OpinionHolocaust & Holocaust Survivors

She fought not to forget

Sara Rus never gave up despite suffering unspeakable tragedies at the hands of the Nazis and then the Argentinean junta.

At the entrance to Auschwitz: "Triumph of the Spirit" director Miriam Cohen is flanked by producers Chani Kopilowitz (left) and Yuti Neiman. Photo: Courtesy of Triumph of the Spirit.
At the entrance to Auschwitz: "Triumph of the Spirit" director Miriam Cohen is flanked by producers Chani Kopilowitz (left) and Yuti Neiman. Photo: Courtesy of Triumph of the Spirit.
Dina Siegel Vann
Dina Siegel Vann is director of the American Jewish Committee's Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Sara Rus once said, “When I tell my story, I don’t feel pain. On the contrary, I feel liberated. I want to recount it and I feel that I should because there are few survivors left.”

Would you feel the same if you were recounting how the Nazis stripped you of your rights, confined you to a ghetto, shipped you to a death camp via cattle car, used you as slave labor and left you for dead?

What if you somehow survived, immigrated to another country and built a new life, only to have a military dictatorship kidnap and murder your eldest son?

Sara knew her story was her legacy. She was driven to share it with all those who would listen so no one else would have to endure what she endured.

As we mark Women’s History Month, the first since Sara’s passing and since Hamas kidnapped 240 people from Israel on Oct. 7, it is fitting not only to honor her and her story, but also those of a new group of mothers following in Sara’s footsteps as they too demand the return of their children.

Born Sheine Laskier in Poland in 1927, Sara was a happy child who enjoyed playing the violin. After the Nazis invaded Poland, her family was forced into the Lodz ghetto, where her two infant siblings died. One day, a Nazi came to the family home and asked who played the violin. Her mother proudly responded that Sara did. “Ah, your baby,” said the Nazi as he smashed the instrument.

Sara said that, although she had a childhood, she was denied her adolescence.

In 1944, her family was deported to Auschwitz and then Birkenau. Before Sara left, her fiancé Bernardo told her that they should meet in Argentina on May 5, 1945 if they both survived.

Designated for execution, the family received no tattoos. Her father was immediately murdered. Sara appealed to an SS officer on her mother’s behalf. The officer was apparently swayed by Sara’s fluency in German.

She and her mother were then enslaved, first in an aircraft factory and later in the Mauthausen concentration camp. After an accident left Sara unable to work, she was made to peel potatoes. She was able to secretly save some (raw) for the other prisoners. Starving as they were, these were a delicacy.

Sara did indeed survive and, as fate would have it, was liberated on May 5, 1945. She reunited with Bernardo in Poland, married and immigrated to Argentina in 1948.

Sara and Bernardo’s journey was not easy. Argentina’s Perón regime accepted very few Holocaust refugees. Detained at the Paraguayan border, Bernardo wrote to Evita Perón, who miraculously read the letter and interceded on their behalf. The couple built a new life in Buenos Aires and had two children.

But there would be no happily ever after.

A military junta seized power over Argentina in 1976. A ruthless campaign of arbitrary detention, torture and murder known as the Dirty War ensued. Up to 30,000 citizens “disappeared”—kidnapped and murdered without trial or official acknowledgement.

Sara’s son Daniel was taken from outside his workplace in 1977 and never seen again. Twenty-five years later and thousands of miles from Poland, Sara’s world was once again shattered by murderous totalitarianism.

She could have broken then. But just as when she dared to ask an SS officer to spare her mother, Sara refused to stay quiet.

She knocked on doors; wrote letters; met with U.S. senators; and joined the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. This protest group composed of mothers of the disappeared, despite the danger, marched in front of Argentina’s Casa Rosada—the president’s official workplace—every day demanding their children back.

Sara was also at the forefront of the appeal to return the more than 12% of the disappeared who were Jews. But Daniel was gone. Even after the return of democracy, she received no further information on his fate.

The tragedies Sara suffered would drive most to madness. Instead, they drove her to advocacy. She demanded that the junta face justice and participated in the March of the Living in Poland.

“I survived,” she said, “to tell everyone about the effect that hatred can have on humanity. If we do not think that what happens to our neighbor can happen to us, then we have not learned anything from the Holocaust. I fight not to forget. I fight for memory. My only wish is to live in a better world.”

Sara died in January at the age of 96. We can honor her legacy by ensuring that none of today’s kidnapped are forgotten and that the story of the mothers marching in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem has a different ending than that of the mothers who marched in Buenos Aires.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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