Ruth was 16 when her own country turned its back on her. From one moment to the other, her History and Geography teachers vanished from school, with no explanation. The best student of the class - therefore occupying the front seat - Ruth was suddenly assigned to sit in the last row. A year later, she was expelled. But this was explained: Ruth was in the right place at a terribly wrong time. She was a German Jewish teenager in the late 1930’s.
Unaware of the political situation, Ruth dreamt about studying Chemistry and Physics at college. However, that remained a dream, since Jews started to be banned from university. Her mother enrolled her and her younger sister, Jutta, in cooking and sewing classes. This way, they could find work anywhere. And that is what happened. Ruth and Jutta were sent to London, while their parents, Jacques and Rose, tried to sell their business to join them later. But the couple was not that lucky. Instead, they were captured by Gestapo, sent to Trezinstadt and later to Auschwitz.
In London, Ruth worked as a maid at a family’s home. She was so beautiful and intelligent that her employees wanted her to marry their son. But she was not interested – there was already a love in her life: a charming blue-eyed soccer player called Bertold. The young man had also left Germany, his native country, with his mother, brother and sister. However, he had escaped to a much further land, to an unheard of country called Bolivia, in South America. Ruth didn’t know where he was until she ran into his cousin at an organization for refugees in London. Bertold and Ruth started exchanging letters – which took a bit more time to reach each other than today’s MSN messenger. Ruth left the family’s house to be a waitress at the Dorchester Hotel, to this day, the most prestigious hotel in London. Among the guests whom she poured tea for, was a man called Winston Churchill.
A couple of years and letters later, Ruth decided to join Bertold in South America. But the country wouldn’t accept her unless they were married. So they married in the least romantic way one can imagine: apart form each other, at the consulates of their separate countries. Yet, they didn’t forget the ring. Two years later, she finally got on a ship to South America. The trip lasted 35 days. Bertold, working as a waiter, took a day off to pick her up in Argentina, where the ship was supposed to arrive. But, for some reason, it was delayed for a few days; times of war. When it finally reached its destination, the person waiting for Ruth at the port was a friend of Bertold’s, since he couldn’t take any more days off. And, in her words, “that friend was ugly”. After 35 days on a ship, Bertold not being there was upsetting.
When she finally got to Bolivia, they got married. Ruth was a bride dressed in black, since the news from her parents death – in the gas chamber – had arrived. Their only daughter, Gaby, was born a year later, as the war was about to end, in the beginning of 1945. A year later they moved to Brazil in search of a better life. They reached Sao Vicente, a city by the coast, an hour from Sao Paulo. They opened a little bread and breakfast called Gaby. Meanwhile, Jutta, Ruth’s sister, met David, a British diplomat whom she ended up marrying and having two babies. She is still living in England. Years later, Bertold’s brother, who was also married and had a girl, Evelyn, gave up South America and moved to Philadelphia, where his family still lives.
After hearing about the story of Ruth, my grandmother, I can figure out why the word “abroad” had never scared me. Neither did long-distance relationships. Gaby is my mom - and Evelyn is my American mom. On top of that, in the year 2001, the company I was working for booked me a hotel in London: the Dorchester. My grandmother was no longer alive for me to tell her. However, I’m sure she knows.
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[ copyright © 2005 by Tania Menai ]