Ruth Bachner, Somers
photo by Toshi Tasaki
Ruth Bachner’s first memory of the Holocaust is of shattered windows. She remembers Kristallnacht, when synagogues were burned, businesses plundered, Jewish cemeteries desecrated, and, for the first time, Jews were imprisoned on a massive scale. “I was petrified,” Bachner says. “I didn’t understand why this was happening. It was hard knowing that even my parents couldn’t protect my little brother and me.” It was November 10, 1938.
To avoid incarceration, Bachner’s father, whose haberdashery in Vienna was destroyed, escaped to Belgium. Soon after, “our building’s janitor came to our door wearing an SS uniform and a swastika, and forced my mother, brother, and me to vacate the apartment, so he could move in.” She says, “I cried for my father and I asked my mother, ‘Isn’t this our apartment? How could the janitor do this?’ She only told me the men with the black uniforms were bad people.”
Through a relative’s business connections, her mother was able to obtain forged passports, allowing them to board a train to Germany in January, 1939. Their hope was to go from there to Belgium to reunite with Bachner’s father. “Imagine going into the fire,” she says of going toward Germany. “It was our only way of getting to the border with Belgium.” Crossing the border from Germany to Belgium on foot at night, Bachner recalls, “I was so afraid. I could hear the German soldiers with their hound dogs howling in the background.”
The family, reunited in Belgium, hoped to immigrate to the United States. On May 10, 1940, they had an appointment to take immigration physicals at the American consulate, but the Germans invaded Belgium the same day. As the bombs flew, Bachner and her family hid in a ditch beside the road. “Everybody was running out; it was havoc. I was crying, and my dad would say to me, ‘Child, pray.’”
With the Germans in control, Bachner and her family, like all Jews, were mandated to wear a yellow Star of David on the left side of their clothes inscribed with a “J.” Bachner recalls the curfews, the ration cards, and the constant raids. With conditions growing increasingly horrible and dangerous for the Jews, her parents, desperate to save her and her brother, entrusted them to a priest, Father Bruno Reynders, who saved nearly 400 Jews. He helped conceal Bachner at a convent and her brother at a Catholic orphanage. Her parents hid in a Christian estate. “All I could think of was, ‘How could my parents do this to me?’ I did not understand until I had my own children and realized how courageous and selfless they had been. Of course, the reason I’m here is because of that priest, who risked his life to save us.”
For the next year and a half, Bachner lived in the convent, often fearing she’d be discovered. To protect her, the nuns changed her name to Marie Renée Le Roi. “I missed my parents very much. I was given instructions never to divulge my real name or that I was Jewish. I was always on guard.” Looking back, Bachner feels she was brainwashed. “When a nun keeps telling you your soul will burn in hell forever if you’re not baptized, you believe it.”
Her mother picked her up at the convent soon after the war ended but, she admits, “I didn’t want to go. I wanted to become a nun. I took the statue of the Virgin Mary home with me to Brussels and put it on the mantle.” Shortly after, however, the family made their way to the United States without the religious icon. “My father was a believer, who used to say he had a pact with the Almighty, and I’m a believer, too,” she says. Of her immediate family, her father’s four siblings, and her mother’s two, all survived the Holocaust. “What happened to my family was a true miracle.”
She married Auschwitz and Dachau survivor Fred Bachner, who passed away two and a half years ago, the week before the couple’s 57th wedding anniversary. They lived in Hartsdale, where they raised two daughters—Ellen, who lives in Mamaroneck, and Cindy, who lives in Andover, Massachusetts—before moving to Somers. Bachner has four grown grandchildren, all in prestigious universities, including Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania. “Because of our experiences, we taught our children never to hate others because they have different beliefs,” she says.
Bachner says she rarely talked about life before the war years with her parents. She doesn’t even know when they were married. “I should have asked so many questions,” she says. With her husband and children, though, she discussed the subject. In 1961, with both of their daughters under 11, the couple had the girls watch the trial of newly captured SS leader Adolf Eichmann. At first, Bachner had doubts. “I said, ‘Freddie, I think they’re a bit too young.’ He said, ‘No. If they don’t understand, we’ll explain it.’”
Twenty-two years ago, in that same spirit, Bachner and her husband took their children to visit concentration camps, as well as the convent in which she survived the war. “We felt it was important to show our children and it was important for me to go back.” At her family’s old apartment building in Vienna, she says, “I was trembling as I rang the bell to our apartment. I saw it was the same janitor who had forced us out. I wanted to come in, but he would not allow me. He slammed the door in my face and I cursed him out in German.”
She says, “Somehow by expressing my anger at this man, who was himself only a teenager then, I felt cleansed in a way.”