Auschwitz. The word is synonymous with death, loss, murder and extermination, the worst barbarism that can be inflicted by one human upon another. For many, it symbolizes evil incarnate.
Most of us know it only as that: a symbol, a word, a dreadful image from the past. Yet for others, such as Gitta Ryle, Auschwitz is a living, cold reality that consumed her beloved father and grandparents who were starved, beaten, gassed and incinerated in its Nazi machinery of hatred and racism.
Over the years, Mrs. Ryle has spoken of her life during the war with increasing frequency to elementary, high school and college students. Her living, breathing, realistic account of her experiences has brought history and its relevance to the present, before the hearts and minds of many generations. On a more personal and less publicly noticed form of engagement, she has provided support and comfort for young people who, like herself, have had to cope with the death of a family member or friend.
GITTA: I was born in Vienna in 1932. In thirty-nine Hitler invaded Austria. Since my family was Jewish we had to flee from the Nazis. My father was in the most danger. To avoid capture, he and some other men left almost immediately. My mother, older sister and I stayed on for a while. Mother eventually heard of a children’s organization called the OSE that took Jewish children out of the country to try to save them. After a few preliminaries, my mother decided to have us go and put us on a train with other children to France, where my sister and I stayed throughout the remainder of the war. My mother answered a job announcement and got a job as a cook/dietitian in England. They sent her a ticket and she stayed there until the war ended.
In the meantime, we learned that father had escaped to Belgium. Through the Red Cross in Switzerland, we were all able to keep in touch with occasional letters. When father discovered where we were he came to France and worked close by the school we attended, so he could visit. We saw him a few times before some French citizens denounced him. He was captured, put into a camp and shipped to Auschwitz. That is where my father died in 1942. I was seven when I left Vienna, so I must have been about nine and my sister twelve. My grandparents, on my mother’s side, also died there. They were not able to leave the country because of health reasons. There was also my father’s brother Moses and his wife and son, Martin, who were captured and listed among the dead in Auschwitz. My father’s parents died before I was born. Luckily, my mother’s younger brother and sister had left before the war and lived in America.
Other friends and some of our teachers were also killed. Each time the Germans infiltrated our school they’d rush us out. I was always in the younger group and my sister in the middle. We went from one children’s home to another until they hid us in a Catholic convent. When the convent also came under suspicion, they put us on individual farms.
I grieved especially hard for some of the teachers that were taken away. One was Boris and his wife. Another was Moses and his wife. As a child, I didn’t know what was happening to me. After a while you start to become numb when somebody dies. There was no place for grieving. You think that this is the way life is. It was a protective mechanism. I guess I established a personality which was just, I don’t know . . . not trusting . . . never knowing what was going to happen.
At one point when we were hidden in a farm cellar, and fighting was going on all around us, I just said, “OK, this is it. They’re going to bomb us anyway.” We said goodbye to each other and it was kind of peaceful to think it was going to end. I think that is partially how I lived my life. When I have done some work or process of trying to get rid of some of the deeper feelings, I’ve thought of how peaceful it would be to just follow them to the gas chamber. That is what I have been working on from this loss, this last loss. I thought I was doing pretty good, but I guess I’m not there yet because it comes up again and again, as now. All of the past deaths, all of the losses, come up each time. It’s harder and harder.
My father was gone, then my mother. I reunited with her when we came to America and she died when I was pregnant with my third child in August of 1965. She died of a heart attack in her sleep. It was her third such attack. She’d had two mild ones before. I believe she died of a broken heart when she’d had to give us up during the war. I don’t know if I could have done that. She was a very courageous lady. After the war, she always worked and kept busy. I don’t think she ever went too deep into herself because that was scary. Part of me wishes I were the same way. Instead, I delve into it and work with it because that is the only way I know how to live.
It makes a difference how you lose someone. When I lost my mother I was quite pregnant. There was a different type of grieving because of bringing someone to life just when another is leaving. I took it very hard. The initial reaction was, “Oh God no!” Her death triggered a lot of stuff, but I didn’t have the time to deal with it like I did when my husband died. I had three small children to take care of. I guess that is what they mean when they say being busy is good, though I don’t believe it. Maybe it helps other people but for me, it just pushes things down and puts it away.
When my husband became ill, he was sick for eight months, I started grieving upon hearing the prognosis and kept hoping he was going to make it; hoping for some miracle even though the death sentence was three to six months. Up front, I did not accept that he was going to die, even though in the back of my mind there was that stuff going on that realized it was indeed going to happen. This made his death the most traumatic. It brought up all the others I had not had time to deal with. For the first year and a half after his death, I was numb. I had Hospice and saw Norma (a bereavement counselor) once a week and there was a wonderful social worker named Betty. She talked with my children. I told her when it was all over that then I could see her. She was very good. She came a month or so after his death and it was very helpful.
A month before Bob (husband) died, his ninety-one-year-old father died. So while I was taking care of Bob I also took care of his father. He was a very difficult man but through me being with him I learned a lot of compassion and he always said he loved me and appreciated that I was there for him. When he died Bob didn’t want to go see him but at the last minute said OK. I drove him to the funeral home, went up to his dad and touched him and gave him a kiss on the forehead. I cried. I think in some ways I was saying goodbye to my own dad. After the war, we searched in vain for my father, until we found a listing that said he was shipped to Auschwitz. Taking care of my father-in-law and Bob gave me a way to do what I couldn’t do for my dad.
For the first few months after Bob died, I didn’t accept the reality and being alone. It was the first time I’d ever slept alone in my entire life. There was always somebody around . . . children, parents, husband.
I always felt Bob was around though. I wasn’t afraid. I closed the door, went to bed and that was it. It’s been like that ever since. That is why the house is good for me. There are all kinds of beliefs about this. We each have to pick what fits for us. I put a bench out by the ocean, just a half block from this house, in his honor and I put some of his ashes close by so I can go there anytime. He used to love the sunlight, so he faces the lighthouse (South).
Growing up I knew a little about Judaism, but not that much. We didn’t have schooling or anything during the war and being in the Catholic Church for only six months, in a convent, I learned the rosary in French and listened to the chanting and stuff. I liked it. It made me feel safe, so as a child it was OK. I did a lot of work on myself but not too much on religion. I couldn’t give up my Jewishness, but I did survive for a reason, whatever that is, so I needed to keep it.
When my children got to the same age that I had been when we were separated from our parents, I started getting ulcers. I was physically sick and there was a lot of fear in me. Bob said, “You need to get some help.” My kids were six and seven-years-old. I went and talked to a counselor. At first I talked about things that bothered me every day and then we got deeper and deeper, to the point where the guilt and not understanding why someone would want to kill me when I didn’t do anything wrong . . . all that stuff came out. That is when I say I started the work. When anniversaries of the war occurred, forty then fifty years, people started asking me more questions and I told them my story.
Before that, I hadn’t talked to my children, only when they asked because of something at school. They just knew I was from Europe. I think each one of them was affected a little differently about it.
When the schools began to discuss the holocaust they became interested in what a live person who’d lived through it would say. It’s had a big impact on those I speak with. I’m OK with doing it when I’m asked, partially because we don’t want to forget about it. When I talk to kids I give them a little lecture and try to put across, “Yes, what happened was terrible.” and “Yes, I went through it and survived. I am who I am because I survived. It’s the yin and the yang, nothing is all bad. I could have gone another way. I could have become a killer, but for some reason, I choose not to. I chose to be an OK individual, to be healthy and honest.”
The reason I chose good over evil came from my beginnings. I had a very loving mother and father. It was my sister and I and mother and father. We lived in a small apartment in Vienna and I remember a lot of love and compassion. I was very special, especially to my dad. So I have some real positive food that was given to me very early and I think that is why I talk to young people who have children about how important it is, that beginning. If I hadn’t had that I don’t know which way I would have gone. When the family was separated I didn’t understand, but as I became an adult the nurturing and caring stayed with me and helped me go the right way.
I remember a lot of hugging. There was always greetings, comings, goings, holding and explanations of things. My dad was quite religious and he would explain what he was doing. I vaguely remember going to temple as a little girl and having happy memories. My mother was a fabulous cook. She gave us wonderful food and was always there for us. I was never left alone. When I went to kindergarten, right before Hitler came to Vienna, my sister always went with me on the trolley. She would drop me off when she went to her class. We were a unit. We were a very strong unit, then just like that . . . it was all cut off.
My mother told me that when Dad got his paycheck he would go to the market and get groceries for his brothers and take care of everybody that he knew who didn’t have much. Then he would give the rest of the money to my Mom for the household. He was very generous to other people, a very caring man. When he came to France he worked in a nearby nursing home run by nuns. He’d do any labor he could in order to be close to us. We were his joy. My mother was also very generous helping neighbors.
We had nice neighbors. They were not Jewish. There was one family whose daughter was my sister’s best friend. She and her sister are still alive and we continue corresponding to this day. That’s another thing I’ve discovered has helped. There were Jewish people that helped me and there were not Jewish people who helped.
I still feel connected to those who’ve died. Sometimes at night, I hear my name very clearly. Sometimes it’s my Mother’s voice and at others, it’s my Dads. And I’ve definitely heard Bob’s voice.
When I’m doing things, like driving, I have a different calmness about me then I did before Bob’s death. I don’t know if it’s because of the time I took in grieving or not.
For a while I kind of separated myself, emotionally I was cut off from everybody. I let my adult kids know that if they needed help they’d have to get it from somewhere else because I had no energy or anything left to give them. I’d always been a nourishing mother and this didn’t fit that image. It was a complete change for me. I had no thoughts for me or anybody. It was like a blank. Everything was gray and passive. There was no color, no life, just existence. My body was in need of replenishment. In some way you need to shut off for a while, otherwise, you go nuts or kill yourself. I mean, you know, go into a deep depression. Anyway, that was my analysis of it. I allowed the process to happen. It wasn’t easy. It was very hard and I don’t remember all of it. I know people came to visit me but I couldn’t tell you who.
I am very, very fortunate. I have a lot of people that love and care for me. I had one girlfriend call me every single day from the day Bob was diagnosed. At times I definitely felt more connected to the dead than the living. I felt Bob’s presence off and on.
Lately, I don’t like where I am. It was better where I was. I will get there again. I want to work on getting cleaned out of attachments to my ego. I would not have wanted my life to continue like it was in that first year, but I know a lot of people who live like that.
Somehow things finally changed. I can’t tell you exactly what happened but I remember talking with my counselor one Monday morning and saying, “Wow, I see color! I see color clearer now then I have ever seen in my life. I’m taking everything in.” I didn’t know that it would ever come back, especially feelings of joy. I feel it in my body and a lot here in my stomach (rubs stomach). I remember feeling little butterflies when Bob would hold me and we would hug and be loving. I never thought I’d feel that type of feeling again, but it happened. I felt alife all over. Now I can feel both, the heartaches and the joy.
It’s funny; I never looked into the rhyme or reason of the whole thing. I just allowed the process. A lot of Europeans take a year for grieving; they wear the armband and all that stuff. I just shut down because I didn’t have anything left. It’s like you know this is it, there is too much trauma, I can’t go through another one. I think I shut down for safety, to not get hurt again. If anything had happened to anybody else during that time I wouldn’t have felt it.
I’ve had other deaths since Bobs. My cousin died of cancer and an associate of Bob’s died suddenly. I have quite a list of deaths of people that I’ve loved. When it happens now I say a little prayer for them. I love and bless them. I show my love each time, because they are part of my life. I think of the blessing that they don’t suffer anymore.
I think my life has been more of a struggle then pleasure. I had a good childhood that was suddenly cut off. My marriage wasn’t ecstasy because I always worried that something would happen to him. I was always afraid that I’d lose him. In fact, I remember telling Bob it was difficult for me to say, “I love you.” because if I did something might happen to him. I don’t have that fear anymore. It has dissipated. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen, you know?
This stuff was all being worked on without me really knowing it. I came out of it with more peace. At other times there is still a hole, a loneliness and sadness that I can’t share this or that with Bob. That is reality. He will not be here and I need to work on healing that. Nobody can feel that hole. Sometimes I use food to numb that feeling but it just makes it worse.
Most of the time I am OK because I have the comfort of tapping into those I love whenever I wish. I live in reality. I don’t know if they hear me or not, but you know that is not important. It’s important that I can use it for what I need. It’s a comfort that I need for now.
When you go out and watch couples, the age that we are, I realize it is something I will never experience. I will never experience being retired with my husband and having weekends away. My old age will be alone. When I think of being ill without a partner it gets a little scary. There’s nothing I can do about it. If it happens, it happens.
Helping others has been easy. It makes me feel good. It’s like second nature. I enjoy going places and doing things. What life is about is getting joy from watching other people have joy. I think the ultimate thing that I can do is give some peace, joy or understanding to someone else.
My daughter is married to a young man whose father left home when he was five years old. He had another brother and a long history but no contact with his father. Ever since he married my daughter she’s said, “I wish he would find his dad. He says he wants to sometimes but then doesn’t do anything about it. When it comes down to it he says he can’t afford to search.” I told them that if that were the only obstacle I would not mind funding it. They agreed and just last Sunday, after conducting a search, my son-in-law calls me up excitedly and says, “I just talked to my dad. He called me!” I started crying with joy. My whole body became alive with emotions. I thought about all the connections, for someone to have the possibility to make such a connection. He also discovered a half sister whose mother died a month ago. He’s going to meet her too.
That is what life is about for me. I do not understand why I am here most of the time. I get up in the morning and am glad I can get up.
When things are good and I am feeling physically and mentally good, I’m with people and realize I need people more. When I’m not feeling well I tend to isolate myself, thinking I can be strong and take care of everything. It doesn’t work well and I don’t feel good when I do it. I pushed some people away when I was working very hard on that and I need to open up again and allow people in.
About a year after Bob died I became involved with the Griefbuster’s program. I have a lot of compassion and can relate with children, while also being detached and seeing where they are at. I love children.
My niece lives here and she has two daughters Heather and Chloe, age three and five. They are here every Thursday. It is my day to play. I do not think about responsibilities and problems. I’m in the moment of simply playing. I’m teaching them. We learn together. I crawl up on the stairs with them and they laugh. It is wonderful.
Families are important. I had that and it was taken away. So many families now don’t have that connection, they are to busy working. I don’t identify with adults anymore, not those looking for the next goal, the next profession where they can make money, where they can do this and that. I’m trying to simplify my life.
I have wonderful children. They are loving kids. If I had a heart attack or got sick, whatever, they would be here. They’d drop everything else and come help me. But that is not what I want. I want them when I am well. Maybe I’m selfish in that way but I think a nurse or doctor can take care of me when I’m sick.
Today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow. I notice that I am in a very strange place. Grieving is a deep thing, but it’s also your life. When you grieve all your past comes up, your childhood experiences and how it affected you.
A woman who takes care of a newborn down the street comes over once a week and we play with the baby and I am fine again for a while. I wish I could bottle that feeling and put it someplace else. That would be good. And when these girls walk in the door on Thursday and come running to me with open arms, giving me hugs and kisses, so full of joy and liberation. No pretensions just clear, loving and happy. What more could you want? It’s so empowering. I am whoever they want me to be for the day.
I hope when I’m dead and gone that I will have given some pleasure to others. That it was a joy for people to know me. That the children who have been in my life know that I love them unconditionally and gave everything I could unconditionally. I feel the same way with my children. I’ve let go of attachments to my children. As far as I know they are healthy, intelligent beings. hey have their own habits and behaviors. I do not own them. There was a time when I wanted them to be different. I did a lot of work with my daughter and myself on that.
I am responsible for my actions and that is what I want to relay when I talk to kids. I try to show them that they have choices and whatever choice they take, that they take responsibility for it. I think that is the hardest lesson to learn but also the best. Whatever it is, even if you felt somebody did you wrong; you have to take responsibility. That is how I have to deal with life, even when I am angry and spout off, “This isn’t fair! I’m a victim!” As soon as I let it out I then take responsibility for it. I don’t blame others for my state of being.
The other thing I try to share with kids is to love them selves and to feel that specialness we each have, which has often been taken away by our experiences. If we can let go of all that stuff, we can see the preciousness. That is what I’m really trying to learn. I can see the beauty of every human being around me – adults and children. I don’t see it as much in me and that is what I’m learning to do. Self-judging, self-hate, self-abuse, whatever you want to call it, we don’t have to do it. That is what I am here to do. This is my work. This is what I need to do to move on.
Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.