By Abby Rolland
“Kindness saves lives.”
For Holocaust survivor and hidden child Ruth Kapp Hartz, the quote rings true. As she shared her experiences as a hidden child in France in harp-weaver’s recent Night Out With Meaning, she reminded those in attendance that repeated acts of kindness from both strangers and friends saved her life.
Born in Palestine of German parents, Ruth Kapp has no memories until she moved to France as a young girl. On the eve of when she and her parents were supposed to depart for the United States, World War II broke out and they were stuck in France.
From there, Ruth’s childhood included hiding, not attending school, denying past relationships, silence, and having her identity change – both her first and her last names were altered in order to stay one step ahead of the Nazis. She became known as Renee. From this “unnatural” childhood – the exact opposite of the childhood that kids should experience – Ruth developed mental scars but also found ways to persevere.
She was hidden in a small village by French families and eventually, Catholic nuns. She was saved by those individuals, by her father’s colleague when he told them about a train they had to catch before a round-up, and by a French police officer who was part of a team looking for her father. She hid in the cellar in the convent when the Gestapo came looking for Jewish children. She survived in fear until the Allied troops liberated the south of France in the summer of 1944. Miraculously, her parents also survived, and she was reunited with them soon after liberation.
Ruth eventually moved to Paris with her parents (where her father learned that he had lost every single member of his family), earned a degree in biochemistry from the Sorbonne, and moved to Philadelphia when she met and married an American man. From there, she taught French at a local high school (one of the Night Out With Meaning attendees was one of her students!). Years later, a former student wanted to create a children’s story set in France about a hidden child – she did not know Ruth’s story at the time, but when Ruth shared it with her, the student decided to ghost write a memoir about Ruth’s life as a hidden child from the viewpoint of her as a child. The book Your Name is Renee was published in 1999 and continues to be discussed in classrooms and other educational settings.
What remained with me throughout Ruth’s presentation was not only her bravery as a little girl, but the kindness of the many people who kept her safe. From small acts, such as the one police officer saying that they didn’t have to take her away that day, to the families and convent who hid her at the risk of their own lives – Ruth’s story reminds us that kindness exists in the most difficult places and situations. Whether it’s brightening someone’s day or saving a life, kindness truly makes a difference for anyone who experiences it.