RUTH SLATER DOESN’T, like to call herself a survivor. Though she spent the first six years of her life under the Nazi regime, she prefers to think of herself as a witness to the Shoah. Whatever you call her, Slater’s story of a childhood spent as a Jew in wartime Vienna offers a unique view into the Holocaust, an increasingly rare firsthand account of life in the shadow of genocide.
Sitting in her home in Pasadena, Slater allowed the floodgates of memory to open on a recent Tuesday afternoon. “I have a great problem with the idea of being called a survivor, knowing what horrors others went through,” Slater said. “Since I was part of it, but I wasn’t in a concentration camp where I saw horror everyday as they did, it was for me almost normal… and much of the horror was farther away from me.”
Ruth Slater was born in Vienna in 1939 into a home without a father. When Slater’s mother was only a few months pregnant, her father was rounded up by the Nazis. Though he’d been raised in Vienna, Slater’s father was born in Tarnapol, in what is now the Ukraine, but at the time was a part of the Hapsburg Galacia. He’d never become an Austrian citizen.
Her father was part of a group of a thousand men that were rounded up. “They were all ostensibly ‘stateless,’ they weren’t rounded up for being Jewish, but they all happened to be,” Slater said. The men, including Slater’s father, were taken away for a study about “Jewish racial traits.” The Nazis would measure the distance between their eyes, the length of their noses, and other physical features in search of a mythical Jewish ratio. When the study was done, the men, including Slater’s father, were shipped off to Buchenwald.
When Slater was born, she was saved by a quirk. “What was unusual, and contributed directly to our survival, was the fact that many, many people in our family were all employees of the Jewish Federation,” Slater said. In Austria, Mischling those of mixed Jewish ancestry were treated better than they were in Germany. While still subject to discrimination, they were largely protected from being shipped to concentration camps. “If you were a mischling, you were still entitled to medical services and to be in an old age home,” Slater said. Because her mother was an employee of the Rothschild hospital, which had been reassigned to treat Mischlinge, Slater and her mother were kept in Vienna.
At first, Slater was surrounded by several members of her family, including her grandmother, and her great aunt and uncle. They lived in the old age home across from the Rothschild hospital. “I have some photographs of my mother walking down the street with me,” Slater said. “My mother was either brave or foolish as she was walking around without her yellow star.”
Soon, however, things took a darker turn and her aunt and uncle were scheduled to be deported to a camp. One of Slater’s earliest memories is of her great aunt Mala being taken away. Slater remembers crying and screaming as Mala was put on the truck. She made such a scene that the Nazis moved her aunt to the front of the truck. “They actually took her, pulled her off the back of the truck, walked her by me, and put her in the seat next to the driver in the cab.”
At first Slater wasn’t certain that her memories were real. “My mother used to tell me I was making things up,” Slater said. However, when she returned to Vienna years later, a family friend confirmed the veracity of her memories of her aunt Mala’s deportation.
Slater’s second memory is of the allied bombings of Vienna in 1944. “The sirens would go off at 10 o’clock every morning, and they would bomb for a couple of hours, then all clear,” said Slater. Her family would usually go to a shelter right near the hospital, but other times they’d go to one farther away. It was on one of these rare trips to the faraway shelter that Slater experienced her second trauma. The bombing was especially fierce that day. “When we came out… the streets were ablaze. All the buildings were burning. And when we got back to the old people’s home where we were staying, we heard that the place (shelter) we most often went had been hit directly by a bomb.”
Years later Slater found out that the shelter they usually went to, the one that had been hit by a bomb that day, was in the Jewish Federation building. “Over a hundred people were killed,” according to Slater. They survived the Nazis only to be accidentally killed by the allies.
Slater knows that her story is different than most Holocaust stories. “So you’re a survivor – you were in a concentration camp? No. You were in the woods? No. You were hidden? No. You were in a convent? No. Other. Other—that was me,” Slater said. “I can say I was there—I saw what was going on around me. I saw the people who came back, and I know the people who didn’t.”
Slater’s father survived the war and returned to the family in 1946. After a couple of years living in the uneasy postwar Vienna, they moved to America. Slater has returned a few times over the years. “What my father kept saying before we went back was ‘the plums tasted so much better.’ And then we went back and he discovered that like every place else, the process of gathering fresh fruit is probably no different there and the plums did not taste any better,” said Slater.
While Slater has enjoyed parts of her trips back, particularly when she traveled to Vienna with her three daughters, she is blunt about her assessment of Austria. “It hasn’t changed,” Slater said. “Many of the people I talked to at length… they were very concerned about the right wing getting stronger.”
For Slater, education of the next generations is the most important thing. “You have to talk about what happened, because if you don’t have people who actually experienced it telling their story, it becomes second-hand. It becomes hearsay. I just got off a jury trial, my first-ever jury, and boy did we hear about hearsay. I was there, I can talk about it, and it’s important that young people in general know what people are capable of doing to other people.”
“For Jewish kids, they need to know the history of their people–our people–and be aware of those who aren’t too crazy about our surviving,” Slater said. “It’s one thing to read about it and another to sit across the table from someone who was there.”
Jonathan Maseng’s work has appeared in LA Weekly, The Press Enterprise, The Jewish Journal, and the Jerusalem Post. He also writes regularly about the New York Mets for SB Nation’s Amazin’ Avenue.