Out of Hid­ing: A Holo­caust Survivor’s Jour­ney to America

Ruth Gruen­er

  • Review
By – May 3, 2021

Ruth Gruen­er was a hid­den child of the Holo­caust who sur­vived the Nazi occu­pa­tion of Poland and Ukraine when Chris­t­ian neigh­bors in the city of Lvov helped her. Unlike many oth­er such chil­dren, her par­ents also found shel­ter and the fam­i­ly was even­tu­al­ly reunit­ed and lib­er­at­ed togeth­er. Ruth, who lat­er became a gallery edu­ca­tor at New York City’s Muse­um of Jew­ish Her­itage: A Liv­ing Memo­r­i­al to the Holo­caust, has filled a spe­cif­ic niche with her mem­oir. Over the course of her life, she has encoun­tered both igno­rance about the near-total anni­hi­la­tion of Europe’s Jews and a reluc­tance to engage with its dif­fi­cult his­to­ry. In her per­son­al life, Ruth grad­u­al­ly learned that attempts to sup­press her past have only added to her suf­fer­ing. While the ear­ly part of the mem­oir chron­i­cles how Ruth, at that time known as Lun­cia, man­aged to escape death while so many around her per­ished, the rest of the book doc­u­ments her life as a refugee in New York. The under­ly­ing motif of this mov­ing sto­ry is mem­o­ry, and the per­son­al and pub­lic oblig­a­tion to con­tin­ue speak­ing about the Holocaust.

The adult Ruth recalls her rather ordi­nary child­hood as idyl­lic, offer­ing no warn­ing about the events which would uproot her fam­i­ly, and end the lives of two out of every three Euro­pean Jews. While oth­er mem­oirs of the era empha­size the rou­tine anti­semitism which sur­round­ed Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, Ruth looks back only at the lov­ing warmth of her par­ents and their seem­ing­ly secure place in Lvov. When Chris­tians agree to hide Ruth and her par­ents, the risk which these res­cuers incurred, com­bined per­haps with under­ly­ing atti­tudes about Jews, make some of them dis­dain­ful of those whom they pro­tect. In one macabre scene, Ruth recalls a con­ver­sa­tion which her moth­er had with Mrs. Oyak, a woman shel­ter­ing their fam­i­ly. When, out of des­per­a­tion, Ruth’s moth­er sug­gests that their fam­i­ly might com­mit sui­cide by arrang­ing to be shot, Mrs. Oyak cheer­ful­ly sug­gests that she might be able to arrange this scenario.

Ruth’s nar­ra­tive changes when she arrives with her fam­i­ly in New York, where they are stay­ing with rel­a­tives until they can find a home of their own. She builds a new life — find­ing friends in high school and final­ly gain­ing the edu­ca­tion of which she had been deprived for years. As a young adult, her sto­ry seems to gain nuance. Some of the extend­ed fam­i­ly mem­bers offer their unstint­ing sup­port, while oth­ers are resent­ful of the bur­den placed on them. At key moments, Ruth suf­fers flash­backs to the trau­mas of her past, and grad­u­al­ly real­izes that avoid­ing ter­ri­ble mem­o­ries only increas­es their hold over her life in the present. She also comes to under­stand that her reac­tions par­al­lel the insen­si­tiv­i­ty of many around her, even Jews, who are unwill­ing to lis­ten when sur­vivors tell their sto­ries. When her father tries to tell his own sis­ter about the death of their moth­er, his broth­er-in-law cuts him off with a defen­sive warn­ing: We don’t need to hear that now…It’s too sad to talk about.” In an espe­cial­ly poignant anec­dote, Ruth is proud when a teacher prais­es a per­son­al essay in which she describes her expe­ri­ences in hid­ing, promis­ing that it will be pub­lished in the school’s year­book. Lat­er, she is called to the principal’s office and kind­ly told that the essay will not appear because It’s too sad for our children.”

There is deep affec­tion in Ruth’s descrip­tions of how she met her hus­band, Jack, with whom she would raise a fam­i­ly. Her grow­ing sense of con­fi­dence and secu­ri­ty reflects the same process for oth­er immi­grants: Look­ing back, becom­ing Amer­i­can wasn’t a sin­gle moment, but rather a col­lec­tion of small­er moments.” There has nev­er been a point in her long life, how­ev­er, when she ceased to bear wit­ness. Her point­ed con­clu­sion about igno­rance and denial of the Holo­caust reaf­firms the need to remem­ber: But our silence was dan­ger­ous. Peo­ple told our sto­ries for us. If we had told them too, there would have been many more voic­es speak­ing truth.”

Out of Hid­ing is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and includes a note from the author and photographs.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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