NORTHVILLE — At 91 years old, Bethlehem resident Ruth Mendel is part of a shrinking group of survivors of the Holocaust.
Her story: she escaped the genocide that killed six million Jews across Nazi Germany-occupied Europe more than 80 years ago. More than half of her family was killed.
During a lecture at Northville Central School, she recounted all the details — moments of heartache, bedlam and hope. As Holocaust denialism persists, she said, bottling the memories up isn’t an option.
“If there were no need for it, I wouldn’t do it,” said Mendel.
While living nearly an hour away, Mendel is no stranger to Fulton County. She spoke about her childhood experiences at Knesseth-Israel Synagogue in Gloversville 10 years ago and with Northville students over Webex during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For more than a decade, she has traveled from school to school across upstate New York. The events are typically organized in conjunction with the Holocaust Survivors and Friends Education Center in Albany.
“Opportunities like this are very time sensitive,” said Northville Middle/High School Principal Samuel Ratti. “In a few years, this won’t exist, unfortunately.”
Teacher Jayme Bevington’s seventh-grade class offered Mendel a handmade Holocaust remembrance quilt. The group has been reading books from the period, including “The Boy In The Striped Pajamas.”
“At my age, I’m trying to get rid of things, but this is so thoughtful, so meaningful, that I’m going to share it with the Holocaust Survivors and Friends and see that it gets noticed, because this is not for me.”
Mendel was born in Luxembourg in 1931 to Polish parents. She described the first nine years of her childhood as “very happy.”
But, things began to change when the Nazis invaded on May 10, 1940. She remembers the day vividly. The then-9-year-old looked out her window and witnessed the tiny country’s ragtag military mobilization efforts unfolding. It was no match for the Nazis, who quickly occupied the grand duchy.
At first, her grandparents’ dry goods store was slapped with The Star of David in an effort to prevent others from patronizing the business. Next, she was kicked out of school. As the landscape appeared more and more ominous, her family cautiously fled to get visas in Belgium.
From there, with little money left, they trekked by train to Paris, Spain and eventually Portugal. Finally, they got on a boat to the United States, despite struggling with American immigration requirements at the time, which limited the number of people allowed to enter the country.
Another transport packed with Holocaust refugees at the time never made it out of the port.
“From what I understand, some people wound up in southern France, others in the camps,” Mendel said, “and it was just pure luck. I would not be standing here in front of you had we been in that second class.”
Mendel went on to live in New York City before moving to the Albany area with her husband. She said that she’s had a mostly normal life since then, but has always tried to be “useful.”
She still thinks about the half of her family from Poland who didn’t survive the Holocaust. She said that much of the massacre could’ve been avoided if people stood up to the rhetoric of the time.
“The words we speak to each other, to our friends, to people we know, to people we may not particularly like are very important, because they have an effect,” Mendel said.
Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-395-3047 or [email protected] Follow him on Facebook at Tyler A. McNeil, Daily Gazette or Twitter @TylerAMcNeil.