The last time Holocaust survivors Ruth Brandspiegel and Israel “Sasha” Eisenberg saw each other it was 1949. Ruth was 10 years old and Sasha was six. Their families fled the Nazi’s and they were both living in the same Displaced Persons Camp in Austria.
Ruth took on the role of big sister to Sasha, but both lost touch when Sasha emigrated to Israel and Ruth to America. In September that all changed when they were miraculously reunited after 71 years, by a Yom Kippur Zoom.
Ruth shared the extraordinary story of their reunion over a phone interview with Inside Edition Digital from her home in Philadelphia.
It was Sept. 28, Ruth was home alone. She was listening to the Yom Kippur service from a zoom given by her son’s synagogue, the East Brunswick Jewish Center, where he is the cantor and educational director. The rabbi, she explained, began announcing some of the members who gave donations and those who were celebrating a milestone. She said she was about to walk away to prepare her breakfast but when she heard the name “Eisenberg,” she stopped to listen. “There are a lot of Eisenbergs,” she thought, but then the rabbi said the first name, “Sasha."
“Sasha?” she asked herself. "That could not be my Sasha, because my Sasha that I knew doesn’t live around here.” Shortly after, Ruth contacted her son asking him to investigate.
"He said, “Oh mom, 'What are you talking about?' I said, 'Larry just find out. Tell him that you are the son of Regina Puter, give him my maiden name,'" she said. "Brandspiegel would not mean anything to him.”
Ruth's birth name was Regina that she changed to Ruth when she came to America.
When her son called back, it looked like mom was right. It was her Sasha. The same little boy, who lived across from her in the displaced persons camp in Austria. The little boy her father cared for when his own father was killed in a car accident, and the same little boy she shared many Shabbat dinners with. She suddenly became overwhelmed with emotion.
“I almost fainted. I started to scream. No way could I do that. No way,” she said enthusiastically as she was retelling the story. “I almost fainted. How in the world?”
When Sasha found out. He was just as stunned and elated as Ruth and even admitted during the interview that he too was still trying to process it all, and trembles every time he calls his long lost friend.
“It is unbelievable,” he said speaking from his New Jersey home. “I had to pinch myself to realize this is not a dream. It is one in a million, maybe three million, to meet someone under such circumstances.”
Ruth spoke about her mother and father, who fled before Hitler’s regime occupied her country of Poland, and spoke of the despair she felt that her grandparents and cousins, killed in Auschwitz, did not have the same fate.
Her kin are some of the six million Jews murdered — at least two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population — by the Nazi regime; innocent people discriminated and targeted by the government of Nazi Germany because of their religion, ethnicity, and political beliefs.
“My father’s family was in Poland and they were all in Auschwitz,” said Ruth, explaining that her father was one of 8 children and that he and a sister who moved to Mexico before the war. They were the only family members who survived.
Other survivors, she said, told her about the deaths of her grandparents and cousins.
“My grandfather was a very pious man with a beard and my grandmother wore a sheytl,” she said. “When Hilter came in they took my grandfather and hung him right there at the marketplace. My grandmother and the rest of my father’s siblings were killed in the gas chambers.”
Ruth remembers fleeing her country as Hilter’s army was approaching. She said she was only 2 years old when her uncle, came with a truck and instructed her mother to grab a few things and to hurry.
It was 1939 and the beginning of World War II.
“My parents were scared. Nobody knew what was going on but everyone knew the Nazi’s were coming and it didn’t take long for them to occupy our city of Ciechanow, Poland,” she recalled.
“My mother locked the door hoping we’d come back, but that never happened. We left everything behind, jewelry, clothing, everything we had.”
Ruth said they traveled for a long while. “We went through the forest and the woods. We stayed put during the day and at night we were traveling so Hitler wouldn’t be after us,” she said.
It wasn’t until they arrived in the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, she explained, that they were out of imminent danger. After spending a few weeks in the Ukraine, her family was sent to a labor camp in Siberia then to the Ural Mountains and finally settled in 1946 at the Hallein Displaced Persons Camp in Austria. The camp where Ruth met Sasha.
“We lived in the same camp. We were like a family. When Sasha’s father was killed in a car accident my father took him and his little brother under his wing," said Ruth describing the military-style barracks. "There were eight rooms. Each family had a room. We would do everything in that room, eat, sleep, and cook in. For Shabbas we would sometimes go to Sasha’s room or they would come to our room,” she recalled.
Israel “Sasha” Eisnberg’s story of survival was similar to Ruth’s.
Sasha explained that he was born in a labor camp in Siberia after the war. He said his father’s family and part of his mother's family perished during the Holocaust. He spoke about his father, who was a young man when he was killed, crushed by a heavy wooden crate that fell off a truck that he was on, on his way to a port in Italy to drop off the cargo at a ship that was going to set sail for America. Sasha said his father was accompanying his brother-in-law and sister-in-law on the drive to help them with their luggage and their plan was to return back to the camp. Then the crash happened.
“It was a dark and rainy night, and I heard that the driver of the truck was drunk,” said Sasha.
When his father died, Sasha was 8 and his brother was 2. Their plan was to go to America, but that changed and they ended up in Israel.
“My mother found herself to be a young widow,” said Sasha, whose mother's brother convinced them to go to Israel. “It was 1949 when we got there. The country was only a year old.”
He talked about growing up on a kibbutz, in Israel, when he was 8 or 9 years old, and described that hundreds of refugees went to to work on the kibbutz that revolved around agriculture and farming.
“It was positive,” said Sasha, "because it appealed to the parents who came to Israel with little children. The children get educated, fed, and kept safe so the parents are free to look for a place to live, learn the language and find a job. That is what my mother did.”
Sasha said when his mother came to pick him up he didn’t want to leave.
“I grew up on the kibbutz until I went into the army,” he said.
When Ruth came to the United States, her family settled in Philadelphia. She said she married opened a children’s clothing store and had three children — a son, Larry and two daughters, Flora and Debbie — and is the proud grandmother of seven grandchildren. In 2018, her husband of 62 years passed away. She is still mourning his passing.
“I miss my husband very much,” she said with a heavy heart.
Ruth will be turning 84 in November.
After serving in the military, Sasha, 79, moved to Brooklyn in 1964 where he continued his education. During the daytime he worked at a sweater factory, he said. He took night classes to improve his English and attended Pratt Institute where he studied architecture and civil engineering. He eventually married the love of his life, Marsha, before settling in New Jersey. In August, Sasha and Marsha celebrated their 53-year anniversary. They have two children - a son, Kevin and a daughter, Alissa - and two grandchildren.
Their Tearful Reunion.
After 71 years — that's 25,915 days and more than 3,700 weeks — Ruth Regina Puter Brandspiegel and Israel Sasha Eisenberg met face to face.
It was on Oct. 3 during the week-long Sukkot holiday, one of the festive holidays in the Jewish religion, known as the “Festival of Tabernacles” and the “Feast of Booths.” It is one of Judaism’s three central pilgrimage festivals, along with Passover and Shavuot.
Ruth’s son had invited Sasha and his wife to his family’s New Jersey home for a socially-distanced lunch in the Sukkah, a hut-like structure in which one sleeps, eats and communes. The sukkah is to commemorate the time the Israelites spent in the wilderness after they were freed from slavery in Egypt.
Dressed in a flattering, black sweater jacket with off-white detail and a colorful mask and Sasha wearing khakis, a zip-up jacket, baseball cap and mask, the two were together again.
“In my life, I didn’t have such an afternoon,” said Ruth, who explained how meaningful and joyous it was to see Sasha once again, the little brother she never had.
“It is family,” she said. “It is people who came from the same hometown that you are from. I was a child. He was a child. My parents did not have any other kids. He had a brother in California and a half brother in Israel. I didn’t have anyone. My mother was sick and died very young at 54 years old.”
That fall afternoon felt like time had stopped.
“We had hours of beautiful conversation. He brought a lot of pictures. I brought a lot of pictures. He had a mask on. I had a mask on. His wife had a mask on,” she said. “It is just a shame I couldn’t hug them.”
Ruth’s son, Cantor Larry Brandspiegel who orchestrated and witnessed the reunion, felt just as breathless as they, and spoke about this monumental event. “They couldn’t embrace and they each were wearing a mask, but you could see the excitement in their eyes. It was amazing,” he said.
What was even more remarkable was that Sasha had been living only 60 miles away from Ruth all these years.
“If we met eye to eye I would have never recognized him if he would have passed my house,” she said. "Don’t forget it was 71 years. He was a child. A baby.”
“Now he is an old man,” she laughed.
Nevertheless, even after all these decades, the bond they both shared, would be rekindled after all this time. And, since their reunion they make it a point to stay in touch by phone or over zoom, frequently.
They were survivors.
"It is bashert [yiddish term for “destiny’]. Absolutely. It was bashert,” said Ruth as the interview began to wind down. “If I would have stepped away from that zoom call. I would have missed it.”