The summer of 1931 was the start to the best years of my life, due to the fact that I met a person who was undoubtedly my other half. Our story started at Shirley’s Library, two blocks down from my family’s villa.
“Mère! Mère! I’ll be at the library if you need me! I’ll be back later this afternoon!” I ran as fast as a could down to Shirley’s. I had always loved reading since I was a small child. My father taught me how to read and by the time I was six years old, I was reading novels. We shared a favorite book, The Great Gatsby, and would read it together time and time again. Our family had books upon books in our home book shelves, but it wasn’t the same as sitting in an entire building of them.
“Salutation, Mrs. Shirley, how are you this fine day?”
“Bonjour, Ruthie dear, I’m doing well, merci,” she replied after taking a sip of her aromatic coffee.
“I’m looking for something exciting and adventurous; have any suggestions?”
A young boy sitting at a long wooden table in the middle of the library looked over at me and gently waved his book in the air with a shy smile. Mrs. Shirley gave a head nod to go on over to him.
“Bonjour,” I said strolling toward him.
“I think I’ve found just what you’re looking for, Mademoiselle,” he replied nervously while handing me the book.
“Thank you, Monsieur,” I said with a smile. “My name is Ruth, and yours?”
“James, James Keller.”
“Nice to meet you, James. Would you mind explaining to me what this little novel is about?”
“It’s called, Treasure Island. It has pirates and sailors, ship sailing and battles!”
The mid-day turned to dusk as we went on for hours reading about Treasure Island and all of its mysteries and adventures. We both made a promise that we’d come back tomorrow and finish the book. Dusk turned into nightfall and I couldn’t sleep because all I was thinking about was seeing my new friend the next day.
Morning came quickly and I popped right out of bed. I put on my new flower print dress and spun around in it until I was dizzy. I loved the way the bottom of the skirt twirled. I ran down the steps to breakfast. Our family had a morning meal of seeded bagels with cream cheese and eggs today. I loved bagels. My mother would always get up early and buy them fresh from the bakery for us in the mornings. I ate briskly, eager to get up and go to the library.
“What are you in such a hurry for, child? And why do you have your new dress on?” My mother questioned, eyeing me up and down.
“No particular reason,” I said letting a grin slip across my face. “I’ll be at the library.” I dashed out the door all the way to the library. There he was sitting at the table, just like he promised.
“Ruth! Hey! Over here!” James exclaimed.
I skipped on over, excited to speak with him, but not knowing exactly what to say. It didn’t matter though, we picked up right where we left off. Treasure Island soon became my favorite book. I yet again loved my afternoon and was overjoyed that I had made a new friend.
The summer passed and the next one rolled around. James and I went to different schools and I had only seen him time to time again throughout the year. I’d still go to the library almost everyday in the summer, for an hour at the least. It was a late Thursday morning in the beginning of August and I was just strolling in when I hear, “ Oh mon Dieu! Ruthie!”
“James!” I ran over to him to give a warmhearted greeting.
“I haven’t seen you in so long,” he said. “How have you been?”
“Fantastique, and you?”
“Très bien, merci,” he said with a nod.
We searched upon aisles and aisles of books to find the perfect one to read, chatting and laughing as we went along. We found a couple and started to read them to each other. He’d take a turn reading a chapter, then I’d read a chapter. It was fun spending time with James again, but I then came to realize it was already August and school would be starting up again soon.
“I have an idea. For all the times we don’t see each other, lets write letters back and forth during the year!” I exclaimed.
“Voilà brillante!” he said very excitedly. “I’ll be right back.”
James went to the front desk of the library, asked the librarian a question and came back to the table with a pencil and paper in his hands. “What is your address?”
“81012 Lakeland Way; did you grab an extra piece of paper by chance?” He handed me a slip of paper with his address already on it. “Merci!”
“Ruthie, I’ve got to get going. My mother wants me home early for dinner. Oh, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to see you again. I’m going to be pretty busy until the start of school. I’ll write you, though,” he said packing up his things. “Until next time, Ruth.” He nodded and left.
I sat there until nightfall reading the rest of the book wondering exactly what James would be up to later on in the month.
It was the closing days of November, and I still had not received a letter from James. I checked our mailbox every morning and every night of every day of every month, and still nothing. Sometimes I would think to myself that he didn’t like me anymore or didn’t want to stay my friend, but then I’d realize and remember that he said he’d be very busy. I decided to write him first.
• • •
Hello dearest friend. I was wondering how you were doing and how you have been. I know you have been very busy so it’s been hard to write me, so I decided to write you first. Have you been reading anything new lately? I’ve been reading all my textbooks. They’re actually pretty interesting. Hope to see you soon.
• • •
I ran to the father’s home office and made sure to pick out the fanciest stamp and envelope I could get my hands on. It was less than two minutes later that the letter was in the mailbox.
It was December 24th when I received a letter in the mail and I couldn’t believe it; I practically jumped out of my stockings when I saw it. I tore open the envelope to see a newspaper with writing on it.
• • •
Merry Christmas my friend! I hope you and your family have a blessed one! Is there anything you are wishing to get as a gift? There isn’t anything particular that I am wanting except for my mother to make her creme brulee. Have you ever tried it? It’s delicious.
I am writing to inform you that I won’t be able to write often or even at all. It’s a very complicated situation. I want to let you know that I miss you and cannot wait to be in the library with you this summer. Currently, there is no book that I am fascinated with, but you and I both know that I will find one soon. Have a wonderful Christmas, Ruthie. See you this summer.
• • •
Two questions hit me right then and there. He thinks I celebrate Christmas? Why is he going to be so busy? I would love to tell him all about my religion and heritage but I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, because of all the talk around town. Lately there’s been gossip about “Jews this, Jews that”, since the Nazi Party started controlling the government over in Germany. I don’t know what to think; I just know I need to keep my mouth shut.
Spring turned into April and into May. Crazy and horrible things were going on in the news. Jews were becoming stripped of basic rights and were being fired from their jobs. May 10, 1933, was an extremely rough day for me. My heart sank to my stomach when I found out about the book burnings. In Berlin, Germany, Nazis burned masses of books deemed “un-German”. I wanted to chat all about it with James, but there was little chance of me seeing him for a while.
It was June 6, 1933, my twelfth birthday, and I was flipping through the pages of The Waves written by Virginia Woolf in Shirley’s. All of a sudden I was wrapped up in a tangle of arms and heard, “Hey Ruthie!”
I turned around suddenly; “James!” I exclaimed wrapping my arms around him.
“How have you been?”
“I’ve been doing alright, yourself?”
“I’d say alright too. Hey! Happy birthday!” He held out a little dish.
“You remembered my birthday? And Creme Brulee? Oh James you shouldn’t have!”
“Here try it! You’ll love it.”
I took a spoonful and instantly fell in love with it. It was so creamy and smooth. I ate the whole thing right then and there.
“Hey James, I’ve been meaning to talk with you. Have you heard all the news… with Jews and the book burnings? What do you think about all of that?”
“Yes, I’ve heard everything and I am truly devastated about the books,” I saw him fidgeting with a hole in his shoe. “And… I’m not sure what’s going on with the Jews, but my father won’t stop talking about it. Did you receive my letter? I’m sorry I couldn’t write you very much if at all.” He kept rambling.
“James are you alright?” I said interrupting his mumbles.
“What do you mean?” he questioned looking up.
“You seem a bit… I don’t know.. different. Is something up with you?”
James looked down at his shoes, “I’ll be honest with you Ruth,” he paused, “my family is very tight on money right now. Ever since the stock collapse, we’ve really had no money. I’ve been so busy because I had to get a job. I couldn’t write you because I couldn’t afford the paper. I stole the envelope and ripped the stamp off your letter to use on my letter. Along with that my mother is in severe chronic pain and is unable to move and we don’t know why. The family has no money to take her to see a doctor.” A tear rolled down his cheek. “I don’t know how everything started to go wrong.” He put his head in his hands and wept. “Why me? What did I ever do wrong?”
I held him close. “I am so sorry James, so, so sorry. I wish there was something I could do. I really do. Will you be back tomorrow? Please say yes.”
He took his head from his hands and gave a small chuckle. “I will definitely be back tomorrow.”
It was already getting toward dinner time and James and I decided it was best to go our separate ways for the night. When I got home, I immediately searched the entire place for my father. Away from being a successful businessman, my father was an expert in herbal medications.
“Père! Père! Where are you? Père!” I yelled throughout the house.
“Ruth! What is it? What? What do you need?” he responded walking out from his office.
“I am in need of some help.”
“What? With what?”
“My friend’s mother is very weak with pain and needs help… is there any way we could help her?” I pleaded to my father on my hands and knees.
“Who is this friend Ruth?” My father looked down at my with question.
“His name is James. He is one of my best friends in the whole world. I met him in the library, about two years ago now. Please père.”
“Why haven’t I ever heard of this boy?”
“I guess I just never mentioned him to you before. I see him in the library over the summer. Can you please just answer my question?”
“Are they German?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Oh merci père! Merci!” I said overjoyed, “Oh, by the way, they do not have much money so they won’t be able to pay us.”
“Money doesn’t matter, lives matter.” He turned and walked away.
It was around 7 o’clock that evening when my mother carried a beautiful roast chicken and vegetable platter to the table. “So who is this new friend, Ruthie dear?” my mother questioned me.
“I read with him in the library over the summers.”
“Why hasn’t his name been brought up to us?”
“I don’t know.. He just never has; that’s all.”
“What’s his name?”
The next morning I met up with James in the library.
“James! I have such exciting news!”
“What is it?!”
“My father could potentially help your mother. He knows everything there is to know about natural remedies and cures.”
“Really? He would help us? Ruth that’s amazing, merci! Merci!”
“We have to set up a date to organize this. Wait, not like a date, but like a day.” My cheeks started to burn red.
“No… yeah! wait, what?” James said confused, smiling.
“We’ll have to make plans for a day that works for both our families to get together so my father can help your mother. Got it?”
“Oh… okay. Got it.”
“I’m always busy Fridays and Saturdays.”
“I’m busy Sunday mornings because I have church. Aren’t you? I go to St. Mary’s Church. Where do you go?”
I hesitated to answer. “I just go to the local one by our home.”
“Oh which one?”
“I’m not sure what it’s called actually,” I chuckled awkwardly, “ I’ve just called it ‘church’ since I was little,”
“Oh… okay then.” James looked and me and smiled.
We again chatted the entire day long, looked through books and made plans. We also talked with Mrs. Shirley and asked her how her weekend was and how she felt on certain topics. I had only had a ‘Hello.’ “‘How are you?’ ‘Good.’ ‘Good.’” relationship with her and now I feel that I know her so much better as a person.
The next weeks came and my father and I traveled to the Keller home. It was a lot smaller than ours and a bit run down. My father brought multiple medicines with him in his medical bag. We trotted up to their large wood door and knocked. The door swung wide open, “Hello Klein family! We’ve been expecting you!”
“Bonjour James, this is my father, Mr. Chandler Klein.” James reached out and shook his hand.
“How do you do sir?”
“Very well, merci,” said my father with a firm handshake.
“Please make yourself comfortable in our home.”
We followed James through two hallways to his mother’s bedroom. She was lying in bed with multiple blankets. The aura of the room felt thick and shady.
“Bonjour, Mademoiselle. My name is Chandler Klein and I think that I can help you,” my father said walking toward the bed. “would you you mind trying to sit up for me please?”
“Bonjour Monsieur. Merci for your kindness and willingness to help.”
My father examined James’ mother from head to toe, tapping her knees and elbows, looking into her ears, handling her joints and asking her multiple questions. James’ mother would point here and there with pain in her eyes and voice.
“It’s very hard for me to move; everything is so sore and I have hard bumps under the skin of my hands.”
“Does your family have a history of arthritis?” my father questioned.
“I think so… yes, we do actually. My mother and grandmother had very painful joints as they grew older.”
“I think I know exactly what you have. It’s called, osteoarthritis. It causes pain in the joints and body from mild to severe. It also causes the bony outgrowths on your hands.”
“Wow! Really? You know what’s wrong, why I am in so much pain? Oh merci! Merci!” she expressed with excitement.
“I want you to take these everyday,” My father handed her bottles of herbal medications consisting of methylsulfonylmethane, red seaweed supplement, S adenosylmethionine, and fish oils, “they reduce inflammation, pain, and swelling.”
“Merci, merci,” James’ mother said with appreciation in her eyes.
“Well, we’ll get going then, I’m glad I could help. It was a pleasure meeting both of you,” Father responded.
“I’ll walk you to the door,” James answered back.
We walked back through the hallways to the exit. We said our goodbyes and and opened the door. Just as we were leaving, James father was coming home from work.
“Bonjour…,” he uttered questioningly.
“Bonjour Monsieur,” responded my father with a hand out, ready to be shaken.
James father shook his hand, “Who might you be, Monsieur?”
James interrupted, “Père, this is Mr. Klein and his daughter and my dearest friend, Ruth. Mr. Klein is an expert in herbal medications and is on track to helping mother with her pain.”
“Nice to meet you, merci for your help,” James father responded.
“Don’t mention it, nice to meet you too,” my father replied stepping through the door with me, “bye now,” he said waving.
That summer was filled with fun. James and I were inseparable. We decided we would write letters back and forth again. This time around I gave him a stack of paper, envelopes and stamps. I was excited to see what the letters would bring.
It was now the year 1939. So many things have been happening in Europe since the Nazis took over. Jews have been dispossessed from their rights in many countries, such as not being able to own their own business, to being forced to only attend Hebrew schools, not to mention all the killings. The things I’m hearing on the radio are too unreal to believe. World War II is beginning? I am scared for my life. I’m scared for my family. We stick out in a crowd with our bright yellow armbands. I cry myself to sleep afraid that it will happen to me one day or my family may get hurt. I even received a letter from James explaining how he and his father will be joining the Nazi Party because they are so poor that they are willing to do anything. I cried for hours after I read it.
“Wake up! All of you now!” I popped out of bed and hid in my closet. “Come out here, or we will force you out!”
The Nazis! The Nazis. I wept to myself, shaking in fear. France was invaded May 10th, 1940 and signed an agreement with Germany June 10th, 1940.
I knew today was that day; the day I’ve been dreading. All I could do was cry. I felt a large hand grab my arm and pull me from the closet.
“Pack your things. Now.”
I grabbed my favorite things, my Great Gatsby book, and all the letters I had saved from James. My family and I stayed close as we went outside.
“You here. You two there,” a Nazi Official yelled at my family. My father and I were loaded onto cart, my mother on another.
“Je t’aime,” I screamed to my mother through all the tears.
“Je t’aime, Ruthie, my dear,” she replied soft through her rolling tears.
I felt a sudden jerk and the cart was moving. My father held me close the entire ride. I heard chatter on the cart that we had reached the border between France and Germany. The wagon came to a sudden hault.
We jumped off and huddled together.
“I want the children over here and the men over here.”
We were pushed to separate carts and driven separate ways. I fell asleep to try to forget everything.
“Out, get out!”
I woke up suddenly and got pushed out of the cart. I was hazy from being cramped on a bumpy ride for so long.
“Drop all your belongings here.”
I looked around and all I could see and all I could feel was death and defeat. Skin and bones of people were laboring and Nazis were marching around as if proud of it. I know that this place was the literal definition to the phrase, “Hell on Earth”.
We were pushed into lines and and made to do things that I don’t want to speak of.
I had been in the Dachau, Germany Concentration Camp for over a year. I was weak. I was tired. I was hungry. I was dirty. I was ashamed of myself and who I was. All of the Nazis were mean and ugly, except one. And I hate to admit it, but it was true. This young man was very handsome and didn’t yell or use force toward anyone. He wasn’t in control of my barrack, but I saw him around the others once in a while.
It was dusk and I was finishing my last assignments of the day. I felt a tug on the sleeve of my shirt. I turned quickly to find the handsome Nazi officer behind me.
I was thrown off; no official talks to a Jew like that.
“How are you?” he responded eagerly.
“Good…” I was so confused.
“Look at me.” He took hold of my shoulders.
“Ruth. It’s me.”
“Wait, what?” I had so much rushing through my mind.
“Ruthie. It’s. Me.”
I gasped, “James!?”
“Yes! It’s me!”
I jumped into his arms and squeezed him as tightly as I could.
“I’ve seen you here everyday but I didn’t know if I could talk to you or not,” James explained.
I couldn’t help but to feel embarrassed of the way I looked while he was talking to me. I was self-conscious about everything.
“I’ll meet you back here tomorrow night okay? I want to talk to you about something extremely important.”
“Um, okay,” I said thinking of a million things instantly, “see you tomorrow.”
The morning came and the afternoon went. It soon became evening and I almost felt that James had stood me up. It was a bright night with a full moon in the sky.
I went around the corner of a shed, “Bonjour.”
“Ruth, I need you to listen to me now,” James said seriously, “we’re going to get out of here.”
“I’m planning an escape. I’m going to grab an extra uniform of ours and you are going to wear it. I need you to gain some weight back though. You are too skinny and they will notice right away. I will be bringing you bread and meat every day,” he reached into his pocket, “here, take this.”
Two weeks later James and I met up at our talking place. I was a bit heavier now; I could feel it. I felt that I had more energy too.
“Are you ready to go tomorrow?” he asked.
“I think so,” I replied.
“I have to make sure to tell my father. He is a commander at the camp and I tell him everywhere I go. You remember the plan right?”
“Yes, I remember. I’m so very ready to get out of here,” I said letting out a deep breath.
James handed me my evening food, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Au revoir,” I whispered, waving.
The next day dragged by extremely slow because of my eagerness. I had surprisingly light work to do that day. I felt like I was on top of the world. Even the other girls in my barrack asked why I was so smiley all day. I would just respond with, “If you convince yourself it’s going to be a good day, it will be a good day.”
Night fell and I waited behind the shed. The plan was that I would change into the uniform right there and we would cross through the middle of the courtyards as if nothing was going on.
“Ruth! Run!” I turned my head to see James, blood all over his face, running toward me, “Run!”
I ran behind the sheds and barracks, James right on my tail.
“Cut through the opening between the fences; you can make it!”
Sliding easily between the fences, I ran farther ahead into some woods. James caught up with me quickly.
“Don’t stop until I say so.”
So many thoughts came rushing through my mind. What’s going on? What happened to him? Where are we going? Is he okay? Are we safe?
I had ran for almost an hour and my legs were giving out. “James, I can’t go anymore,” I panted.
“We are almost there.”
“You’ll see, I’ve been working on it for a couple of weeks” he said breathing deeply, “I’ll just carry you.”
James scooped me up and about fifteen minutes later we were at a small hut. James let me down and we crawled inside. He instantly started crying.
“He’s dead Ruth.”
“Who? Who’s dead?” I wanted to know.
“My father.” James wept.
“I’m so sorry James,” I said holding him close, “how did this happen?”
“…I killed him.”
I let go of James and backed toward the side of the hut, “You did what?”
“I killed him, Ruth. I shot him in the chest,” James sobbed, “I told him we were running away together and he punched me in the face. He told me that I am a disgrace of a child for deciding to leave with ‘some Jew’. He beat me, Ruth. He had gone mad. He did not care that your help saved my mother, his wife, or the fact that I am in love with you…”
I looked up, “You’re in love with me…?”
“How could you not know Ruth? I knew there would be no one else for me since the day I first met you in that library. Treasure Island? Mrs. Shirley? You are beautiful and it will never make a difference to me if your hair is cut into a million pieces or if you’re in dirty striped pajamas. Ruth, I love you. ”
I was teared up and held him close, “I love you too.”
The next morning, we were up and about very early. I changed into the uniform for extra protection and couldn’t be happier that it was actually clean. James explained to me that the journey to a neutral site, Switzerland, would be about 110 miles from here. Walking that much takes time, so we got to catch up on each others lives for the past years and relive old memories. I also asked the serious question of my religion issue due to the fact the war is not over. James said his cousins lived in the neighborhood they were going to and that we could live with them until the end of the war. I also asked about our money issues and how saving me will result in no more income from his job.
He responded, “Money doesn’t matter, lives matter.”
My father used to say the same thing. I was so happy that I had James in my life. He was undoubtedly my best friend and my other half.
The next couple of days were rough. Already weak from living in the camps, it was hard to walk for so long. The food James packed in his travel sack went fast. It was more food than given at the camps, but I was so hungry. Nights were scary and sometimes we didn’t know if we were going to make it out alive. The animals smelled our food and the blood on James. We took turns throughout the night keeping an eye open for safety. About a week after our escape, we made it to James’ cousin’s home in Switzerland. They welcomed me with open arms and took me in as one of their own. I had food, water, a place to stay, and love all around me. I was thankful. I was so, so, thankful.
James and I grew old together, made memories, lived a happy life and stayed in Switzerland. He became a writer, I became a writer. When the war was over, we traveled the globe looking for our own adventures and to find our own Treasure Island. But no matter where we went, I was always on Treasure Island when I was with him.
I never did end up seeing my mother or father again after the war, but they were always in my heart. I kept my father’s stories and my mother’s love and shared it with the person who owned the key to my heart. James and I brought four beautiful children into the world, all of which went far in their educations and became doctors of different specialities.
The life I developed after the war was more than any one person could hope for. I had everything I could have ever wanted, except for one thing, answers. There’s always been questions rolling through my mind, ones I’d die to know the answer to, but will never ask. Did James really feel comfortable everyday in a death camp? Was he really okay with taking the job, or was it because he had to? Did he ever kill anyone besides his father? These questions will never drift from my mind and will go with me to my grave.
My life has gone through its ups and its downs; it has been broken and repaired, and without all of it, I would not have what I have, or become who I am today. I am thankful for every second of it. My life has been adventure, my love has been an adventure, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.