The opening of the Ruth Maier Exhibition at the Austrian Embassy in Washington DC on Thursday April 4 2019
Thank you for inviting me to join you this evening and to represent Ruth Maier’s family, our family. It is an honor to be here.
I am particularly happy to be here tonight because my parents had great affection for Austria, which even the events of the Second World War did not diminish (or which they chose to bury deep in their minds).
My mother was from Znojmo, which is 90 km from Vienna - and Vienna, rather than Prague, was the cultural (and shopping) metropolis for my mother and her family.
My father’s father, Emil, studied in Vienna. One of his fellow students was Leon Trotsky. Apparently, Emil and his friends would ask Leon, “When is this great revolution that you are always talking about going to happen?” It happened.
We took many holidays in Austria, in Millstatt am zee in Carinthia, when I was a child. While the Iron Curtain divided Europe, Austria was as close as my parents could get to their Czech roots, to coffee houses, and to treats such apfelstrudel mitt schlagobers. As I recall “mit oder ohne?”
By your very presence here this evening, and your support of the Ruth Maier exhibition in our nation’s capital, you demonstrate unequivocally that you understand the tragedy of the Holocaust.
To your understanding of the vastness of the tragedy of the Holocaust and to the lessons that we must teach others, there is little that I can add.
Moreover, there is no question in my mind that you are aware of the immediate and urgent relevance, today, of the lessons that the Holocaust teaches us. Intolerance and racism are on the rise. Refugees and the persecuted cry out for help all over the world and we must hear their cries.
But I can tell your something about our family, Ruth’s family and mine, about those who perished and those who survived. And you will see the vastness of the effects of the Holocaust on Ruth’s entire family, which is also my family.
Ruth’s grandparents, Simon and Eugenie Maier were my great grandparents.
They owned the general store in a small village called Žarošice, south of Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic.
Ruth’s sister, Judith, is still alive in England at 97. She has a painting, by the eminent Austrian artist Ernst Huber, of the Main Street in Žarošice. A copy has hung in my kitchen for as long as I can remember.
The painting, from 1912, focuses on the Maier store and the view up the Main Street which, today, is basically unchanged. The largest building in the picture is the Catholic Church, which tells you a lot about what life must have been like when Ruth’s father was growing up there in a Jewish family.
When I visited Žarošice a few years ago, I met a very old lady who remembered the kindness of the Maiers, and how they used to give her candy when she was a little girl. I should add that she also told me that, when the Maier family was taken from the village by the Nazis, the people of the village walked with them, along the Main Street, as far as they were allowed. And the old lady wept as she shared this story with me.
My great grandparents, Ruth’s grandparents, had three sons and four daughters, so Ruth had two uncles and four aunts on her father’s side.
Ruth’s four aunts, Valerie, Vilma, Adele and Erna (my grandmother) were murdered by the Nazis,
Ruth’s uncle Robert was also murdered by the Nazis in Poland in April 1942, as was his wife Aranka and their son, Ruth’s cousin Heinz.
These dates are particularly striking because they all precede Ruth’s arrest in November 1942. It is reasonable to assume that she knew about what was happening to her family and that, perhaps, is why she went like a lamb to the slaughter.
Ruth’s uncle Victor and her father, Ludwig, died before the war.
However, Victor’s children Gertruda and Rudolf, two more of Ruth’s cousins, were murdered in Auschwitz in 1943.
Many years before the war, Ludwig, Ruth’s father, left Žarošice and settled in Vienna and you know or can learn his story here today.
My grandmother Erna, Ruth’s aunt Erna, settled in the Czech mining town of Ostrava after her marriage and my father was born there in 1913.
In 1939, my father, a young lawyer, was warned of the impending round-up of Jewish men and escaped the Nazis by walking across the Czech border into Poland. Had he not been warned, I, like Ruth’s unborn children, would not be here today.
My father made his way to England, fought in the Czech army in exile, studied at Cambridge University and became an eminent professor of philosophy and Fellow of the British Academy.
My father’s father was deported to Nisko and perished, and my grandmother, as I mentioned, Ruth's aunt Erna, was murdered in Minsk.
In Ostrava, outside their apartment building, you will find two stolpersteine (or stumbling stones) that commemorate their lives and deaths. Such stones, basically, engraved brass cobblestones, have been installed all over Europe as a reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. You might have seen some.
In England, my father married another Czech refugee from the Holocaust. As I mentioned, my mother grew up in Znojmo (Znaim). Her father perished in the Warsaw Ghetto and her mother was murdered at Auschwitz. Most of my mother’s cousins, aunts and uncles were murdered too.
Given my family’s tragic history, you will not be surprised that, for as long as I can remember, I have known of the horrors of intolerance and the hideous consequences of professed racial and religious superiority.
However, as a child in England, I learned, from my immigrant and refugee parents, not to hate. In spite of everything that I have described to you, they insisted that every person is of intrinsic value, that human rights apply to all.
In the song about the origins of racial intolerance in the wonderful American musical “South Pacific,” we learn that “you’ve got to be carefully taught to hate and fear.”
I was fortunate because, in spite of everything our family suffered, my parents taught me decency and tolerance.
So, after you have looked at this exhibition and as you continue to acknowledge the tragedy of the death of just one Jew and the deaths of six million Jews - and the void left by all their unborn descendants, I ask you, in Ruth Maier’s name, to pledge to share her story with younger generations.
Share it with your children and grandchildren, with your nieces and nephews, and with those of your friends and neighbors.
Teach them decency and tolerance. Make sure that they are carefully taught! Thank you.
© Ann M. Altman Ph.D.
Hamden, CT 06517