Going through hell gave her family a voice after the Holocaust – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Posted By on March 7, 2021

Sandra Scheller had poured so much of herself, her parents and her Jewish community into the Holocaust remembrance exhibit shed been working on for 2020 that when the COVID-19 pandemic put it on hold, she was devastated.

The exhibit was open for 67 days. I dont think I have ever cried as much as I did not for me, but for those that supported this project, she said of the initial shutdown.

One of the many things shed learned from her parents, though, was creativity. So, she got creative. She got as much content as she could online. She shifted her focus slightly and began recording interviews with local Holocaust survivors and uploading those to the Chula Vista Heritage Museums YouTube channel. The reception the exhibition and its accompanying elements have received have been uplifting for her.

RUTH: Remember Us The Holocaust, named for Schellers mother, Ruth Sax, has been extended through December of this year. The exhibit features photos, documents and other items from local survivors, and has been recognized by the University of Southern Californias Shoah Foundation as the first Holocaust exhibit in San Diego County.

Scheller, 66, is also an author, speaker and educator who lives in Chula Vista with her husband, Mark Scheller, and they have two children. She took some time to talk about this labor of love, what she learned from what her parents and others survived, and why shell never forget.

Q: Tell us about RUTH: Remember Us The Holocaust.

A: This exhibit at the Civic Center Library in Chula Vista features the stories of 12 Holocaust survivors who settled in the South Bay and also focuses on the Jewish community in Chula Vista.

My mother was known for her work as an educator and for visiting classrooms and speaking to students and adults about the Holocaust. We both volunteered, and she was still speaking to students up until two weeks before she died. As I was writing my book about her (Try to Remember Never Forget), I noticed all of the photographs a non-Jewish relative had saved. Ruth hadnt gone through the photos, and I knew how important it was to see her past in print. I realized that there were other Holocaust survivors in Chula Vista who probably had photos and such, and that their children might want to know more about their family members and what theyd survived.

Q: Why was RUTH something you wanted curate?

A: I was born out of the ashes of the Holocaust. Having helped my mom until the end of her life, I made a promise to her and other survivors in the community that I would do my part to continue to educate others. This is not a job, it is a way of life. The beauty about this is that I can take time off to get away and see the world, even learn about other Holocaust museums and people who have stories to tell, and I want to be able to hear them. While I was doing research for this project, I went to Terre Haute, Ind., to visit CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, a Holocaust museum created by Eva Mozes Kor. Eva survived the work that Josef Mengele (the Nazi doctor who was known for performing medical experiments at Auschwitz and was also called the Angel of Death) performed on herself and her twin sister. My husband and I were at CANDLES shortly before Eva took a group of patrons to Auschwitz. She had an amazing amount of energy, just like my mom did, and her drive to keep the Holocaust stories alive was her mission in life. Eva passed away on that trip, and I remember breaking down crying, as if I had lost one of my own family members. It was then, at that moment, when I was driven to continue the Holocaust legacy for my community. This wasnt just for my mom, but for everyone who survived. Each survivor has a unique story to tell, but one thing in common: They survived. They must be heard and this exhibit allows this to happen.

Q: In your TEDx talk Keeping Memories Alive, you mentioned the first time you heard the word holocaust. Can you tell us about what happened that time?

A: Sure. I was about 6 or 7 years old, and I was asleep when I heard my mom scream. I didnt know what my mom went through; she was busy being a mommy hero to me, and I never knew about her past. I went into the room, and there was my dad, hugging my mom and she was so frightened. I will remember this moment until I die. The next morning, my dad explained the dream my mom had the previous night, and the reality of her life before. Someone wanted to kill us for being Jewish? What? Why? I was too young to understand, but then again, Hitler didnt care if someone was 6 or 60 when it came to the Holocaust.

Doing a TEDx talk was probably the hardest and greatest thing I ever did. Its out there and it tells the story in a short amount of time. It validates.

We all grow things. Ms. Kathy has the best macadamia nuts, I grow bananas, my neighbors have lemons and oranges, and we share everything. We greet each other. And now we have a Holocaust exhibit just down the road.

Q: Your mother and father, Ruth and Kurt Sax, were both Holocaust survivors, with your mother surviving three concentration camps? What did you learn about your parents and what they experienced during that time?

A: My father was 16 when the Nazis invaded his hometown. He could no longer go to school and the Nazis took over the place where he worked. Coming to America was almost impossible, but with help, it happened for him in 1939. As for my mom, she was 10 when the Nazis invaded their hometown in former Czechoslovakia on my grandmothers birthday, March 14, 1939. In 1941, my 13-year-old mother and her parents were sent to Theresienstadt. My mom was separated from her father and worked in a childrens garden while my grandmother worked in the kitchen. They came up with the idea to keep the kettles on the burners so they could use the water to bathe on Fridays. They did this for three years. When my mother and grandmother entered Theresienstadt, they were told to find a job around food. Theyd have to eat potato peels, but theyd have some food.

In 1944, my mom and grandmother were sent to Auschwitz. When they arrived, Jewish men shaved them while Nazis stared, pointed and laughed. Then, they faced Dr. Mengele (the Angel of Death) six times. I guess I had a perfect mom and grandmother because he approved them and kept them alive. There werent anymore striped uniforms, so they had to find something to wear from piles of clothes taken from those whod died. My mother threw her dress away after they were liberated, but my grandmother saved hers and now I have it.

Later, my mother was sent to Oederan (in Germany) to a thread factory, and in April of 1945, she was placed in a death march. My mother and grandmother ended up in Theresienstadt to be liberated and my mom believed her father was dead. Someone called out to her to approach the electric fence, and she thought it was her uncle. It was her father. The family had survived and my mom and her parents returned to their village, but everything was bombed. There were 11,000 people who left that village, and only 200 returned. My grandfather took in 20 children whod lost their parents, and my mom remembers sharing everything, including mashing up food so they could all have something to eat.

The anti-Semitism didnt end, though. My mom was 17 and hadnt been in school, so she ended up in a classroom with 12-year-olds. The teacher didnt say things like 1 + 1 = 2 but instead, that one bad Jew, plus one bad Jew, equals two bad Jews. My grandmother was livid and felt she had nothing to lose, so she complained. I guess you could say she was an advocate for education back then. They just went through hell, and hell gave them a voice.

Q: Did what you learned shape how you saw and understood yourself, who you are?

A: Of course. My mom, especially, taught me to never ever give up on anything. I will say this: I dont trust people upon meeting them right away. That is a mom thing for sure. As for my dad, I learned to do the fair thing. It makes one sleep better at night.

Q: The website for the exhibit says that the USC Shoah Foundation has recognized RUTH as the first Holocaust exhibit throughout San Diego County. Why do you think it took until 2020 for this kind of exhibit to open here?

A: That is a good question. There were memorials and monuments, but not an actual exhibit. Maybe no one presented this to San Diego County. I cant answer that, but it feels good to be the first. Hopefully, I can be on the teams to help continue the Holocaust exhibits and museums throughout the county.

Q: What can people expect to see and learn when they visit RUTH?

A: First, an awareness that this happened. Then, the community bond. Theres art from Rich Walker, an incredible and sensitive artist who incorporated the Holocaust in his work. In the exhibit, people will see the survivors from many angles: hiding, escaping, in camps, starving, standing in a gas chamber that didnt work that day, people doused in disinfectant powder, humiliation. They have different stories, but they all survived.

Q: What would you say is your mothers legacy?

A: My mothers legacy is to be kind and never take no for an answer. As Ruth would say, (God) created such a beautiful world, only some people make it so miserable. Surround yourself with positive people. Thats my Ruthie.

Q: What is the best advice youve ever received?

A: Enjoy the silent moments and never give up, from my mentor Marta Becket. The best things have happened from the moments of silence and being alone.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I have a pilots license, and I used to be an assist to a knife thrower. Stood there and trusted someone with 3-foot knives and hatchets. What was I thinking? Oh yeah, trust.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Walking on the beach or sitting in my lounge chair at the beach with my husband under an umbrella. Maybe horseback riding at the border, boating in Otay and watching the parachuters fall from the sky, going to the desert in Borrego (minus the snakes), hiking in East County, visiting Mission Hills and shopping on Lewis Street. Its all ideal.

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Going through hell gave her family a voice after the Holocaust - The San Diego Union-Tribune

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