Apache Elementary Principal Larry Brodie understood the gravity of the situation Wednesday morning, and he wanted to be sure his students understood it, too.
“This is a special opportunity for all of you, one that many people will never get in their whole lives,” he said.
This week, after months of planning, preparation and fund-raising, Apache Elementary in Peoria hosted Holocaust survivors Ruth and Jack Gruener, who were flown in from their home in New York with the help of several local businesses and individuals.
The event was brought to fruition by fourth-grader Madison Mahoney, who read Ruth Gruener’s book and was inspired to learn more. After nearly a year of correspondence, Mahoney invited the Grueners to speak at her school and led the efforts to make it happen.
“As more time goes by, these opportunities will be even less frequent,” Brodie said. “It took a lot to get them here, and we’re very excited to have them.”
Ruth Gruener grew up in Poland. When World War II began, she said her family was lucky.
“The Russians pushed the Germans out for two years,” she said. “But we were forced to take in another family to live with us. They had a little 8-year-old boy, Henry. He did not survive. Hopefully he is in heaven now and knows that I remember him and I think of him.”
In 1941, the Germans invaded Poland and Gruener’s life became agony. Her family lived in constant fear of being taken away and killed. In one instance, Gruener narrowly avoided just that.
“They were rounding up children,” she said. “So my father took the door off one of the bathrooms and covered it up. My mother handed Henry and I a bag of food and water and we crawled in. My father said not to turn on the light. Shortly after I heard footsteps up and down the hall.”
Gruener said she and Henry could do nothing but wait and pray.
“Suddenly I saw the shine of a flashlight,” she said. “I can’t describe the feeling of fear. Henry and I grabbed each other’s hands. Luckily after a moment or so it got dark, and we heard footsteps receding. I call that the first miracle of my survival.”
Gruener said the soldier checking her home saw a portrait of her on the wall and asked where she was. Her parents said she had already been taken, and he believed them. Or maybe, Gruener wondered, he did not.
“I think maybe my picture reminded him of a child back home,” she said. “The door frame of the bathroom was not well concealed. It stood out. But I think maybe that picture touched his heart and he did not want to look in the boarded-up room because he knew he would find me there. He must not have been one of the killers.”
Eventually, Gruener, her family and the rest of the Jewish people in her neighborhood were moved to the ghettos. When it became increasingly unlikely anyone would make it out alive, Gruener’s father made arrangements with a family friend outside the ghetto to smuggle Gruener out.
“My father left for work outside the ghetto in the morning while it was still dark,” she said. “He wore a long coat. He instructed me to hold onto one of his legs underneath the coat and he had a friend walk on that side of him to further hide me.”
Gruener made it out, though she never heard from her family again.
“I lost my whole family,” she said. “I was an only child, but I had aunts, uncles, cousins. Everybody was killed. I do not know where my parents were taken to be killed.”
Gruener said she hopes to impart the same message to every audience she addresses, especially when speaking to children.
“We are all the same people. We should always remember that there should be no prejudice. Be good to one another. Some day I hope you will tell that to your children. It will be up to you to create a world where we can live in peace.”
Jeff Dempsey may be reached at 623-876-2531 or firstname.lastname@example.org.