Salomon Staendig passport in 1939
Salomon Staendig passport issued by the Third Reich with a swastika stamp in 1939.

As a photojournalist who married into Judaism, this month marks an important time in our family’s history.

My wife’s mother, would have been 100-years-old this month. She was an Israeli, who witnessed the birth of the country not originally by choice, but for survival. In 1939 at the age of 15, she left Vienna alone as part of the great diaspora escaping the Nazis. 

Ruth Peyser's Israeli travel documents from the 1950s.
Ruth Peyser's Israeli travel documents from the 1950s.

Her father got a visa to America and left Austria branded as an unwanted alien under a new Nazi passport. He was denied visas for the rest of the family. Ruth’s sister escaped to Brazil with her new husband. Ruth’s mother, my wife’s grandmother, did not leave Austria and perished in Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.  Why is today feeling like the same atmosphere?

In 1939, Ruth boarded a train and journeyed away from her life in Vienna, never to return to the city of her youth. She never forgave the citizens of Austria and never once considered traveling back, and urging us to never go. Her Jewish youth group in Vienna took her to Italy, where she boarded a passenger ship that brought her to Haifa, and from their to her new life on a kibbutz, a radical change for a 15-year-old girl on her own.

Early Israel children group; Ruth Peyser collection
Early Israel children group; Ruth Peyser collection

When I read the book “Day After Night: A Novel” by Anita Diamant, I wanted to talk to Ruth and see how much of the story was like her own. She would not talk about those early years in the British Mandate. Diamant’s story features four women picking up the pieces after the Holocaust, survivors of the horrors of being Jewish in WWII. They are are interred by the British at an “illegal immigrant” camp in Palestine and eventually all live on Kibbutz. The overwhelming topic within the book was survivor’s guilt. Why did I survive but my mother died? I never learned how long it was before Ruth found out her mother had died in a concentration camp, her father was still alive in America, and her sister led a good life in Brazil. How can any of us put this experience into any type of perspective? We have instant communication at our fingertips. This was WWII and it would be a dozen years until Ruth saw her father again.

Gideon’s family emigrated in 1932 as the Nazi Party began its rise in Germany. The patriarch was Daniel, better known as Fritz, a prominent surgeon in Eschwege, Germany, moved to Haifa, where today a street bears his name. Family lore credits him with operating on and saving Moshe Dayan after he was wounded in a fight against the British. I can’t imagine what it was like during this turbulent time in history. Until today.

I wish Ruth and Gideon were both still alive. I never got to meet Gideon, but I have learned a great deal about him over the years. He was a brilliant mathematician, credited with the Interval Theorem published in 1967, that is still used today. But first, his mathematical skills were used as an artillery officer in what would one day become the IDF, but was first a band of brothers and sisters fighting for survival and the right to exist. That’s how and where my wife’s parents met. I have no reference in my life to put that in any kind of perspective. Until today.

Israel artillery company, perhaps connected to Gideon Peyser's service in Israel Army. Ruth Peyser collection
Israel artillery company, perhaps connected to Gideon Peyser's service in Israel Army. Ruth Peyser collection

Ruth Staendig met Gideon Peyser in the army. Two young people in a turbulent land called British Palestine, an area created by the League of Nations following the end of WWI and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Thousands of Jewish survivors came from Europe, looking to start a new life in their ancestral homeland, leaving behind the ashes of their families and friends in the Nazi killing zone. They were unwelcome back to many of their homes. It’s so hard to imagine.

Today I feel the hatred towards the Jewish people. It frightens me enough to think about leaving America.

Most of my life has revolved around religion. My parents were Baptist and Catholic, about as diametrically opposed as you can get in Christianity. During my childhood and early adulthood, I attended Sunday services trying nearly every sect – Baptist, Catholic, Unitarian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Church of Christ – before first learning about Judaism as a 25-year-old photojournalist working in Augusta, GA. To say that I had a white-bread existence is an understatement.

I first met my future wife, Andrea Peyser, on my first week working at The Tampa Tribune in 1985. I don’t remember the first time she told me she was Jewish, but it didn’t matter. It was still alien to me.

Ruth became an important part of my life in New York City. We spent holidays with Ruth and invited her to my family’s gatherings, which she always politely refused. It wasn’t a religious issue, she had always been a solitary creature since Gideon passed away while Andrea was in college. She always felt uncomfortable in large gatherings and my family was overwhelming. It took many years and a grandchild, but I felt Ruth and I had a wonderful relationship. I looked forward to our weekly outings to Waldbaum Grocery Store and Ben’s Delicatessen. She taught me to love Matzoh Ball soup and Corned Beef on Rye. I taught her to enjoy the outside world.

And she opened my eyes to how life can be so challenging and to make of it what you can.

I keep trying to imagine her reaction to today’s events. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This is a history we do not want to repeat.