GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP – For most of her life, not many people knew that Ruth Kessler was a survivor of the Holocaust.
“I was the only one who knew her Holocaust story,” her daughter Michele Taroff said. “She never talked about it. My brothers never knew.”
And Kessler continued to keep mostly quiet about her experience as part of the Kindertransport for many years until her granddaughter, Dani Hong, approached “Mom Mom” in eighth grade to ask if she would talk to her class.
“I saw her face turn white and she just looked at Dani and said, ‘OK.’ And that was the beginning of her telling her story, which she never thought was important enough,” Taroff said.
Kessler’s story about being separated from her mother and sister and sent from her home in Vienna to England in 1939 as part of the Kindertransport has become very important, not just to her family but to hundreds of students she spoke to until her death in 2016.
Her important story and family’s legacy will live on with Stockton students as part of the Ruth Fisch Kessler Memorial Endowed Scholarship. Taroff and her husband, Scott, have set up the scholarship, which will go to a Stockton undergraduate student with a demonstrated interest in Holocaust and genocide studies. The family announced the gift in a ceremony at Stockton’s Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center earlier this month.
“This is, as you can see, a very special place, and it’s from people like you who want to help support it and engage our next generation,” said Susan Davenport, Stockton’s executive vice president and chief of staff, who mentioned that Stockton offers more Holocaust and genocide courses than any place in the world. “It’s a pretty amazing thing that we are able to do, but we wouldn’t be able to do it without your support. And we are so excited to be able to do more as a result of your gift.”
Ruth’s husband, Louis, said he’s so happy the scholarship will help keep his wife’s story told to future Stockton students.
“I would love to do this. I think this is something she would really appreciate,” he said. “I am so stunned by what happened over there. It should never happen again. In no way should we ever allow it to happen again.”
After leaving her mother, Charlotte, and sister, Erika, as one of the approximately 10,000 Kindertransport children, Ruth was met in London by foster parents Stella and Joseph Webber. She lived with the Webbers until the war was over in 1945.
She later came to the United States in 1946 to live with her father in New York City. However, he could not afford to care for her, and Ruth was placed in a series of foster homes. She graduated from high school and married Louis in 1952. She learned later that Charlotte and Erika died in Opole, Poland.
In 2013, Ruth worked with Maryann McLoughlin through the Holocaust Resource Center’s Writing as Witness program to produce a memoir titled “The Blue Vase: A Memoir of a Vienna Kindertransport Child.”
Judy Vogel, Stockton’s coordinator for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, spoke at the ceremony about how important Kessler’s story is to the overall teaching of the Holocaust.
“What I want my students to see is the impact on that one life,” she said. “And your mother’s memoir does that with such grace and such elegance. It gives us the ability as human beings to relate to the person.”
Vogel also mentioned that Kessler’s story of the Kindertransport helped reveal a part of the Holocaust that wasn’t really known until the last 15 years or so.
“It’s an important story to tell, and it’s because of Ruth telling her story that we know more, and it’s become a primary topic of our academic look at the Holocaust,” she said. “Because it speaks to why America didn’t respond in the same way. It points the finger back at us.”
Michele Taroff said she had the idea for the scholarship while attending the launch on campus in September of the Holocaust Survivors of South Jersey Digital Archive and Website by the Holocaust Resource Center.
“I was just looking around and I thought that I wanted her to be remembered,” Michele said. “I want to keep her legacy in a different way.”
On her way to Stockton for the scholarship ceremony, Michele mentioned that she saw a little red bird right outside of her Margate home.
“Mom was a redhead, and I just started crying,” she said. “I’m just so happy and grateful to be doing this and I’m so grateful for this program.”