Holocaust survivor shares incredible escape story with Folkshul families

by Patrick and Audrey Cobbs
Posted 3/5/21

Holocaust survivor Ruth Kapp Hartz recently spoke to members of the last generation to hear her story at Jewish Children’s Folkshul in Chestnut Hill. Her message? Kindness saves lives, and we need that kindness now.

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Holocaust survivor shares incredible escape story with Folkshul families

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Holocaust survivor Ruth Kapp Hartz recently spoke to members of the last generation to hear her story at Jewish Children’s Folkshul in Chestnut Hill. Her message? Kindness saves lives, and we need that kindness now.

She spoke of history, but her focus was not on the past.

“You needed a lot of people to help you along the way to survive,” the 83-year old said to an audience of grades five and up from the secular Jewish community.

She told of how, at four years old, she was separated from her parents in 1942 and became a “hidden child” while the Nazis and the French government hunted Jews. But she was also talking about today. She sees Europe in the late ‘30s and ‘40s, when her life was torn apart by hate, as a direct parallel to post-Trump America.

And she said her young age at the time of the Holocaust means she is one of the last people left who can deliver firsthand lessons to those who may need them most today.

Kapp Hartz’s story of survival is remarkable not only because of the courage she showed as a child but because of what kind strangers did for her while the world around them was falling apart. 

The impacts of this kindness began on a hot August day, just before dark, in the south of France. A civil servant ran through the streets of the town of Toulouse looking for a Jew named Benno Kapp, Ruth Kapp Hartz’s father.  

“‘There is going to be a big round-up of Jews,’” Kapp Hartz recalled him saying when he’d burst through the door of their small apartment. It would happen within the hour. “‘Your name is on the list. You better run to the station as fast as you can and try to catch a train.’”

Benno listened. Having already fled Germany because of worsening Jewish persecution there, he knew what this could mean. He gathered his wife and daughter, and he begged the man to also warn his brother, Heinrich, who lived nearby. 

The man said he would try, but Heinrich never made the train.

Ruth’s years-long dash was underway. 

The train took her to Arthès, and an apartment beneath the Fedou family. The Fedous were an older couple who, unknown to Ruth and her family, had recently watched in horror as authorities had dragged off the Jewish family that had lived there earlier.

“So we promised ourselves if ever there would be another Jewish family living there we would do everything in our power to help them,” Monsieur Fedou had later told the Kapps.

But police must have been watching, for they would soon storm in and nearly arrest young Ruth. The family fled again—to the home of Henri and Jeanne Valat, who had constructed a secret room in their basement. 

“These people took tremendous risks,” Ruth said. “They had actually built a wall parallel to their basement wall, so it wouldn’t look like people would be living there.”

But each time they moved, the danger followed, until finally the family had to split up, and Ruth had to go off on her own. 

“One day I saw my mother packing the few things I had,” Kapp Hartz recalled. “I said, ‘Where am I going?’ She said, ‘You’ve been in this basement for so long, you are so pale. I want you to get some fresh air. This lady is going to pick you up and then bring you back.’”

A woman with bright red hair put Ruth in the back seat of a car with two other children. They were taken to a massive stone building.

A nun came out, and the red-haired woman made introductions.

“‘This is my daughter, Emie,’” Kapp Hartz recalled her saying. “‘My son, Jean Claude.’ She turns to me and says, ‘This is my other daughter, Renèe.’”

And Renèe, a French orphan, not a German Jew from a loving family, was who Ruth had to become.

It was a dangerous game of make believe. The orphanage, which occupied the middle third of the huge building, had been sheltering several Jewish children under the noses of those who were seeking them. The Gestapo headquarters occupied one wing of the building and the local police headquarters occupied the other.

Time passed slowly. Ruth learned French. She learned to be Renèe, the orphan girl. And no one but Mother Superior knew the truth.

When the war finally ended, Ruth was reunited with her parents, who had both survived in the shelter of different networks of unexpected allies. 

“I was very, very lucky,” Kapp Hartz said. 

Tragically, most of Benno Kapp’s extended family did not survive. Heinrich was among them. He was caught the night of Ruth’s train ride and sent to a French camp, then to Auschwitz.

Why had the civil servant decided to help the Kapp family that spring day? Why had any of them? Ruth Kapp Hartz would never know for certain, but she believes it ultimately came down to kindness. 

It’s a message she spreads, traveling the country to tell her story, through her work at the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Elkins Park, and in her memoir, Your Name is Renèe, which she wrote with a former Springside student, Stacy Cretzmeyer, in 1999. Kapp Hartz had been Cretzmeyer’s French teacher at Springside, where she was known for 22 years as Madame Renèe Hartz. Researching the book for nine years with Cretzmeyer, brought Kapp Hartz back into close contact with many of her rescuers and reawakened her memories of their tremendous courage and kindness. 

Musicians and Folkshul members Jenny and David Heitler-Klevans, of Cheltenham, were especially moved by Kapp Hartz’s story the first time they heard it five years ago, when their own children were attending Folkshul. Recently, they have been working with Kapp Hartz to write a musical about it called Hidden.

“I see her story as dealing with these very difficult issues, but kind of framed in a positive way because there is a happy ending,” said Jenny Heitler-Klevans. “Not shying away from the fact that all of these horrors happened, but offering some hope as well.”

The couple has interviewed Kapp Hartz many times and they’ve travelled with her to France. They’ve met the descendants of her rescuers. They’ve seen the memorial Kapp Hartz installed on the orphanage building commemorating the heroic work of Mother Superior. They’ve met local officials who now honor Kapp Hartz and other hidden children, and the families who rescued them as a way of atoning for France’s official role in the Holocaust, and of showing pride in the people in their communities who, nevertheless, did the right thing.

“[The musical] is a way of amplifying the story and other stories from people who survived,” Jenny Heitler-Klevans said. “And it’s important to continue to be able to hear those stories.”

As for what Ruth Kapp Hartz’s story means to Generation Z, teenage members at Folkshul were mesmerized and saddened to learn about the heroic acts of kindness during such a terrifying time. Students conveyed the fear that was behind Kapp Hartz’s story and said it was eye opening to the Holocaust’s lessons about current events.

Miriam Pennock, a ninth-grade student at Folkshul, said, “Even if you think something can’t get worse, it can always get worse.”

Students also took away the theme of kindness and how small acts of kindness can change a person's life.

A major theme that Kapp Hartz wanted to stress was storytelling and the necessity of repeating Holocaust survivors’ stories so that young people can learn these lessons.

Miriam Pennock said she had heard from others in her family about keeping Holocaust stories alive, “But it’s different, it’s sad, hearing from someone who actually survived the Holocaust...You want to do them justice.” 

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