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A Shoebox Reveals the Fate of the Mother

Shortly before her death, his mother Ruth Ibbitson pressed a shoebox into his hand. "You will decide what to do with it," she told her son Ron. The now 60-year-old British man learned this way that his mother was part of a Kindertransport and thus was saved from being murdered by the Nazis. "At that time we knew virtually nothing about the background of our mother," says Ibbitson. Together with his brother Mark, Ron embarked on the search for clues that also led him to the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen.

The shoebox revealed the travel documents for the Kindertransport from Germany to Britain in June 1939, the letter of a brother from the concentration camp Auschwitz and some documents about the start in the new homeland. At the age of 15, Ruth Peschel, as she was then called, could escape Germany right before the beginning of the Holocaust. "It was initially a shock to us. We knew only that she was German," said Ron. "She very rarely talked about her childhood experiences, but never spoke about the atrocities against Jews. Only when she got older she sometimes mentioned her Jewish relatives and said she wanted to return home."

Ruth came from a Breslau family that was deported by the Nazis. Many family members were murdered. Ruth's brother, Emanuel Peschel, died shortly before the war ended in April 1945 in the Gusen camp, a sub camp of Mauthausen, after he had survived the death marches from Auschwitz. The grandmother, Regina Jacobowitz, lost her life in July 1943 in the Theresienstadt ghetto. There was no trace of Ruth's grandfather Isidore. Only Ruth's parents, Helen and Otto Peschel, survived.

They both returned to Germany and later emigrated to Israel, before Helen once more settled in her country of birth. "I can remember later visits to my grandmother in Munster," says Mark, age 48, the youngest of nine grandchildren. "To me, she was an amazing lady, even though I didn’t understand her language." For Ruth encounters with her past were not always easy, however. "Our mother was a very anxious and overcautious woman," recounts Ron. "Only now am I beginning to understand. One time we crossed the border into Germany and she went quiet for a long time after passport control. Another time she cried when we moved all her furniture outside for redecoration. It must have brought up bad memories."

After her arrival in Harwich in June 1939, Ruth initially stayed for two weeks with a Jewish family before she could begin training at a farm school and later on in the British Army. Here she met her husband, whom she married in Leeds in 1947. "Our father was a strict Victorian. We children were all educated in his sense," says Mark. "We had our confirmation and went to church every Sunday." The children of the Holocaust survivor have not quite decided how they want to deal with their newfound Jewish identity. "I feel a little stuck in the middle," admits Ron. "I have many Jewish friends now and feel more at home there."