Houstonian travels back to France to honor family who hid her during Holocaust

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Ruth Steinfeld's story starts like so many others but unlike the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust, her story is something of a miracle.

It begins on November 9, 1938.

"I was very scared, they had axes and hammers," recalled Ruth Steinfeld as she sat in her niece's Houston-area home.

The date, Kristallnacht -known as the "night of the broken glass."

"The Nazis came and tour our house up in shreds," said Steinfeld.

Then 5-year-old Ruth Krell would watch as Nazi soldiers tore her father, Alfred Krell, from their home in Germany, separating the family forever.

Ruth, her older sister Lea and their mother, Anna Krell, were pushed into cattle cars, eventually arriving at a holding camp where many would stay before entering the gas chambers at the infamous extermination camp, Auschwitz.

"I remember there was a barrack by our barrack where women were screaming all the time and I was scared of them," Steinfeld said as she shook her head. "My mother had told me that they had finally gone crazy."

Left to sleep on straw mats and wade through human waste, Steinfeld says the days blurred together in a mess of confusion, fear, and exhaustion.

"I don't think it ever occurred to me but all my life I knew I was different," Steinfeld told 13 Eyewitness News anchor Melanie Lawson. "I must have been bad, my family must have been bad but it took a long time, it was definite imprint."

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After a long bitterly cold winter, came a bit of light on one of the darkest of nights. A group of young women masquerading as the French Red Cross, pretending to do humanitarian work, had arrived to arrange for the children's escape.

"They came in and convinced my mother that they would do all they could to save us and that she should let us go," Steinfeld said while clutching pictures of her family. "I can't imagine to ever have to make such a choice."

In the middle of the night Ruth and Lea boarded the bus arranged by the Oeuvres de Secours aux Enfants (OSE)never to see their mother again.

For several years the girls were moved from orphanage to orphanage, giant castles in the French countryside, hiding away many of the children who had escaped the Nazi camps. It was there that the girls would learn to forget the life they knew. They had become Catholics, would pray the rosary, learn French and change their name to hide their Jewish roots.

Eventually the orphanage placed both Ruth and Lea with a Christian family. The Chapot's were a farming family of meager means, willing to share their war-time rations with two girls they did not know.

"They were good, kind people," said Steinfeld of the family that gave her refuge. "They took us in and they let us be."

Houstonian honors family who saved her from Nazis, Part 2
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Houstonian travels to France to honor a family who save her during the Holocaust. Part 2

Inside the Chapot's small farmhouse in the countryside outside of Lyon, Steinfeld said the family never asked if she and her sister were Jews. Though, it was clear their decision to take in two unknown children at the height of the Holocaust weighed on the family.

"They had a radio and they would listen to it just a little bit, late at night to see where the Germans were, the Nazis, and they would tell us but it didn't make sense, you know, it didn't register," said Steinfeld.

Eventually an American uncle of the Krell sisters heard about the heroic acts of a Christian family saving Jewish children from the gas chambers. Ruth and Lea were sent to New York City to begin anew yet again.

Years would by, the sisters speaking nothing of the horrors they had survived, not even telling their families.

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"We're the only Jews in the school, we knew we were different, but they just wouldn't talk about it," said Judy Mucassey, Lea's daughter. "We knew it was something so painful that we ought not ask," Mucassey said of the unanswered questions about her mother and aunt's past.

But a trip to Israel would help the Krell sisters to find the words to tell their story.

"I was crying and I had goose bumps --it's emotional," said Fredda Friedlander of the first time she heard her mother, Ruth's story of escaping the Nazi camps and hiding away through the Holocaust.

With little to go on other than the memories from a childhood she had long repressed, Steinfeld would travel back to France to find the daughter of the couple who had hidden her away.

"All I had was a picture, no last name and my first question was how was it that your family was so brave to take in two little girls knowing the consequences and all she said was 'wouldn't you?'," said Steinfeld of her meeting with the Chapot's daughter, Paulette.

With her sister Lea now gone, Steinfeld enlisted the help of her niece, Judy Mucassey, to make sure the courageous acts of the Chapot's were never forgotten.

This past September, in a little French town, surrounded by generation of her family, Steinfeld finally got the chance to honor the family that saved the young girls from their untimely fate. Awarded by the Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, the Chapot's were declared "Righteous Among the Nations," a rare honor given to gentiles, forever recognizing them for risking their lives to save Jews.

"There were very few people who were willing to save one child and they saved two," said Steinfeld.

Having survived something unimaginable for most, she said the declaration is closure to a remarkable story that will live on through generations to come of the Krell and Chapot families.

"I do thank the people at the cost of their own lives, took a chance on us and let us live," said Steinfeld.

"I don't know that they knew we were Jews but whether they did or didn't, it doesn't matter, we survived." null
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