Holocaust survivor Ronnie Breslow, a Jewish woman who fled Germany as a child, is still fighting anti-Semitism and educating young people and the community about her escape from the Nazi regime 80 years later.
Breslow, 88, lives in suburban Philadelphia and actively lectures students about her experience and combating prejudice by voting and knowing our government representatives. She makes regular speaking appearances across the region at high schools, colleges and universities, religious centers and museums, including the National Museum of American Jewish History.
“I am concerned by ever-increasing anti-Semitism in Europe, in universities across the U.S. and now in our U.S. legislature,” Breslow said. “Freedom is our most importance asset as Americans.”
Breslow was one of a few Jewish children in her small town of Kirchheim, Germany. Before World War II, German society was totally integrated, she said. Her father, Gustav Reutlinger, could trace his German ancestry to the 15th century.
“Before I left Germany, there were parades daily” by the Nazi regime, Breslow said. “The earliest supporters of the regime were the lawyers, medical doctors and the Ph.Ds,” she explained, while “the farmers and the working-class people were slower to accept the ideology.”
Breslow can recall armed Nazi soldiers guarding the door of her parents’ dry goods store to enforce the Nuremberg law prohibiting non-Jewish customers from entering the store.
“The Gestapo purchased my parents’ business for a nominal price and my father was forced to transfer ownership,” she said.
In November 1938, German Jews faced the death and destruction ushered in by Kristallnacht. An estimated 30,000 Jews were arrested, including Breslow’s uncle, who was sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Breslow’s parents immediately began an evacuation plan.
Breslow and her mother, Elly Reutlinger, boarded a cruise liner in May 1939 — the S.S. St. Louis — en route to Cuba. But when the 938 Jewish refugees aboard, including 200 children, reached Havana on June 2, 1939, they were turned away.
A day later, the captain of the St. Louis, Gustav Schroeder, sent cablegrams to President Franklin Roosevelt asking him to allow the passengers to enter America — or at least the 200 children — but he never responded. Other countries also ignored the request.
“We were so close to America, I could see the bright lights of Miami,” Breslow recalled.
Jews that returned to Germany were sent to concentration camps, so the ship was redirected to Europe.
On June 17, 1939, after more than a month at sea, four countries offered sanctuary to the passengers. England took 287, France 224, Belgium 214 and Holland 181. After the Germans invaded, an estimated 600 of the 938 passengers were murdered.
Breslow was one of the passengers sent to a detention center in Holland. She and her mother eventually gained safe passage to the U.S. and reunited with her father in Philadelphia in November 1939.
In the United States, she had a career as a medical technician and a phlebotomist in a medical laboratory before retiring. Her husband, also a German Jew, died in 2010, but she has two living daughters and a son, along with nine grandchildren.
But Breslow’s experiences as a child color her life now.
She recently spoke at a Holocaust Remembrance Day service at a synagogue near where she lives. The congregation read the names of thousands of victims who perished during the Holocaust for 24 hours as a symbolic, yet intimate promise never to forget.
Breslow said she prefers speaking to students.
“The Holocaust is not officially part of the Pennsylvania teaching curriculum, like in New York and New Jersey, but more educators are keen to include it,” she said.
Many community members share Breslow’s concerns over growing prejudice and anti-Semitism in the U.S.
“Hate and anti-Semitism are on the rise, such as the massacre in Pittsburgh, and all of the horrible incidents in Parkland, Orlando and in Charlottesville have empowered our community to want to make our country more tolerant and inclusive,” said Marissa Kimmel, a communications associate at Temple Sholom, where Breslow spoke.
Prior to the shooting at California's Poway Chabad synagogue, Temple Sholom hosted a forum on hate and anti-Semitism, including voice from community leaders. The forum was prompted by a recent meeting of a white nationalist group known as the American Identity Movement at a bowling alley near the shul, Rabbi Peter Rigler said.
Some Jewish historians are debating the validity of previous narratives about the continuous unfolding of liberalism and gradual disappearance of anti-Semitism in America.
“There is no doubt that incidents of anti-Semitism have increased over the last few years across the country,” said Beth Wenger, history department chair at the University of Pennsylvania, but “we must be careful not to overreact by assuming the majority of Americans hold such views.”
“Anti-black, anti-Jewish, and anti-immigrant sentiments have long been intertwined in America,” Wenger said, and, “Targeting these groups has long been a trope of white supremacist movements in the United States, and certainly we are living in a moment of heightened nationalist feeling that often creates a backlash against all these groups.”
A complete memoir of Breslow’s life, written by elementary school teacher Lise Marlowe, can be accessed at renatereutlinger-stlouis.com. JN