one collected their stories, except for the authors and writers among them.  And of course, there was Fiddler on the Roof for anyone not inclined to read history.

    I grew up among people who did not yet feel that they were going to be the “teachers” of tolerance and remembrance and the passing of that legacy to the next generation.  On the contrary, in early Israel, the idea was to forget and not to traumatize the young, post-war, first generation of free Zionists.  The goal was to assimilate them with the Sabras who were already settled in Palestine and bond on a clean Jewish slate.  Telling personal stories of Holocaust experience was taboo.  It took a long time for some of those stories to bubble up.  And most unfortunately, the majority did not document this, so instead, they became incorporated into family lore.  Some never made it to generation Two.

    With my parents aging and forgetting, I am grasping at the last vestiges of family history. What I was told, I was told, and there will never be a better, clearer and cleaner version. 

    The Third generation in my family in Israel has reached out to me to ask questions.  I am aghast at how thin my knowledge is of who did what and where and how.  I only have stories, a collection of mere snippets.  The total experience would only become a narrative if everyone I knew was still alive and could be interviewed. But they’re all gone.  My parents are the last survivors in my family, because they were young teen-agers during the war.  Those who are gone wanted to be silent.  They didn’t want to give lectures.  Their life was nothing but hardship, they did not have the luxury of “making it in America”.

    My parents are broken people.  They were barely normal in their Zionist heyday, but they made a good show of it.  Leaving Israel was a mistake; it unraveled them.  In Brazil, they were somewhat able to hold on, perhaps thanks to a tiny community of survivors, but after that they became adrift and lost. Literally. Wandering, Jewish refugee immigrants. 

    My father now loves to talk about the past, his senile brain has turned everything rosy. He just likes the attention of being asked, and the chance to talk.

    I have an uncle who took the truth to his grave and perhaps purposefully left behind a pack of lies which “friends” repeated at his eulogies.  I had to run out of the funeral home in a rage, I felt stabbed in the heart.  Now my cousin wants to know the truth. He never learned it from his father. He wanted to know how come I know, and so I said, “Your mother told me.”   “Why didn’t I hear this before?”   “You never asked.”  Too late, his mother is now on hospice, mute and paralyzed. Another survivor who will never tell.

    Some additional thoughts regarding the Shoah legacy:

    As an aside, I have a nagging bone of contention about the monikers, First and Second Generation.

    Shoah survivors are not first generation, are they?  They are the victims; they are point zero, the experiencers.  They were there.  The Holocaust was perpetrated on them.  No amount of Jewish survivor guilt or empathy can make the children of survivors experience the horrors their parents experienced.  This is not like sympathetic labor pains, no hunger or pain is actually felt.  What is experienced is the utter sadness about the unimaginable experience the parents are hiding.  We, their children, are the first post-Shoah generation. 

    The subsequent generation and others have been exposed to the totality of stories, books, movies, Holocaust programs and agendas, and yes, even first person accounts in lectures delivered by the few who survived and are willing to talk.  We, their children, have watched Marcel Ophul’s monumental “Shoah”.   In that context, steeped in the historical perspective of the Shoah, we are horrified by the immensity of suffering and the obscene injustice our loved ones, and “our kind”, lived through.  Needn’t we be more humble about it?  Wanting to “wear” the mantra of suffering, even though we were not there, is rather improper, sullen, churlish.  After all, our parents lost family members, the ones who did not survive, theirs is the suffering non ultra.  We have no right to feel survivor guilt, that feeling is reserved to them.  It’s their added encumbrance. What we should feel is the grace of their survival so that they could create a new family or a second family, so that we may live.  And what we, their children, do feel is the psychological impairment that has affected our childhood while in the care of traumatized parents. 


    I have heard that there are young Israelis who have tattooed their arms with their grandparent’s number before that grandparent was to die.  I personally find it distateful.   Their need to state “I am a victim” via a superficial act when in fact they are not, is a psychological distortion of survivorship’s legacy that takes collective guilt and the inheritance of being aggrieved to an extreme.  A me-too generation run-amock.  Instead of tattooing their arm these young, hyper-sensitive children should perhaps say:  “Tell me your story, and let me write it down, so I can tell my children about what you have lived through. And let me have photos sitting with you to leave in a family album.”

    What we are losing as time passes and age catches up with them is access to the first person accounts.  Even if the survivor is not a willing sharer of her story, we have first person access.  We have been living contemporaneously.  As soon as they are all gone, their children are then left with the onus of responsibility of repeating the stories.  And when we are dead?  Do grandchildren have to carry on this task?  No matter how well we document and educate and give testament or pay tribute, the torch will not stay lit in the same way.  It becomes history, not family lore.  It becomes a discipline in the hands of historians, social psychologists, anthropologists and writers.   And it becomes ritualized in ceremonial observances of special dates.  Most of that has already happened. Sadly other racial and national groups have their own genocide to talk about, we will not be unique, except perhaps in the sheer scope of the killings due to German über efficiency.  Six million here, one million there, half a million another place.  The Armenians, the Cambodians, the Rwandans, the Rohyngas, and more to come.  Our grandchildren will be overwhelmed by the prevalence of modern genocides. It will be on them to solve the problem of racial hatred, we will only be leaving them documentation that we have tried.

    My parents were not deported. They had relatives who were and did not survive.  They have relatives who were and survived. While historical and political happenstances kept the two of them from the collection camps, transport trains and ultimate deportation, they were caught in the political repercussion of Nazification, collusion and quid pro quo.  Stripped of civil rights, property and livelihood, they were pawns of their country’s sympathy for Nazi dictums.  During the war years, everyone not Jewish was an anti-Semite, if not ideologically, then conveniently.  On the other hand, I have a story of a righteous gentile who saved a family member -– in Berlin no less, – and there are some other stories of bravery.

    It’s deceiving that it seems so many Jews survived, like my parents, for example.  And in turn, those who survived procreated.   However, the legions of the dead have no children or grandchildren to speak for them.  They would outnumber us by a logarithmic factor.  That’s the void that does not exist.

    If many think this could not happen here, then Phillip Roth’s novel “The Plot Against America” and Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” are a must read.  The banality of evil exists in healthy doses here in the United States.  We are now convinced of it thanks to the current president and his acolytes.  Banality, as Hanna Arendt named it, is the utter matter-of-fact, insipid and artful seeping of racism in a complacent society until it becomes tolerable and acceptable.  For example, Sarah Huckabee Sanders epitomizes it.  As described in Roth’s and Lewis’ novels, fascism and anti-Semitism (all racism) spreads like banal, soft butter in the beginning.

    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Fusce condimentum lacus purus, et suscipit justo semper nec. Maecenas non lectus odio. Aliquam volutpat neque ac placerat gravida. Nullam sit amet venenatis ante. Proin vestibulum volutpat purus vel dapibus.

  • Sources and Credits:


    Ruth Zelig, “Reflections on a Holocaust Legacy, First and Second Generations”; Digital family and historic photos donated by Ruth Zelig