by Kathleen Dolan
Renate Reutlinger is standing on a doorstep in Germany in 1936, posing with a cone of candies for her first day of first grade. She is a 6-year-old Jewish girl and a disarming youngster, wearing a dress, knee-high stockings, and half-smile. The cone, a Schultüte, or a “school cone,” is part of a German tradition alleged to bring good luck, and at the moment this scene is photographed, life is good for Reutlinger.
It’s easy to be taken with the sweetness of the photograph. It’s also easy, with a little context, to be consumed with gloom and dread for the little girl.
The black-and-white photograph of Reutlinger — known today as Ronnie Breslow — was projected onto a screen in the East Parlor for her talk, “Sailing to Nowhere.” The event was held at Chestnut Hill College on Apr. 17 and presented by the history department.
Breslow survived the Holocaust, and now, at the age of 89, the Elkins Park resident visits museums and schools to educate students and adults alike as a primary source of perhaps the largest cataclysm in human history.
Speaking in front of the college community, Breslow described her brief childhood in Kirchheim, Germany, where she was born in 1930. She was an only child to Elly and Gustav Reutlinger, and the small family lived above the dry goods store her father owned. She recalls a happy first five years of her life, as she hints at the disastrous events to come.
She remembers her mother telling her about the parades often held in honor of Adolf Hitler, at that time the new leader of Germany, when she was 4 and 5 years old, still playing with her cousin Helga and friends.
“Hitler never hid his disdain for the Jewish minority. The vast majority of Germans adored him,” Breslow said.
The Nuremberg Laws, a set of antisemitic and racial laws enacted by the Nazis in 1935, had an intensely personal impact on Breslow. She cited three that derailed her daily life in Germany.
“This was my first heartbreak,” she recalled, explaining how her housekeeper, Sophie, a German woman whom Breslow had considered a best friend, had to leave the family’s house. One of the laws prohibited any German under 45 years of age from working in a Jewish household. Non-Jews were banned from shopping at stores owned by Jews, and her father’s business soon crumbled, so he closed his shop. Jewish children were forbidden from attending public school.
Breslow recalled these events with perceivable sorrow and described the day she was told she could not return to school.
“The friends that I walked to school with that day had left without me. German boys taunted me,” she said. “Marianne, my best friend, walked home with me, trying to comfort me. I never saw her again after that.”
Breslow learned that Marianne had been beat with a belt by her father when he discovered that his daughter had walked home from school with a Jewish girl.
On Nov. 9–10, 1938, nearly 100 Jews were murdered and 267 synagogues were burned to the ground or destroyed by the Nazis in a pogrom known as Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass.”
“We, Jews, lost all of our civil rights and liberties,” Breslow said.
In all, more than 1,400 synagogues were burned or damaged. Around 30,000 Jewish men were dragged from their beds and sent to concentration camps. About 7,500 Jewish stores were broken into, looted, ransacked, damaged or outright destroyed.
“Oh, the police were there,” Breslow said, anticipating the question. “But the purpose of the police was to keep the Jewish owners from coming back to save their own merchandise.”
“I think it’s pretty safe for me to say that after Kristallnacht there wasn’t a Jewish person in Germany who didn’t want to leave. A big problem was where to go,” Breslow said.
For Breslow and her mother, Elly, the answer looked to be America, where her father, Gustav, had been in touch with family members who had already emigrated. They would reach the U.S. via Cuba.
On May 13, 1939, Breslow and Elly, along with 937 Jews, boarded the MS St. Louis, bound for Cuba. Breslow’s father would meet them in Cuba, having already left Germany by then, as he was encouraged by Elly to leave before them; she believed this was the family’s only chance.
When the St. Louis — on which Breslow remembers the pools, the game room, the adults dancing happily at a ball — arrived in Cuba, the Cuban government did not allow passengers to debark, even though they, like Elly, had purchased the costly and legal landing certificates required to enter.
The captain of the ship is still Breslow’s hero. Captain Gustav Schroeder ignored cablegrams from Berlin ordering him to return to Germany. After a few weeks, the ship eventually had to leave Cuban waters and sail north along the shores of Miami.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had not replied to telegrams from the ship asking for help. Still ignoring orders from Berlin, Schroeder circled the Atlantic as negotiations were made with countries still considered sanctuaries, and ultimately Belgium opened its port to the St. Louis.
Breslow credited Schroeder with saving her life several times. There were two ships behind the St. Louis, and Breslow said they returned to Berlin following orders. Those passengers were unloaded and hauled into concentration camps.
Breslow lost many loved ones in the Holocaust. But she and her mother eventually made it out, owing to a few things, not least of which was her parents’ persistence. Her mother and her were separated in Holland and spent months, hungry and cold, in separate detention camps. Her father had made it to the U.S. and was able to process papers for the legal entry of Breslow and her mother. After a connection was made with a Dutch navy captain in Antwerp, Belgium, they were on a ship leaving from Holland set for New York Harbor.
All around Breslow were the seething horrors and unfathomable tragedy that she narrowly escaped. Germany invaded three of the four countries offering sanctuary, and concentration camps were sprouting up around her. Many of the people in Holland she had interacted with would soon perish. Her cousin Helga died at age 18. More than half the passengers on the St. Louis who twice caught glimpses of freedom would be murdered in the camps. The quotas in the U.S. for admitting refugees had not been met, yet German Jews found it harder and harder to leave without having the right paperwork or the funds.
In New York, Breslow was reunited with her father, recalling the first sights of ceaseless hustle at the harbor.
“In Europe, everyone was at a leisurely pace,” she said. “In New York Harbor, it seemed to be everyone was running around.”
When Breslow asked her father why everyone was in a rush, he laughed and said, “This is America!”
A photograph of Breslow’s passport showing her with the same half-smile lit up the screen at the end of the presentation; she was only 9 years old in the picture. Looking at photographs of the Holocaust, the black-and-white documents of an inconceivable horror, one can often see only death. But hearing the story from a person in those photographs is like a small crack in the terror. With the intimacy of a first-hand account, the bravery and spirit of a people is alive and standing right in front of you.