Celia Rubin was a Detroit kindergarten student in the 1960s when she found out through a class assignment that the numbers tattooed on her father’s arm weren’t her phone number like he told her.
Benjamin Rubin, a Polish Jew, was among the millions that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis targeted for extermination, surviving numerous work camps, including Auschwitz. Now living in Cape Coral, Celia Rubin is committed to her promise that she’ll continue to tell her father’s story until her last breath in hopes of preventing another genocide.
“Hate teaches hate,” she said. “… Any tool I have I will use to stop that. I will keep talking. I will keep showing.”
Friday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, when the world paused to reflect on the slaughter of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War II. The day’s objective is to honor the deceased and surviving victims as well as promote awareness of the Holocaust.
“The only promise I ever made to my father is that we will never forget,” said Rubin, who works as a business system analyst-project coordinator at Lee Health. Benjamin Rubin died at 80 in 1998. She frequently talks to middle-school and high-school students as part of history classes in the region he came to call home. But she doesn’t limit herself to students.
It’s the story of her father, who was kind, generous, and loved her beyond measure, that she shares with anyone who’ll listen.
While she learned of the Holocaust growing up, it wasn’t until her father had put it in the past that he shared details of one of humanity’s darkest times, beer in hand and walking with her on the warm sands of Fort Myers Beach. He and his wife, Ann, made their retirement in Cape Coral, moving from Detroit in 1976.
He had rarely talked about the brutality he endured: family members disappearing, starvation, lice, attempting to keep warm using corpses, thwarted escape attempts met with torture and other horrors.
“People came out of the camps two ways: very bitter or glass half-full,” Rubin said. Her father chose the glass half-full. “He never let it influence him or how he treated anybody.”
Still, she knew his years in the camps were bad.
As a child, blood-curdling screams often punctuated Celia Rubin’s night. Night terrors included yelling and, less frequently, tears as memories surfaced in his sleep.
Later, she learned the stories behind the screams:
– After an escape attempt, guards cut off three fingers on his left hand up to the first knuckle. A tailor in the camp sewed the wound, stretching his skin over the bone.
– As he was moved from camp to camp in open cattle cars, he and other victims used corpses to block the chill and stay alive.
– While standing in a food line, he got clobbered with a ladle, sidelining him for two days and leaving a lump on his head for the rest of his life.
– As liberation forces closed in on the Nazis, he and other prisoners were made to crush the bones left from crematoriums to hide evidence.
– Made to march, those who fell would be shot. He stayed toward the front, where prisoners helped each other when they stumbled.
Rubin was part of a lawsuit against Germany for its complicity in the crimes against humanity, documenting his torture, backed by official Nazi records.
He also told his story as part of Shoah Foundation, a Steven Spielberg-backed project, in 1996. Two years before his death and a half-century removed from the camps, he shows the blurred number on his lower arm and recites it: 172066. As the interviewer attempts to draw him out, Rubin is sparing with the memories, saying the video will be what he leaves his children of the experience. He didn’t talk with other Holocaust survivors about his experience, he said, because they already knew.
Legacy Republic recently digitized it and put it on a secure online account, so Celia Rubin won’t worry about losing it during her travels to schools or it wearing out. In it, her mother sums up Benjamin Rubin’s legacy:
“Bennie is a wonderful father, a wonderful husband and, as a son-in-law, he could not be beat,” Ann Rubin said on the recording. “He’s a good friend to people. He’s a very understanding and compassionate person, and I was very lucky.”
The digital memories help tell a story of a humble man who survived the most humbling of experiences, yet retained his humanity.
He arrived in New York City in 1949 with the clothes he was wearing, a spare shirt, a folder containing his important papers and a few dollars from the European Red Cross. He found a distant aunt who agreed to sponsor him in Detroit and went to work at a Jewish bakery. There, he met Ann, more than a decade younger than him. They had two children, Allen, and then Celia when Benjamin was 40. She was named for his mother, Allen for his father. They lived in a two-bedroom, one-bath home in a multicultural neighborhood.
Rubin had eight siblings. An Orthodox family, their lives revolved around the synagogue in Sosnowiec. They worked in the trades: He was a baker like his father, others masons and tailors. Celia Rubin said her father called it a “very happy life.” At 18, he was forced into a Polish work camp, but in the video, he brushes it off as “not so bad.” He could go home for visits. Then, the guards started beating them. The food supplies dwindled. The Nazis took over the work camps.
The Polish government started confiscating businesses from the Jews. They shuttered the Rubins’ bakery.
“They started moving people to the ghettos,” Celia Rubin said. “The roller coaster began. And that’s history.”
By twos and threes, his sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents were taken away. It would be years before he learned all but one, his brother Harry, was killed. Another brother died two days before his camp’s liberation.
Still, in the Shoah Foundation video, Rubin smiles while recounting a memory: An American captain saw Rubin was barefoot and wearing a tattered striped uniform. He ordered a captured SS soldier to give Rubin his boots.
“You got good people, you got bad people,” Rubin said.
He would have been 99 this year, and Celia Rubin thinks about him each day.
“He was a pretty amazing man,” she said.