Bela, the Forgotten War Orphan

The remarkable tale of a 3-year-old whose parents died in Auschwitz, and the soldier who worked to get her out of occupied Berlin.


Comments: 74

  1. "He was an average guy, nothing special,” said Ruth. “He was special to me because of what he did, but he was an average person". We need our average people to keep this in mind. We need to do the right thing despite the hate of our current government and those that support it.

  2. As we prepare for Hanukkah and attempt to make the world a safer, better place, we must all remember there are still Holocaust survivors living, and do our best to honor them. We are only as good as the wars we prevent and the hate we replace with love.

  3. I am the daughter of two Holocaust survivors who would have entered the US in 1939, had they been allowed. Instead, they were hidden by a family of Polish Catholics, truly righteous people. Although these people are long gone, there are other rescuers still alive and in need of life’s basic necessities. Please consider the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous this holiday season: https://jfr.org/. My only connection to JFR is to make an annual donation, as a small way of saying thanks to the few who risked everything to save a remnant of humanity.

  4. Bert was not an "average person"!!

  5. As to the survey of Americans in 1946 on accepting refugees, it seems then as now, many Americans will bear the loss of blood and treasure of war to liberate the oppressed, afterwards, they take a pass on admitting the destitute survivors fleeing the devastation of war.

  6. Sad

  7. We must always remember and we must never forget that their are people, including people elected to public office, who would place people in concentrations camps, and who would exterminate people they consider useless and inferior. It is true that some Americans would do this to other Americans.

  8. EGD --

    I can give you the one example are you seek. Congressman Steve king of Iowa is on record defending the establishment of the Japanese-American internment camps in World War II.

  9. and some Americans would do this to immigrants, refugees and foreigners.

  10. Let's all keep in mind that the kindness and efforts of one person can change another person's world--perhaps not the entire world, but one person's entire world.

  11. Ah,but changing one person's world could have a domino effect on so many others.

  12. In retrospect he sounds like anything but "an average guy."

  13. Bert was a hero. He saved that little girl and gave her a chance at a better life. The life Ruth (Bela) has enjoyed is owed to that one great man. May he rest in peace, his is a blessed soul.

  14. So is hers.

  15. That is an amazing story. Thanks so much for publishing it.

    The 'average' person is capable of moral engagement and acting upon it. This is what Bert Simons did. Bert Simons would probably not have wanted to be called heroic.

    The United States continues to be conflicted over immigration, and this is the legacy of the racism that we still see today. This country should never turn its back on peoples displaced by war, famine, and persecution. In New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty symbolically welcomes those of all nations to a country that promises freedom and safety. She's holding a torch, not a quota document.

  16. A most beautiful story and very appropriate for the coming holiday season.

    Also an appropriate response to those in power who would close the door ( or deport those already here) on the Bela’s of the 21st century.

  17. I like to think that what Ruth meant to say was that even an average person can do, when the passion hits, something marvelous.

  18. Since Sargent Simmons was an observant Jew; he was familiar with Shemot 22:21 (You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan) and Devarim 10: 18 (God defends the cause of the fatherless, widow and orphan). Bela/Ruth was an orphan.

    What he did was what is expected from the average Jew.

  19. And, how many average Jewish soldiers brought back orphans? Your statement implies that all of the Jewish men who were Allied soldiers are "bad" Jewish men for not bring a child back to the US.

  20. A well written and researched story of great kindness. Tears come to my 70 year old eyes as I remember the difficulties of Shoah survivors coming to US, including, but not limited to family members.

    Bert is especially important today to remember in this time when we need "average" individuals to do the right thing. We need to understand why average and often good people people can do the wrong thing, especially given the increasing authoritarian US government, which sadly still enjoys wide support even if a majority disapprove. We must -all of us- reach out to other average people like ourselves and listen with respect so as to redeem our country.

  21. Small detail: Bert Simons most likely would have been in the 101 airborne division, not, as stated in the article, the 103 Infantry Division

  22. Why ruin a good story with accurate reporting? Especially a fact that could be easily confirmed through Fold3.com?

  23. I noticed that too. The article mentioned the "paratrooper uniform", and that he survived the Battle of the Bulge, where the 101st Airborne actually fought. That said, one of the heroes of the battle, the acting commander of the 101st, gen. Anthony "Nuts" McAuliffe, was then promoted and given command of the 103rd. Perhaps Bert Simons was one of the men who accompanied the general, and then continued serving with the former division - ?
    Who knows. "Fog of war", as they say.

  24. Like most stories about the holocaust and their survivors, especially the young children, this story made me very sad. I still cannot understand or comprehend how heartless a large number of people were during WW2. On the other hand we had some loving souls like Bert and thank God for them!

  25. And plenty of US Jews, believe it or not, were very much against immigration.

  26. Thank you for including this story. It is a timely reminder of several important aspects of our history. Bela was an orphan because of the rise of fascism and hate in Europe. We are witnessing the rise of hate and authoritarianism here now. Even after the war, even once we know how horrific the Nazis and the war had been, the people of the United States were still not willing to take in refugees including orphans. Today we are experiencing the same inhumane objections to refugees, to immigration and generally to people who are different.

  27. The banality of goodness.

    "All the kids look alike, I'll have this one".

    Random act of kindness.

  28. Typical statement for the males of my family. Though I do wish that I had met Bert.

  29. This really is a story of "average Americans" in the best of ways. The brick and mortar of America.

  30. Ruth's story is magnificent. What Bert and Lottie did is a beautiful thing. They gave Bela/Ruth a chance at a better life, and Ruth made it count. Bert's actions, Abe and Lottie's willingness to adopt and love Ruth, Ruth's life well-lived...from this came a marriage to Ted, their child Beth, and the happiness of thousands of people who may read this about Ruth or know her personally. Whether by fate or providence, on that lucky day in 1945, Bela decided to run up to Bert and a cascade of happiness flowed: out of the horrors of war and evil to a tranquil home in South Carolina 70 years later. Recalled to life, indeed!

    Ruth's story would make a terrific book.

  31. Gee Dave, Thanks for re-writing the article for us dumb readers…

  32. Paraphrasing a quote often attributed to Maimonides, "If you save one life, you save the world".

  33. its a shared heritage. its not a competition.

  34. It is in the Talmud and the Quran, and it is a sentiment which I would hope to find in every religion.

  35. Wonderful story!

  36. Bert was truly an exceptional man not with standing ruth's view. It shows how much persistence and determination it take to save just one life.Heart b reaking because in the present moment men like Bert and his sister, are few and far between-in a world laden with millions of refugees. For the moment I would say, GOD BLESS THE LIKES OF Angela MERKEL', and others out obligations to history or humanity do the right thing. Life is truly amazing.

  37. Ruth was lucky. She met the parameters set by her soon-to-be adoptive mother: Jewish and a girl. Bert was a great brother and a decent man but as was made clear in the story, his main motivation was to procure a child for his cherished sister who was unable to have more children.
    This is is a beautiful story of familial love, but lets not confuse that with the current refugee situation.

  38. Brought to my thoughts the horror of the Holocaust. Millions died and many became refuges. A happy ending for one. A kind person to the rescue. How to help the children in refuge camps around the world?

  39. Stop “defending” ourselves, i.e. invading and bombing countries ro serve our own economic interests.

  40. Great human interest story. Odd that, as bad as it was then in the 1940's, it's actually worse today what with the crazy 'build the wall' and the 'send the Dreamers away' chants even when, through no fault of their own, this is the only country the Dreamers know or can really have a life. Those who would be so heartless must have failed all their high school American history courses. They apparently have no idea how most of them came to have their own life here, for good or bad, in the United States.

  41. Really, BS? Are Dreamers being placed in concentration camps?

  42. Are you really comparing the Holocaust to the Dreamer situation?

  43. Actually, according to the article it WAS worse back then. 67% of people didn't want Jews coming to the US. 48% don't want immigration now. Back then the immigrants wanted to become part of America, learn the language and traditions, put an American flag in their yard. Can the same be said today? I don't know.

  44. Fascinating story. And to think that a biological cousin was able to find her as well. So glad Bela/Ruth has enjoyed a good life.

  45. Zylla never told her half brother that she had kids or more kids. Her cousin never knew about her until 13 or so years ago. If they knew I know this story would be completely different for Ruth

  46. Love reading pieces like this if for no other reason than it reminds me of how fortunate I am. Sometimes we need this reminder.

  47. We always try to draw parallels between different times. This well written story opens the debate about how justified comparisons may be.

  48. A wonderful and timely reminder of how fortunate I am, living in our America, yet how unfortunate it is that our America now turns its collective back on the masses who truly need the shelter attainable, once upon a time, only in our America.

  49. Ms. Blankfeld, thank you for this story. Ms. Saperstein Jaffe, thank you, too for sharing your experience and your strength.

    I am continually impressed with the human capacity for endurance despite impossible challenges. (I am not suggesting there is not suffering; I am suggesting there is a continuation in spite of suffering.)

    This is a story of love. Thank you.

  50. I was amazed when I read that Ruth thought Bert was “just a normal guy, not anything special.”
    You got to be kidding me! This man was exceptional. I would think that most American soldiers
    who survived the war would just be happy to get back home and leave all the horrors of war back
    In Europe. “Nothing special” you gotta be kidding!

  51. I hope that what Ruth meant was that you don’t need to be rich, or a genius, or from a remarkable family to do truly remarkable things. If Bert could do it surely any of us could selflessly help others less fortunate.

  52. As an American expatriate for 14 years in Europe I'm surprised to see my adopted countries resist taking in refugees regardless of how desperate the emigrants are. I can't claim pride in my native America's record of mixed immigration since it has ebbed and flowed over the years with Trump raising the level of hate to a new record.

    It's discouraging to see new waves of selfishness in younger generations after everything the world has already endured!

    The greatest controversy over immigrants is the one regarding Brexit, the UK leaving the European Union placing British expats in France in jeopardy .

  53. Who seems to have saved little Bela/Ruth's life were the unknown brave souls who helped hide her in the Jewish Hospital so she wasn't shipped off to Auschwitz with her parents and sister. Who gave her a chance at a good life were Sergeant Simons and his loving sister. Examples all for us all.

  54. "He who saves a single life, saves the entire world." Babylonian Talmud, Sanherdrin 37A

    This "average guy" saved an entire world.

  55. I feel bad for the aunt who wanted to meet her. However, as a historian, I've located descendants, who could care less. I had to beg one to complete the paperwork to put a military stone on a Revolutionary ancestor's grave, a free stone. Yet, she joined the DAR under this man. But, I digress.

    Based on my experiences, I find her attitude a bit selfish, as it is all about her, with no thought to her other relatives, who wonder who from their family survived, what they look like, and their life. Granted, it is her decision to share her life, but, it still seems a bit selfish.

    The article did remind me, however, of the Holocaust Museum in DC, where, an exhibit stated that at the end of the experience, most people are shocked by how early the US knew what was happening, but did nothing to help, including refusing to allow the St. Louis to dock. I disagree that Sgt. Simons was "average." He went far above the duty of a soldier by taking personal responsibility for a life. Her life was far better in the US, as a child and an adult, than it would have been in an orphanage, and as an adult in Germany, especially a post-war ravaged Germany. Sgt. Simons most certainly was a hero, and I am sorry she does not recognize that fact.

  56. Bela did not "die." Bela was transformed into Ruth. Perhaps a good analogy is that of a potter transforming clay into a vase, pitcher, plate, etc. To say she died negates the contribution of the family who gave her life, and still considers her part of their family. Imagine being one of her biological family, and learning she wanted nothing to do with you, after the work to find her. If nothing else, one would think she was at least interested in her heritage, as it is also the heritage of her children and grandchildren.

    I am who I am because of the actions of those who came before me. The decisions of who to marry, who not to marry, where to live, their occupations, etc. all contributed to make me. Had my mother's family not moved, it is unlikely she would have met my father, who had also left his family home for a new city and state. It is extremely disrespectful to claim that Bela died, and imply that those who came before her had nothing to do with who she is today. Frankly, the exchange of health information should be enough motive for interest.

    That both of you insist Bela died implies a disconnect from what happened, which seems odd in light of this article. Someone else raised her, but a large part of her is due to her biological family... her height, weight, hair color, allergies.... I'm sorry. To claim Bela died seems cold, especially to the sister who worked to save her.

  57. @Mrs Cleaver – It's a bit cheeky IMO to call out Bela's daughter. You might want to rethink your comments. I'm also not sure what your concern is about Bela's half-sister; almost certainly (and tragically) she did not survive Auschwitz. Maybe rethink again?

  58. There was a disconnect from what happened. Ruth's family never talked about it other wise my mother would know more than just the letters and the stories, rumors, and hear say. I wasn't allowed to talk about it so I couldn't ask my grandfather Abe.
    Again, it was until the late 90s early 2000s with the encouragement of her brother did Ruth start researching her past. I believe without her brother stepping forward we still might now who her parents, half sister, and twin brother were.

    Her cousin never knew she existed, only realized they were related once she filled out testimonials through Yad Veshem.

    To say I'm disrepectful about my mother's past you are completely wrong. Bela Raphael no longer existed once she stepped foot on US soil, the Sapersteins made sure of that. If I didn't care I wouldn't have preserved her documents. If I didn't care I wouldn't have looked up my family in the book of the dead at the Jewish Museum in Berlin or tried to see my uncle's grave. Lastly, if I didn't care my eldest son wouldn't have been named after her two siblings.

  59. A sad reminder that despite the words on Lady Liberty, we as a country have never really been welcoming to those most in need of our shelter. Historically we are a nation that has constantly turned our backs to war torn children who could benefit most from our abundance and freedom. A great nation? Not by far.

  60. fascinating. but i somehow missed how ruth/bela actually went to live with lottie, abe and ray. god bless bert, a great man. he and his captain. and all the liberators. and fdr. and, definitely, harry s truman, truly a great president. i hope ruth is happy. and thank you to beth.

  61. Seeing all the likes and shares for "memes" of the sick, the injured, the homeless, but not much action to change the situation - to me, evidence that "average" was a higher standard then than now.

  62. Doesn't this story show the American story and what it used to exemplify? Even the adjacent NY Tribune headline reinforces how things have suddenly changed: "Poles Pledge Free Election, Get U.S. Loan".

    The U.S. was the force seeking to promote freedom around the world.

    Look at us now.

  63. Never again!

  64. I ended the article a little confused. Bert and his then-wife Jeanne adopted Bela (Ruth), but then disrupted that adoption when they divorced, necessitating a different placement for the child. But a different story is that Bert got Bela out of Berlin, thinking from day one that the little girl would be adopted by his sister Lottie. Which one is it?

  65. Wonderful story.

    One thing - "He was an average guy, nothing special,” said Ruth. “He was special to me because of what he did, but he was an average person".

    Would the 'average person' do what Bert did? How many other men in Bert's position did this?

    What would someone have to do for Ruth to describe them as 'special'? LOL

  66. As an adoptee sensitive to the instruction of others throughout my life at how grateful I should be to have been wanted, shall we also mention how lucky Ruth's adoptive family was to get her? I think so.

  67. Compassion is sometimes a very messy process. But a world without compassion is far messier.

  68. A world in which Bert is "an average guy"... yes, that is the world we need now!

  69. It turns out that Mrs. Jafee is now a neighbor, more or less, having moved to within four miles of my own home. I hope she enjoys the area and all its amenities. We have other Shoah survivors here who came as children after their parents were murdered.

  70. To the New York Times:

    Since The Times' elimination of its secondary level of copy-editing review, so often I cringe at the typos and usage errors I see. It's plain that your error rate is up dramatically. While I understand the financial pressures on The Times and on media in general, I'm sad to see the deterioration of your formerly admirable standards.

    Here are a few of the many examples of error or awkward usage from this article alone:

    From paragraph 2:

    ". . . Bela had landed in a country that wasn't eager to take in her or anyone like her." "To take in her"? Really, New York Times? No time to reconstruct that sentence from the ground up?

    Paragraph 7:

    "'She's Bela Rafael, 3 1/2, whose parents were killed by the Gestapo at Oswiecim,' read the caption, which use [sic.] the Polish spelling of Auschwitz and misspelled the name she was given by her biological parents.

    Paragraph 16:

    "She also discovered that she HAD a twin who had died shortly after her birth and that she'D HAD a half sister as well."

    The two verbs indicated in capitals should be in the same tense.

    By my count, there are at least a dozen additional grammatical/usage problems in this article (as well as in many others – – I don't mean to single out this writer in particular), but the examples above illustrate my point. I very much hope that the New York Times reinstates some version of the secondary copy-editing function. That lost layer of editorial eyes gave great value to your final product.

  71. Perhaps up to date software editing tools are not an NYT resource? I had a book manuscript edited by software recently and I'm pretty sure it would have picked up at least some of the grammatical errors cited by ARG. It did just that in the manuscript. I've used MS Word to edit my longer comments and then cut/paste them into this comment box.

  72. ARG, I too have noticed a spate of typos and iffy grammar lately. However, I would have hoped for a comment about the article, a history-rich human-interest story that is an account of a (successful) drive to survive and thrive.

    Thank you, Ruth, for sharing your story. May you and Ted have a warm and peaceful life together in your new home.

    --Patricia