I left Nazi Germany – Here is how I handle hate in America

To: All Young People

From: Ruth Gasten (As told to Lauren Brill)

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To people of all races and religions,

young girl
Ruth’s family moved to Chicago.

In 1939 my family escaped the Nazis in Germany and came to America to stay alive. We were Jewish. My dad’s family had been in the same small German town since 1753. He didn’t want to leave, but he saw that there was absolutely no choice. While living in America has always been much better than Nazi Germany, America has experienced and is still experiencing terrible crimes of hate and endless discrimination. At 86 years old, I am continuing to combat the mentality my family came here to escape. I want you to understand how you can help.

Let me explain…

Armed with a sponsorship letter from her aunt in the US, my mother  got my father released from Buchenwald, a concentration camp. We came to America by ship and settled in Chicago, where we had family. My father tried to find a job, but it wasn’t easy because it was the end of The Great Depression. He was ultimately hired to pull feathers off of chickens in a kosher butcher shop. It was a crummy job, but it paid enough to get a tiny apartment. My mother’s cousin helped her get a job cleaning houses.

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I was 5 1/2 years old and started school. While I waited for my parents to get home from their jobs, I went to Douglas Park Day and Night Nursery, which was, in part, an orphanage for kids who didn’t have any parents. Some kids stayed there at night and other kids were just there during the day while their parents worked. A few of the older boys bullied me because I only spoke German. They thought I was a Nazi.

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They used to say to me, “Nazi, go back to Germany!”

“We hate you!”

“We hate all the Nazis.”

But Alfred, who was much older than I, was different.

He was a night kid, which meant he lived there all the time.

One day, Alfred saw me sitting in a corner of the nursery crying. He didn’t understand German, but there was somebody who worked in the kitchen who did. He asked the kitchen helper if she would translate for him so he could figure out what was going on. She did.

He then told those boys, “If you bother Ruthie, I’ll deal with you. You better leave her alone.”

Alfred took care of me. He watched out for me.

Two years later, Alfred joined the army.  One day he knocked on our door in his uniform.

He hugged me and he said, “When I fight the Nazis, I’ll think of you.”

At a young age, I knew discrimination and I knew how valuable friendship was in fixing it.

Ruth got married and had two children.

While I grew up, got married and had two children, I never forgot that lesson.

After my first husband got his Ph.D., we moved to Livermore, California where he was hired to work in a lab. I got involved in the formation of a Head Start program, which provides resources to low-income families and free pre-school for their children. I knew what it was like to be poor and need help; so I became the first president of that program.  It made me feel good to know we were helping children whose lives were much like mine when we came as refugees to the United States.

Then, in 2001, after our country was attacked by terrorists on 9-11, the way some people in our community began to treat Muslims reminded me of the way Jews were singled out and discriminated against in Germany.

Muslim children were bullied at school. The girls and women who wore hijabs were yelled at by guys in cars when they were walking on the street. There was an attack on two Sikhs who were in a park in Hayward. They weren’t even Muslim, but since people thought they were, the violence took place.

I could just feel the hurt. Some of the people being treated in this miserable way were my friends. They were and are such good people.

What I realized is that a lot of children are taught to be afraid of blacks or be afraid of people in turbans or be afraid of people who worship Allah. They don’t have enough information. People are afraid of what they don’t know or what they don’t understand.

But just like my friendship with Alfred, change starts with communication.

Research by Stanford and The University of California, Berkeley says that even talking to somebody for ten minutes helps break down prejudice attitudes.

At a young age, I knew discrimination and I knew how valuable friendship was in fixing it.

So Abdul, my Muslim friend, and I decided to start an interfaith group.  It is called Interfaith Interconnect.

We’re not trying to convert anyone to another religion. Instead, we just want people to understand each other better. We have a monthly religion chat and our leadership committee decides on the topics.

Ruth says simple conversations can bring people together and eliminate hate.

For example, most religions tell us to be kind to the stranger. This month we will have two speakers, one from the Methodist church and another from the Baha’i community  to explain how their faith responds to the “other.”

We always break down into small groups and I tell everyone not to have their small group discussion with people from their congregation. I want them to find people they don’t know and talk to them.

Now, we have 22 different synagogues, churches, mosques, Hindu temples, Bahai, Sikh, and Jain communities in our valley involved.

We all have learned  so much from each other, like the fact that Baha’is don’t drink alcohol. Neither do Mormons, Hindus, Jains nor Muslims.

We also learn a lot about the tenets of other people’s faith. When my granddaughter had her bat mitzvah, Abdul, my Muslim friend, along with his wife and their children came to our synagogue.

He said, “The prayers are so similar to our prayers.”

Neither of us realized the similarities until that day.

Even in our group meetings, I’ve seen a lot of breakthroughs. People who were just strangers will lean in and talk to each other happily, with eye contact. And when it’s time to end, they just keep talking – Muslims talking to Jews and Christians talking to Hindus.

Ruth held start Interfaith Interconnect to eliminate hate and discrimination in her community

It’s so important that our interfaith group or even just our welcoming attitudes continue to thrive.

As a little girl, I left Germany where millions upon millions of people were murdered, including relatives of mine.

Neither time nor distance protected me from witnessing or experiencing discrimination, as it still happens today in America to many people, including Jews.

I want you to know you can help. You can be a part of progress.

If you meet someone who has a different faith or is of a different race or is just different from you or the people you know, you can stop the hate by simply starting a conversation.

If you do, I truly believe we will all witness less violence and enjoy more friendships.

With love and acceptance for all,

Ruth Gasten
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