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Telling to Remember: Gitta Ryle, Holocaust Survivor, Turns Trauma into Teaching

Angel Eduardo profile image

Angel Eduardo

Gitta Ryle, Holocaust survivor, giving a talk about her experiences.
Gitta Ryle, Holocaust survivor, giving a talk about her experiences.

“I would like to introduce my mother, Gitta Ryle. She is a Holocaust survivor, along with her older sister. For many years now, she has been presenting her story and her journey to forgiveness and mental well-being at schools, houses of worship, juvenile centers, and other organizations.”

Janine Ryle

As a longtime follower of Idealist and a member of the Idealists of the World Facebook group, Janine Ryle felt that her mother’s story was a perfect encapsulation of the Idealist message. “She’s an idealist because she has turned her trauma into teaching,” she says. “Teaching others how to cope with their trauma and not carry it on to the next generation. I think that’s really vital in this world. That’s exactly why I posted about her and invited her to join the group.”

Gitta Ryle was born Brigitta Spindel on April 4th, 1932, in Vienna, Austria. By the time she was 5 years old, Adolf Hitler had risen to power in Germany and moved in to occupy Austria, where the Nazis began registering Jews and enlisting the men to work in labor camps. Gitta’s father managed to sneak out into Belgium by posing as a traveling salesman. In November 1938, Nazi soldiers smashed Jewish-owned storefronts, burned synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes and cemeteries, and killed nearly 100 Jews in a pogrom later called Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass. “After we had the Kristallnacht, my mother did not hear from Dad,” Gitta recalls. “So, she had to make a decision. She would not leave Vienna because her parents were still alive, and they couldn’t get a visa to come out because of health issues.”

As blue-eyed blondes, Gitta’s mother and sister could pass as non-Jews, but Gitta's own dark features made her too obvious a target. “I was not allowed to go out of the apartment the whole time that the Germans were there,” she remembers. “From the age of six I had to hide in the closet if anybody came to the door. I was a very anxious little kid.” However, there soon came a glimmer of hope in the darkness. Gitta’s mother had heard about a French organization called the OSE (Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants), which could offer her daughters a safe way out of Austria.

Gitta with her parents' wedding photo, and a photo of young Gitta.
Gitta with her parents' wedding photo, and a photo of young Gitta.
Left: Gitta Ryle, holding her parents' wedding photograph. Right: Young Gitta, aged 6.

On March 22, 1939, Gitta and Renee were put on a train to France. “Mom packed a little bag and took us to the train. I don’t know what she said, but I know that I was angry and I was crying and I didn’t understand why she was letting us go, and I thought she didn’t love us—and my dad too. I felt that abandonment issue as a little girl. I was not quite 7. Renee was 10.” Terrified and confused, Gitta and her sister boarded the train not knowing if they would ever see their parents again. “The Nazis took over Paris, and as soon as that happened they trucked us to the center of France,” Gitta remembers. “There, we went to Château du Masgelier. There wasn’t much food. I remember it being cold, and we got sick a lot.”

At Château du Masgelier, Gitta and Renee were suddenly reunited with their father. “I was so happy to see him I didn’t ask questions,” Gitta recalls. “Renee didn’t either, so we didn’t really know—or we forgot—what he said to us about how he had found us. But he knew about the OSE somehow.” However he’d found them, Gitta and Renee were glad to see their father and anxious to leave with him. “He took a job nearby at a retirement home, so he had a place to sleep and eat, and then on the weekends he would come and visit us. And every time I’d say, ‘Come on, take us away now.’ And he would say ‘Soon, soon.’ I don’t know what was going on, I don’t know if he was trying to get us out of there, but all of a sudden we don’t see him anymore.”

It wasn’t until much later that Gitta learned what happened. “A non-Jewish Frenchman who wanted my dad’s job at that place told the local police that he was Jewish. We heard later that he was in a local jail and then was transported to Drancy in Paris. We never saw Dad again. He died in Auschwitz, and we’ll never know how—if he was shot, or put in the gas chambers—and that’s always been something with me that will stay with me. I miss him every day.”

Château du Masgelier
Château du Masgelier
Château du Masgelier

The Nazis continued to take over more of France, spreading through Masgelier and other towns, and thwarting any escapes the OSE tried to orchestrate for the children. “I was very angry,” Gitta says of that time. “I didn’t want to live in this kind of society where I’m running and hiding. I didn’t really understand that I was Jewish and that’s why they were trying to kill me, so it was very confusing for me.” Eventually, Nazi pursuit forced the OSE to split Gitta and Renee up with separate families in a town called Romans-sur-Isère. That is when the war reached Gitta’s doorstep, and she began to truly understand the situation she was in. “The planes were coming, and the bombs kept dropping, and they were shooting down. We were out in the fields with the goats and the sheep, and we had to rush undercover as the stuff was coming down. I was about 12, and I realized that this is what a war is.”

Despite the turmoil, Gitta and Renee survived through to the end of the war. When it was safe again the OSE brought the girls back to Paris, where they were told that they would be taken to their mother, who had escaped to England after her own parents were captured. The British had placed job ads in Austrian newspapers as a way to help Jews flee to safety, and Gitta’s mother, being a talented cook and baker, was able to secure a job in London. She remained informed about her daughters’ whereabouts through secure messages from the Red Cross of Switzerland and the OSE. Once it was safe, Gitta and Renee were put on a boat across the English Channel to join their mother.

“I forgot my German,” Gitta remembers of that reunion. “I only spoke French. Renee remembered her German, so she had to translate a little bit for me.”

After some time in London, Gitta, Renee, and their mother boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth headed for New York City. They arrived in America on Armistice Day, November 11th, 1946, and eventually settled in Detroit, Michigan. Despite the war being over, the experience for the girls continued to be difficult. “We went to pretty much a Jewish high school, with working- and middle-class Jews, and they would be really nasty to us. The kids bullied us and they made fun of us. I remember going home to my mom, and [saying], ‘I’m done. I don’t want to live in this society. The non-Jews want to kill us, and the Jews don’t like us.’” The hardship caused both Gitta and Renee to find their own ways of coping. “I existed,” Gitta says of her time there. “I didn’t live.”

In July of 1951, Gitta moved out to California with her mother, where she eventually met and married her husband, Bob. In California, and with her husband, Gitta finally began to find some peace in her life, raising her children and attempting to put the past behind her.

“I think we always heard about it growing up,” Janine says of her mother’s story. “I think that we asked her, because we were going to temple, to religious school as kids, as part of our education, and they would talk of course about the Holocaust, and Mom would say, ‘Well, we went through that.’ I was about 12 or so when we [started] asking questions, and she started opening up, and we would get little bits and pieces about it.”

Through years of therapy and reflection, Gitta now feels she has a perspective on her story that she can offer to others. “I always tell in the story that there’s the yin and yang of life,” she says of her presentations at schools and other organizations. “Every place you go, there’s good people and bad people, and so I try and teach the students that they need to know that so that they can understand life a little differently.” Through telling her story, Gitta has found a way to turn herself and her point of view around. “Now I’m living, not existing,” she says. “There was a complete change in my personality, my allowing to let go of the negativity. I tell the kids, my way of forgiving but never forgetting is that I forgive myself for holding on to guilt, the anger, and I give it back to the perpetrators. The perpetrators—the bullies in school, or whatever—they own what they’re doing. So I feel free, now that I don’t have to hold on to that.”

For Janine, this is what makes her mother an idealist. “Just hearing what she did, and then also when she started talking about it in the schools, I realized she's doing this talk and she’s actually changing lives. She’s spoken at juvenile centers, she’s spoken to adults, she’s spoken at Elks Lodges, she’s spoken at the Defense Language Institute with all the military brass.”

Gitta’s influence has made an even deeper impact on Janine, inspiring her to be an idealist herself and to take action to make the world a better place. “Her whole experience gave me particular empathy towards refugees and people who are struggling, and also the people who are trying to come into this country and trying to learn English. I went back to get a master’s in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), so that’s what I do now. My goal is eventually to start working with refugees in some capacity. It also just made me aware of a lot of social justice issues, the importance of people being able to live quality lives. Everybody has the potential as long as they’re given that opportunity.”

Gitta, daughter Janine, grandson Bennett, and daughter-in-law Susan.
Gitta, daughter Janine, grandson Bennett, and daughter-in-law Susan.
Gitta, daughter Janine, grandson Bennett, and daughter-in-law Susan, on a bench dedicated to Gitta's late husband, Bob.

These days, Gitta devotes her time to sharing her story and helping others, however she can. “The people that I see that stay in their past and have all of the angst, I try and help if they allow me to help them,” she says. “I teach the kids about forgiving yourself, but never forgetting, and I also tell them that the reason I do this is because I’m alive. I lived through World War II and the Holocaust as a child, and they’re my ambassadors and my messengers. That’s really my purpose now.”

The main thing, for Gitta, is gratitude. “I’m so full of joy now,” she says, “and delighted that I’m alive. Whatever time I have left in this world, I’m enjoying every day. I do my gratitudes in the morning, I greet my husband and my parents, because I have pictures in my bedroom of them, and I just [give thanks] that they gave me life.”

“Life brings us unusual things,” she adds, “and we just have to embrace what’s good and let go of the bad.”

Inspired? Read more Idealists in Action Stories.

Learn more about Idealist Days.

Discover action opportunities in your area related to holocaust remembrance.

Join the Idealists of the World Facebook Group.

Read more about the OSE and the Leica Freedom Train.

If you’d like Gitta to speak to your school or organization, contact her at Gittale@comcast.net.

Angel Eduardo profile image

Angel Eduardo

Angel Eduardo has been published in The Ocean State Review, The Caribbean Writer, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, and Label Me Latino Journal. More of his work can be found on his official website www.angeleduardo.com.