Webber, Ruth (Muschkies)
Ostrowiec (Poland), Bodzechow, Sandomierz, Starachowice, Annopol, Auschwitz, Birkenau
Mrs. Webber was born in Ostrowiec, Poland in 1935. There were fifty thousand gentiles and only fifteen thousand Jews. Mrs. Webber lived with her father (Samuel), mother (Molly Angenicki), older sister Helen and grandmother. Their home was a traditional, not orthodox home. She remembers a happy home and Friday night dinners at her grandparents.
Her father was a professional photographer who did not wear a beard but never worked on Saturday. Her paternal grandmother lived with them after her husband, a cantor, passed away.
When the Germans arrived in 1939, Mrs. Webber was not allowed to play outdoors because of the shootings. She remembers everyone being tense and her father being home often because his studio was taken over by the Germans. Her older sister, Helen, a pianist, was studying in Warsaw. Her grandfather’s beard was shaven and her aunt, who was in her twenties, was abused.
In 1942, the Germans formed a ghetto and because it was in the section of the city where Mrs. Webber lived, her family did not have to move. Her aunt and uncle from Warsaw came, bringing her sister, because they thought it would be safer. They stayed and moved in with them.
The German officers loved to hear Helen play. She was soon placed with a Gentile family to continue her career. Mrs. Webber said “she had an easy three years.” There was a sad, chaotic atmosphere at home with a lot of crying. Her parents wanted her to live with Gentiles as well, but the young seven year old Mrs. Webber insisted on staying with her parents.
When the sirens would sound, the family went to the cellar. Mrs. Webber thought this was wonderful fun. That was just before the Germans arrived. Afterwards, her father continued working at his studio for a time, although he was no longer in charge. Shortly thereafter, he applied for a job in a nearby factory where her mother worked in the kitchen.
Mrs. Webber’s parents were transported to Camp Bodzechow, leaving the grandparents behind. She went with them and stayed for five months, October 1942 until February 1943. There was a place on the roof for her grandparents to hide, but they did not go up and during a roundup. They were then sent on the first transport to Treblinka and never heard from again.
Because there were rumors that the Germans were coming and shipping people to another camp for extermination, Mrs. Webber was hidden every day. The family planned to sneak into the forest to hide during the selection. This was no place for children who were supposed to be on the first transport. They often hid in the corn field, in the high stalks. Polish children were playing ball close by. Once, when begging for food at the door of a farmhouse, the farmer’s wife called the police and reported them. A kind policeman recommended that they go to the nearby camp to be safe. The camp he recommended was the one they had just escaped from.
They did return, but ran into the forest every night to hide the children. One night, Mrs. Webber refused to go and that was the night a German patrol found others in the forest who never returned. There was a second floor office in the camp’s repair shop. They hid there and she slept with her father. On occasion, she was left alone. They had to clean up every crumb of food so that rats would not find them. Like Ann Frank’s family, they could not move or make a sound all day and could only do so when nightfall came and the workers left. Mrs. Webber played games with the rats and mice to pass the time. Once she hid with some other children in a potato bin and, when caught, the German soldier reprimanded them and walked away.
During all this time, she would fantasize about her sister, about what she was doing and what her life would be like if she would have gone with her. Mrs. Webber’s mother kept her spirits up by talking about the “good times,” and saying this would soon end. She would also give her daughter her rations because she was always hungry. At this point, she lost touch with her father, who was sent to another camp.
Two Germans were supposed to shoot her and another child as well. They changed their minds at the last moment, saying that the children could be used in the kitchen and as messengers. There were many unexplained “miracles,” and her mother continued to pray for her. The other women tried to comfort her because their children were already gone. Some only tolerated her because they thought she endangered their lives. When there was an attempted escape, the prisoners were caught. She was hidden in a toilet in the outhouse and saw them digging what became their own graves. Prisoners were shot and thrown into the hole, some still alive and screaming. Others had to shovel dirt on them. There was constant fear that every moment would be the last.
When Mrs. Webber and her mother managed to get on a train to Bodzechow, German soldiers were checking for sabotage, so they hid in a ravine and snuck back into the camp. There was another roundup where they had to kneel for an entire day. She was hidden behind her mother who said “if shooting starts, slide under me.” But, there was none and, at this time, Mrs. Webber’s mind was “set for survival.”
Next they were put in cattle cars, bound for Auschwitz. She was lifted up to see landmarks out the windows. When they arrived in Auschwitz, it was nighttime and they were in the station for about eighteen hours. Everyone was scared and crying. There weren’t any sanitary provisions nor food and drink in the cars. When the doors opened, she heard screams of “Raus! Raus!” and saw people in uniforms. It was very orderly.
There were rumors that Mengele was missing because he was ill. This was the summer of 1942. There were no selections because they came from a work camp, but men and women were separated. However, the children who were with their fathers did not survive.
She and her mother were first taken into a room to undress. They went into the showers and everyone’s hair was shaven and they were given dresses to wear. Tall women received short dresses and short women were given long dresses. Everyone laughed because they did not recognize each other. They were allowed to keep their shoes after they were dipped into disinfectants. They were then marched to their barracks in Birkenau, Block 2B. Each barrack had six people facing one way and six people facing another way. If anyone turned around, everyone had to turn. At four in the morning they had breakfast which consisted of colored water.
They often stood in line for hours for Mengele’s count. Everyone tried to protect their friends and family. Mrs. Webber was not counted because she was a child. The children stayed out of the German’s way, so they were tolerated. Once, she and another child ran into the block next door and hid under the corpses. They entertained each other making up stories about their homes. They also found sticks and yarn and tried to knit.
Mrs. Webber’s mother had taken on work detail such as cleaning the toilets. They watched the ovens smoking shortly after transports arrived. Mrs. Webber lost her appetite because of the smell in the air. Her mother tried to see her daily. One day she said, “I have to leave you.” This depressed Mrs. Webber who answered, “What good are you? One day we’ll all go up in smoke.”
Mrs. Webber got the measles and was sent to the hospital. There was to be a selection there, so, although she also had pneumonia, the nurse sent her back to the barracks. She had lost a great deal of weight and also lost her voice. No one thought they would live. Her measles sores would not heal, so her mother went with her to Kressa Block for prisoners with skin diseases. Something was put on the sores that made them much worse. Every day was a nightmare. She contracted an infection under one of her arms which she hid so she’d be let out. Her mother had always told her that life would be good again and she would be back with her sister and grandparents. She gave her extra food. They were there for six months.
Within a short time, Mrs. Webber’s mother was on the list to be shipped. Mengele wanted the children to stay and she was sent to the children’s block. The Red Cross came so the blocks were cleaned and beds made. The children were told to “act happy.” This was the lowest point in Mrs. Webber’s life. She questioned why she was there and also why she had to be a Jew. Without her mom’s reinforcement, Mrs. Webber lost her desire to live.
One day she got a message that a man was asking for her. She was told that her father was in the next camp. She went to the barbed wire fence and he was on the other side. She was very angry, blamed him for leading them into this camp and this situation. She was rude and mean to him. He asked if he could help her and told her not to stay behind but to leave on the march. He said that those staying would be executed. Mrs. Webber’s father left on the march and she stayed behind. Just as her execution was to be carried out, the Russians came.
The Russians liberated the camp on January 27, 1945. The Germans had deserted ten days before but returned briefly screaming “Raus, Raus”; and whoever ran out was shot. Again, Mrs. Webber missed being killed.
Once the Russians came, they were transferred to one elite barrack with an oven for warmth. There were more blankets, clothes and bread. Fortunately the food was not rich. They helped themselves to clothes from the warehouses. The Russians were kind and took them to Krakow on a flat cart and opened an orphanage. On the way, they saw Warsaw, a now bombed out city. Mrs. Webber’s mother wasn’t liberated until the end of the war. She found her youngest daughter through the lists posted at railroad stations. Her mother then headed back to find her oldest daughter, Helen.
Helen was no longer the person that the young Mrs. Webber fantasized about. Her sister had a good life but after joining Mrs. Webber and her mother and becoming a Jew once again, she did not fit in. Mrs. Webber and her mom were very close and her sister didn’t share their past. Her father didn’t survive.
Mrs. Webber was left in a children’s home so her mother could see who else survived. She gave her a hard time when she saw her. Their city was no longer safe and the reality that they had to leave Poland set in. They traveled from Czechoslovakia to Germany, eventually finding cousins in Canada who sent for them. They lived with the Barkin family in Toronto.
Because her sister needed a higher education, they lived in Munich where there was a Hebrew High School. They lived with an affluent German family who gave them a room. Mrs. Webber resented children who had homes after the war. While in Poland, in the orphanage, an American journalist took their names and distributed them to Jewish children in New York City. One girl sent her letters, food and clothes but no one else received any parcels. “It was like someone was watching over me.”
As a child, Mrs. Webber would not talk about her experiences although when she was in Philadelphia, she heard a child survivor speak. Her mother refused to believe that her father had died and wouldn’t give up hope.
“I’m alive. . . .I’m a winner.” “ I resent when people feel sorry for me.”
Mrs. Webber has three daughters: Shelly, Elaine and Susan.
Date: February 2, 1987
Interviewer: Sidney Bolkosky
Length: 2 hours and 19 minutes
Format: Video Recording