Ruth Kohn showed up early to speak to Professor Harry Butowsky’s class on the history of World War II. Although small in stature, her energetic and commanding personality immediately mesmerized the room – it was as if a celebrity had walked in. And her outfit supported the persona: she wore a colorful flowery jacket, carried a bright red purse and her black shoes were adorned with glittery bows. Ruth dispersed the somber mood with her lively presence, sat down and immediately professed: “I love going back to Germany. People are different there now and they treat me fabulously.”
Ruth Kohn, nee Arnoldi, was born in 1927 to an Orthodox Jewish family in West Prussia, Germany. She spent much of her childhood in Berlin, where her family owned a poultry shop until they were forced to relocate to the outskirts and her father had to take a job at a Jewish cemetery. Ruth experienced horrendous discrimination: she was called a Jewish pig by kids at school, Jewish families were allowed to shop only between the hours of 4 and 5 pm (when stores had been wiped out by other customers), Jews had to wear the star of David on their coats at all times and she witnessed synagogues being burnt and Torahs thrown into the flames by the Nazis. Ruth even recalled meeting Hitler himself, who shook her eight-year-old hand, assuming she was of his favored Aryan race. Although her family escaped on the last train from Germany and ultimately settled happily in the Dominican Republic, she regrets not having a childhood: “I never was a teenager, I could never be carefree, I really grew up too fast.” Despite her dark memories, Ruth continues to speak of her experiences both because the process is therapeutic and “so generations never forget what a few lived through.”
Prof. Butowsky had to interrupt the Q&A as the allotted time was running out. He emphasized the importance of learning from war veterans and civilians who have experienced history rather than simply reading about the events from secondary sources: “I teach them about this but I was not there.” He pulled out a copy of the Washington Post, from which he read an obituary of a deceased war veteran, stressing the fact that not only can these often forgotten sections of the paper reveal fascinating histories, but with the natural cycle of life, many precious stories will sadly fade and disappear. It is a privilege for Mason students to learn history from those who have experienced it.
May 09, 2016