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Posted in: Anti-Semitism, Arts, Film & Culture

Published on Apr 24, 2013 by Phyllis Chesler

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For Ruth. A Tribute

Is it possible that certain people are really angels who quietly but directly intervene in the lives of thousands of people?

I am talking about my dear friend, Ruth Bergman Jody, whose Memorial at the Ethical Culture Society I just attended. I knew Ruth for 46 years. I knew she was a "good" person. But I did not know her at all.

Ruth arrived here as a teenaged Jewish refugee from Hitler's Germany in 1940—a fact she never dwelled upon in our first thirty five years together. I know she also lived in Mexico for a decade, returned to NYC, and obtained a Master degree in Counseling from Columbia University. Ruth was the long-time director of the Hunter College Guidance and Tutoring program.

At her Memorial service, people of all ages, many colors, both genders, all sexual persuasions, and from many continents, gathered to memorialize her: a veritable rainbow of tribute. They described how Ruth turned their lives around, mentored them, found them jobs, shelter, safety, and set them on their path. Ruth was interested in everybody and everything. She made each person feel "special."

As the speakers came forward, each memory they shared was as incredible as the last one.

Once, long ago, an African-Caribbean man, Dr. Frank Douglas, MD, Ph.D, came to these shores to attend medical school. But he had a family and needed a job. Ruth found him that job. He said that he had "intended to be a doctor in Harlem to help the disenfranchised." But Ruth told him that his destiny was larger than that.

"She was right," he said. "Since then, my research has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. I have mentored medical students who are now the heads of departments around the world. When Ruth asked me to help someone, I always did."

I hope Ruth knew how extraordinary her reach was, how influential her good deeds and wise counsel were.

Another woman, Lourdes Blanco, told this story: "Once, Ruth saw a young man lying in the street with an obviously sick dog. She went up to him, berated him about not tending to his dog, told him to bring his animal to her veterinarian, she would pay the bill. When she saw him again, still lying in the street and begging, Ruth told him to stop, get up, and make a life for himself. When he told her that he had no money and no home and could not take a shower or rent an apartment (one needed this in order to apply for a job), she told him to wait, and she returned with two hundred dollars."

The speaker paused. "Years later, Ruth and I were walking in the Park. A well-dressed man started running towards us. 'Ruth, Ruth Jody!' He identified himself as the man she had 'saved.' He said: 'I got a room, took a shower, got a job, found a girlfriend, then I got a better job. My life turned around the day you helped me."

I began to shiver. Perhaps I had not fully appreciated my friend, had not known her at all.

Relatives, friends, lovers, spoke. People wept. People wept so hard they could not speak. One woman, Vanessa, a professional opera singer, was "called" to sing a Jewish prayer for Ruth, one that had been especially written for the singer. The last tribute was, perhaps, the most dignified and moving of them all.

A large African woman, in African dress, introduced herself in this way. "Hello. I am Angeline. Ruth used to introduce me as 'My friend Angeline, the African. When she came to stay with us in Cameroon my mother dubbed her 'The Bird' because she never sat still, she was always going to see or do something else. In my country, when a person has helped, taught, changed, and saved people, we honor their death, and help with our mourning, by dancing for them for three nights."

Angeline placed her speakers on the floor, wrapped a large sash around her waist, and slowly and purposefully began dancing as the drums kept the beat. Soon, she was joined by three other "Africans," and then by Caucasian-Americans, and African-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans.

This was so utterly unexpected, so very moving, that it brought tears to my eyes.

The tributes for her may be found here

Here is what I said for Ruth.

For Ruth

And so she is gone.

But my dear friend Ruth will be with me—and with those of us who have loved her and whom she has loved, especially her children, Nina and Michael, and her grandchildren, Sophia and Luke, and her brother Michel and his family-- for as long as we all shall live.

I will not take her phone number out of my address book. Who knows? If I call, maybe she'll answer.

I can still hear her voice: Throaty, sophisticated, world-weary, "European,"—she was my own personal Simone Signoret --but with a German, not a French accent. She was forceful, determined, independent, cultured, generous, slightly mysterious, private, and a real straight-talker. Maybe she was my Marlene Dietrich too.

For nearly a half century, always unasked, Ruth would tell me: "Darling, I do not like that color on you; Darling, are you losing weight, are you exercising, are you eating right?" But she was always in my corner, always had my back, always said: "Darling, you do know that I love you. I love your writing. It is great."

Ruth, I love you too. You have given me forty six years of unconditional maternal love.

I knew your life had run its course, and that you no longer wished to live in such terrible pain, too ill, to even allow us one last visit in the days before you finally, mercifully, "shuffled off this mortal coil," at the ripe old age of ninety.

We met in 1967 when I was doing my internship at Metropolitan Hospital on East 96th St. But we could have met before that. We walked up and down 5th Avenue, all through Central Park, had hot chocolate at Rumpelmyers on Central Park South, or coffee on West 72nd St. or East 86th St. where the German and Austrian restaurants once stood: Café Geiger, the Kleine Konditerei, the Jaegerhaus, Bremen House—and Éclair on the West side. Needless to say, Ruth would never go into Café Heidelberg but never said why.

Ruth remembered having made me shop for a "proper dress, for God's sake," to wear when I received my Ph.D.

Ruth was always busy. She gathered people together—young and old, family and friends, strangers, students, other people's grown children, artists, musicians, filmmakers, psychotherapists, professors, astrologers, lovers, a Mexican yoga instructor, a Chinese violinist—they were either visiting or had moved in for a while. Ruth was always out at openings, plays, concerts, lectures, and at the opera. For most of her life, she swam every single day. She walked—she walked everywhere. She traveled constantly and was often out of the country.

Even when Ruth was in her late eighties, I still had to stand on line for an appointment to see her. "Ach, darling, I am busy that night. Call me next week."

The Ruth I knew was a fiercely independent woman, always on the go, formerly a champion gymnast who, until very recently, swam and exercised daily. She never complained. She kept making new friends, studying new languages, attending concerts and dance recitals. She was so German-Jewish.

Ruth's stepfather was a well-known violinist and concertmaster who landed a position at the Metropolitan Opera House. Ruth has often regaled me with gossipy tales about her teenage life backstage at the Met, where the leading tenors of the day routinely "hit on" her when she was a delicious, delightful, flirtatious young woman.

In 2003, when I moved back to Manhattan, and a few blocks away from Ruth, we again saw each other more often. We became "regulars" at Three Guys, the diner on the corner of East 96th and Madison. I considered it Ruth's Dining Room. I am so glad that I took her for a "proper dinner, thank God," this past summer, at the Members Dining Room, overlooking Central Park, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ruth was in her quintessentially Manhattan element.

I had been writing about the new anti-Semitism, the return of the Big Lies, since 2001. Ruth sent my articles to everyone she knew—and she sent me clippings, with handwritten comments in the margins. She never discussed her flight from Nazi Germany. And, I never asked.

Over the years, she shared information with me only in little bits and pieces. Once, when she celebrated the Sabbath at my home, she suddenly told me that her grandparents had been Orthodox Jews who had written "the most heartbreaking letters" to her mother before they were carted off to be murdered. "Such dignified people, starving, shivering, selling off one piece of furniture after the other for the price of a meal."

About five years ago, quite unexpectedly, Ruth suddenly began talking about her escape. She would not stop.

"I remember the night we left. It was a cold pre-dawn morning in February. But we'd been frozen for a long time. They'd fired the Jewish teachers, then they closed the Jewish schools, then they demolished the schools. We were walking around in a complete state of shock. We did not know what was coming next, when the next blow would fall."

"Then, after my stepfather arranged for passage on a boat to England, I remember we crept down the stairs. We felt the eyes that were watching us through their peepholes, the eyes of all our neighbors, just waiting for us to leave so that they could come in and ransack our apartment. Of course, we had to leave everything behind. I had a self-portrait that Chaliapin had done for me and signed. I don't understand why I didn't take it. As I said, we were in shock, not thinking."

"We got to Hamburg where the boat was docked. We were very hungry. But we were afraid to go into any restaurant. They all had signs that Jews were forbidden to eat there. But finally, hunger won out. We took our chances and walked into a hotel restaurant. Well, we looked Aryan enough for them and they fed us."

They risked death for a meal.

"In Hamburg, we were also told to strip naked by a female Nazi official who herself went through every seam in all our clothing. She wanted to make sure that we had no jewels or money sewed into our clothes. If we did, she might get to keep it and we'd be killed."

Ruth went to England for a year, her parents went to the United States. "The Brits were very kind to me. They even helped me rescue an aunt and brought her back to England."

Ruth continued. "Every Jew who came here had a job the day after we got off the boat. None of us wanted to accept charity or welfare. We took whatever kind of work we could find: Cleaning, working as waiters, sewing. My mother started an exercise class the day after she came. God knows how she found her first pupils."

Ruth could have become grasping and selfish. She could have become a wounded "victim." Instead, she moved on, she decided to help others. How else could she turn around such enormous trauma and loss?

Ach, Ruthie, you lived a long and interesting life, filled with people you loved and who loved you. You were generous, not envious. Your last gift to me was an introduction to your granddaughter, Sophia, who has now begun to work with me.

I bless you for that.

Ach, Ruthie: You were a good woman, a great woman. May your soul be bound up with the most talented and musical (and handsome) of angels, and may your spirit continue to soar.

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