In January, 2009, I traveled with several Kulanu leaders and volunteers to visit the Kechene Jewish community in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (see Spring, 2011 issue of Kulanu News) and the Abuyudaya Jewish community in Uganda. The weeks in Africa were life changing for me as a person and as a Jew. However, at the same time, I was experiencing so much excitement and joy, I was also feeling sad, as I had left for Africa at a difficult time in my life. My good friend Ruth Horak, a Holocaust survivor, was dying. Before the trip, I had traveled to NYC from Boston twice, each time for several days, to sit with her, comfort her and hold her hand.
Although I had met and worked with many Holocaust survivors during my career in Jewish communal service, Ruth was my friend. I had never been so close. In our conversations, she shared many of her experiences. The family, which lived in Prague, had been wealthy, assimilated and cultured. But, as in many Holocaust stories, their life changed overnight. Her father was taken in an early round up of Jewish men and disappeared. She and her mother were sent to Terezinstadt and then on to Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. They had barely survived a death march, bombs dropped by the allies when they were slave laborers in Germany and starvation, humiliation and deprivation on a daily basis. Ruth was 11 years old when she entered the camps. The miracle was that they survived; both of them.
On liberation, the two were sent to Sweden to recuperate as they were malnourished and their health fragile. Ruth would spend three months in a hospital. She liked to repeat the words of the Swedish doctor who told her she would be dead by the age of 50 as her body was damaged beyond repair. Ruth died two days before I returned home from Uganda. She was 86 years old.
Throughout her life, Ruth refused to succumb to depression and sadness. Instead, she was feisty and full of energy, living every minute of her life to the fullest. She loved medicine and science; she loved art and music; she was politically aware and devoured the newspapers and news shows. She loved to dance.
She was also a beautiful woman… petite, with a delicate build and high check bones. She still could turn heads into her 80’s. She loved to dress up. She loved to wear hats and boasted of the bargains she found in local thrift shops. She loved nature and the trees that she saw from the window of her apartment. She said she never missed the monied life of her childhood. She was just happy to be alive.
As I sat by her bedside during the last weeks of her life, we spoke about many things. She told me that she felt she had lived a positive life in response to the tragic circumstances of her early years. She had no regrets. However, during the last year or so, the positive mind-set that she had nurtured during her post Holocaust life, became a bit shaky. She admitted to experiencing dark thoughts and recurring memories. She repeated the story of a friend who returned to her village and waited at the train station every day hoping someone in her family would return home. No one ever did. Like many Holocaust survivors, Ruth had pushed the painful experience of her past into the deepest recesses of her mind, only to see them resurface toward the end of her life.
When Ruth died, her daughter Nina and I spoke about a fitting memorial for her mother. Nina decided that the Abuyudaya community, persecuted as Jews by dictator Idi Amin, seemed a perfect fit. The choice of gift was for the village of Namutumba, the poorest of the Abuyudaya’s seven villages. Its extreme poverty was due to the confiscation of their land by Amin during his dictatorship and anti-Jewish policy.
When Kulanu Ugandan coordinator Laura Wetzler developed a grain mill project with leaders of the Namutumba community in hopes of helping them rise out of poverty, Kulanu reached out to donors to pay for this development project. The South Peninsula Jewish Community Teen Foundation of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund and Ruth’s daughter, Nina Horak, answered the call.
So this January, 2012, almost two years to the day, I will be traveling to Uganda again. This time one of the highlights of my visit will be the dedication of the grain mill in Namutumba and the affixing of a plaque in honor of the California teen philanthropic project and in memory of my friend Ruth Horak.