Life History Interview: Ruth Schwager nee Teutsch

Her name: Ruth Schwager nee Teutsch. Her family: Well-known citizens of Augsburg. Husband – Josef Schwager, of the Schwagers of Cham, a family known for its phenomenal shoe business. Father – Arthur Teutsch of Nürnberg, Justizrat in the Fugger city thirty miles west of Munich. Mother – Klara Teutsch nee Holzinger, good German housewife with a strong artistic streak. Brothers – Walter and Erich, smart boys who excelled in school.

Arthur turned down a judgeship in Augsburg to continue his private law practice, the Justizrat (“of counsel”) after his name attesting to the prominence and esteem bestowed upon him by his peers. The family belonged to the Oddfellows, a Christian lodge. Ruth remembers singing solos and “merry songs” to entertain its members.

When Hitler came to power, the Schwagers’ shoe business grew, as the military complex enjoyed substantial growth. No better place to buy uppers for hobnailed Jackboots than from the experts in Cham!

In any other day, in any other place, this family would have known the usual life cycles associated with its upper middle class status. Ruth’s children would have gone to the same college prep and private art schools in Augsburg that she and her brothers had attended. Children and grandchildren would have learned the same lullabies, the same poetry, valued the same museums and concerts that she cherished. They would have been wed and confirmed in the same house of worship.

Except for a single, simple fact: Ruth and the Schwagers and Teutsches were Jewish.

Here then are excerpts from an exceptional interview of an exceptional woman. The interviewer: Elizabeth Wilcox, Salt Lake City writer. The interviewee: Ruth Schwager geb. Teutsch.-Denise Heap.

EW: Ruth, will you introduce yourself – tell us a little bit about where and when you were born, and what you’re doing these days.

Ruth Schwager (Joseph)RS: My name is Ruth Schwager. I was born in Augsburg, Bavaria, which is in Germany. I went to regular school. After graduation I went to art school where I did painting and [designed] patterns. I made more or less my living … even I don’t need to, because I lived at home. Whatever I made, I kept.

EW: When were you born, and what are your parents’ names?

RS: I was born April 27, 1912. My mother was born 1884 in Erlangen, and my father born 1875 in Venningen.

EW: How old was your mother when her father died?

RS: I think she was twelve. I’m not sure any more, but I think that’s what she said.

EW: Tell us about your immediate family. Your mother and father, Arthur and Clara, had three children?

RS: Ja, I have two brothers. One is younger; one is older. One was born 1909 and the other one 1919, after the First World War. My father [offered to serve in the] war. [The brothers are named Walter and Erich.] [My brother’s name is actually Franz Erich, but he forgot about the “Franz” when he grew up. He was called Franz because of my grandmother’s name Francisca, Fanny.

EW: Ah, so he was called Erich. What was Walter like when you were growing up?

RS: He was always my older brother, and we stuck together. … We looked out for each other.

EW: Now, your father had studied law, so he was working as a lawyer, is that right? Did he work on his own, or with a partner, or in a company?

RS: No, he worked on his own. He was supposed to be a judge, but he didn’t do that. First of all, he didn’t like the idea, and second he felt on a judge’s income you don’t have a family.

EW: He wanted a family, clearly, so he went into law.

RS: He wanted to have enough money for the kids.

EW: And so you did go to Lyceum [also known as Gymnasium – sometimes a private school], then.

RS: That is why my brother, he went to University, and my younger brother did, till Hitler came. And then he wasn’t allowed schooling any more.

EW: Tell us a little more about that. How did Hitler’s beginning rise to power affect your family directly, you in particular?

RS: I think in the beginning nobody believed it, which was – looking back – sad. Nobody believed he would – he was laughed at. “Give him another two weeks,” you know, something like that. “Give him a little time, and it’s over.” Nobody believed that.

EW: So, at first you said he was laughed at.

RS: Ja, more or less. Like a caricature figure, you know. Even in the papers, I mean, nobody took him seriously, but he had a few people who took him very seriously, and they managed – I forgot now, as I talk, who was the president of Germany at the time. … My, he was there one day as president and was not any more.

EW: And then things began to change.

RS: Oh ja, right away.

EW: What kinds of things did you notice?

RS: I didn’t. As a child you don’t notice it, because your parents take care of things. It goes slowly. I read a while back that if people generally would have been against what he did in the beginning, he was ready to not go on, but people didn’t do anything, because nobody took him that seriously. My, we were proved wrong.

EW: What was the difference between the art school that you went to and the school that your brothers went to? Did you go to art school because you were a girl, and they had a different school because they were boys?

RS: No, I went to art school because I wanted to, and my parents let me. And Walter, he wanted to be a musician. And my father’s thinking was, as a musician you have a heck of a time making a living, and so he said, “You study to be a lawyer, and on the extra time, you can study music.”

EW: Tell us a little bit about your mother. What kind of influence did she have on you?

RS: My mother, she was very artistic. She never had schooling, but she was very artistic, and she made – invented – beautiful [things]. And when I was working, I tell you, half of it was my mother’s! … That’s my mother’s work (pointing to the tablecloth in her home). …

EW: That’s wonderful. So you got a very good start and had a livelihood by the time you were very young.

RS: Ja, it turned out real good.

EW: Well, tell us a little bit about your religious upbringing in your home. How were you raised?

RS: I am Jewish. I always knew I was Jewish. We celebrated the holidays. We had our candlelight on Friday night and a warm meal on Friday night. It was not every night. Saturday night was a cold meal, because nobody cooked, but Friday night we had soup, which was always good, and potatoes and a vegetable, and a little meat. Not much meat. … There were times you just couldn’t get meat.

EW: Is this the whole time you were growing up, or only during a certain period?

RS: My, we had the inflation after the First World War, so then you couldn’t afford it. I have a sister-in-law now, and her grandfather had a butcher shop in Augsburg. Well, naturally at that time I didn’t know she would be my sister-in-law. When I told her [about] that I went there often – I was sent usually – and once he put a bone in that was to make soup. Usually you had to beg, and they didn’t give it to you. I told it to Hilda (sister-in-law) and she said, “You should have told him that your brother would marry his granddaughter, and he would have given you every time a bone.”

EW: If only you had known! Your father – what did he participate in? Was he not in a lodge or two? … What were those, and what did you do as a member of the lodges?

RS: My father thought he could better the world, and he tried. He had lots of good influence, but naturally, in spite of it your influence is very limited, you know. He belonged to the Oddfellows, that is a Christian lodge, and he belonged to B’nai B’rith, which came way later, which is a Jewish lodge. And he was active in both. At the Christian lodge, I usually had to sing a solo or some merry songs.

EW: Let’s go back to the 1930s for a minute. … What did your parents do? What did you notice? Were there ever any conversations between your parents, or between them and you kids about what was happening? Because, Erich your younger brother was already in his early teens. What kinds of things, if any, were they saying? Did you begin to get a feeling that things might be changing dramatically?

RS: My, when my little brother was picked up and put in the concentration camp in Dachau once. Dachau did not have the best name, even at that time. He came out, because they let the kids out in the very, very beginning. He was only sixteen, and he had a chance. There was a group in Germany, and they helped the kids under eighteen to get out of Germany. And, I don’t know was it through my father that he could get out, or did they choose him, or was it the Jewish community? That is in a haze; I don’t know. But Erich left for England, and there was a Kitchener Camp, which was a prisoner camp in the First World War, and there they put the kids.

EW: Was this, when Erich was picked up, was that really the turning point for you in recognizing that Hitler was after the Jews?

RS: Oh, you realized it before, but there was no way of getting out. You got like – I was married by that time, and we got a number from the American Consulate in Germany, but we had to wait until our number was called up [to emigrate], and that’s how my parents didn’t make it. We applied, and my parents – we made them apply – it was five days later. In those five days, the whole of Germany and Poland applied for visas. And that’s why. My parents had their own number, but it never came up any more. …

EW: How did you meet your husband?

RS: Through his sister. He had a sister in Augsburg who I knew all along, and we often talked to each other. I passed her store once a week. … And she always, which I didn’t realize – she always came outside to catch me, to talk to me. I didn’t realize that was on purpose.

EW: This is because she wanted you to be her sister-in-law; she wanted to introduce you –

RS: She thought I would be a good wife to her brother. Ja, that’s right… Pete [Ruth’s son] just gave me a thing. My marriage to Seppi was the very last marriage conducted in the synagogue in Augsburg. …

EW: How soon after you married [March 25, 1934] did you become aware of the need to emigrate? How soon after that did you apply? …

RS: I think it was ’39. …

EW: When your number was called, what did you take with you? Where did you go?

RS: To Frankfurt. There was – Everybody had to go to Frankfurt from Bavaria. That was where the Americans had their offices to take care of, and they looked at you. They made sure that you are healthy. If you weren’t healthy, they didn’t let you go. I had at that time – I didn’t know it – something here (pointing to her wrist) a bite or something, I don’t remember. I didn’t know I had it, but this fellow noticed it, and he asked me right away and asked me what I had and I looked at it and then I got conscious of it.

EW: What did you tell him?

RS: I don’t know. Most probably I looked flabbergasted. …

EW: And they let you go ahead and go.

RS: Ja, he gave it to me, and then you have to wait till your number comes up. And we were lucky, we could go to England.

EW: And there, did you get together with Erich again?

RS: Accidental, accidental.

EW: Really? Tell us about that.

RS: When we had a cabin on the boat to go to America, and when we went on the boat, all of a suddenly Erich showed up. And he was as surprised as we were! … And I met again the rabbi from Augsburg and his wife. They were on the same boat, and that was really nice.

And they had boys, they were just about two years older than Pete, and in Europe Bleyle for clothing is top-notch. That’s the best you can buy for kids. If you have a Bleyle suit, you don’t wear it out. You might not like it any more, but you can’t wear it out. And that’s how Pete got Bleyle suits from them, because those kids had outgrown – because everybody bought in advance for the kids, for growing, you know. Nobody had really money to know what was happening, and they could afford it. So, I got their stuff from the rabbi. And Pete wore it for years and year. And that way we (laughs) – little boy in Bleyle suit.

EW: A few good memories from that time.

RS: Oh, there were many good memories mixed in. That is (sigh) human nature  my nature at least. I might lose it a little bit, but I always was confident the future is better. And the future is manageable. Well, I know now, not everything is manageable.

EW: But at the time, you believed it.

RS: Ja, when you are young. …

EW: Where was Walter?

RS: Walter came to America in ’37, ’39. Do you remember, Pete?

EW: So he [Walter] left maybe about the time your brothers-in-law left?

RS: Walter left before any of us. And he found a job in New York to play the organ on Friday night for a community.

EW: So, he did keep studying music on the side?

RS: Ja, that’s what he knew best.

EW: So he was expecting you and Josef and Pete. He was probably not expecting Erich.

RS: My, he might not have expected, but we all close!

EW: So when you got to New York, Walter was there to meet you.

RS: Ja. He was on the pier.

EW: Describe your feelings then.

RS: My, it’s one of the highs.

EW: Was that partly about seeing your brother, were there feelings about arriving in a place to make a new start? What were your feelings about coming to this new country, to start over?

RS: Oh, you looked forward to it. You really looked forward to it, to make a go again of things and settle down and be away from Hitler and war.

EW: What had you taken with you, from your home, to make your new start?

RS: My, what I fixed to take over was – I heard from my mother – was opened up in Hamburg and sold. I got nothing.

EW: What happened?

RS: My, the Nazis opened it, period, and sold it.

EW: The things you had taken with you, in your suitcase.

RS: Which I wanted to have, and the little suitcase which I actually carried got opened up, and when I opened [it] up in London again, there was an etui [an ornamental case for small articles] for the photo; but the photo was taken, but the etui was still in.

EW: So as you were leaving Germany, the Nazis got into your things and took anything of value.

RS: Ja, sure. That’s why I say even the suitcases which were packed under supervision were opened and taken out, which wasn’t supposed to be. At least, that was the idea.

I had an uncle in New York, my father’s brother. He gave us an affidavit [as a] matter of fact. You know, people had to vouch for you, that you – that the government wouldn’t have to pay for you. I supposed the first ten years you live [here] you couldn’t ask for help, for food or clothes or whatever. They had to vouch for it.

EW: Like a sponsor.

RS: That’s exactly – But they had to vouch for it, that whatever went wrong, they had to pay for it.

EW: So you had an uncle and Walter both, then.

RS: Ja, my father’s brother he saw [looked out] for us.

EW: What was he doing in New York?

RS: Oh, he was retired. He was old – I shouldn’t say “old”; I mean, not my age, a little bit younger than I am now [89] when we came. He wasn’t working any more, but he had enough money to vouch for us.

And so did his daughter, who was a teacher and whose husband was a teacher. And the funny thing is – maybe not funny – when you go through a thing like that, your mind is set more on helping others. Even like now, when they collect for the Jewish whatever, we know what it is. A lot of people here – my, they always lived here. Not everybody’s rich, but most of them – I don’t know, at least I think most of them – make a good life. Naturally I don’t know how many went by the wayside, you never know. …

EW: Now, since you came to New York – from the time you were in New York and then moving to the chicken farm [in Allentown, Pennsylvania], you were exchanging letters with your parents, weren’t you?

RS: Oh yes.

EW: And how long did that go on?

RS: I don’t know. They got deported because the last two letters [of Ruth’s] which they didn’t get any more came back to me.

EW: And this is how you knew that they had not gotten out.

RS: I still can’t get over it.

EW: Did you ever learn, from anyone, what had happened exactly? Where they went? Where they were taken?

RS: Yes, I know where they went. But that didn’t help any.

EW: Do you want to say?

RS: But that didn’t help any.

EW: Do you feel like you can say?

RS: I don’t like to.

[Added by Elizabeth Wilcox: In our initial conversation, before taping began, Ruth said that after they arrived in New York, “I exchanged letters with my parents from 1940 – 1941.” They were applying for permission to leave the country as well.

The Schwagers moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania in about 1941. When they moved to the chicken farm, they were considering building a room for her mother, after her father had been taken to Theresienstadt and killed by the Nazis. At some point in 1941, her mother’s letters stopped coming, and they found out later that she had been taken to Auschwitz, where she died or was killed by the Nazis.]

EW: Let’s have Pete add something – Pete Schwager, Ruth’s son.

Pete: Just – Dad (Josef Schwager) passed away in 1964, and he and Mom had talked about it, and on the tombstone that’s in the Salt Lake City Jewish Cemetery, both of Mom’s parents are listed, with their dates of birth and death, and the concentration camps in which they died. So there is some memory in this – written memory – in the world for Mom’s parents. …

RS: Somebody told me – hearsay – that my mother made wool flowers in the concentration camp. I have no idea did she get food for it, or did she – what she got out of it, I don’t know. But that was in Augsburg, a lady who came out of the concentration camp when the Americans went into the camp, and I can’t remember. She told it to somebody, and this somebody told it to me. So, I don’t know.

EW: You told me one time that your mother was always making things beautiful around here.

RS: Ja.

EW: So given that, do you think it more likely that that – even though it’s hearsay – is a true story?

RS: That she made flowers? Oh that’s – I’m definite of that, sure.

EW: What a wonderful thing to know about her.

RS: She was – exterior – very good to look at. Exceedingly good to look at, and the men always went for my mother, and my father hated it.

EW: I hope she wore her wedding ring!

RS: I remember there were two bachelors living on our street, just a few houses away, and one of them seemingly waited for my mother when she came back from shopping once at market and carried her basket or what she carried three houses to our house. My father was bloody mad!

EW: What did he do?

RS: She didn’t do anything.

EW: Did he [your father] do anything?

RS: (Shakes her head “no.”) He just got angry. He [the bachelor] just admired her.

EW: Do you look like your mother?

RS: I don’t know. I don’t know. (To Pete) You think so?

EW: Pete is here, and he’s shaking his head, “Yes, she does.” Well, when you said that she was exceedingly good to look at, I thought that you must, because you are.

RS: I don’t know. She was intelligent, helpful. She sure helped me along!

EW: She taught you many things, didn’t she? I’m looking at a photograph here – she is gorgeous. Big, luminous eyes. Perfect, clear skin. She is very lovely. And earrings like the ones you have on.

RS: No, those Pete gave me. I have some of those too, ja. (Long pause.) It’s just murder how they lost their life.

EW: Exactly.

RS: There is no forgetting, naturally, but there’s really no forgiving, neither. You can’t forgive murder. I mean, people say one should forgive whatever, but [one] can’t change. But, I think there must be something wrong if you forgive murder.

EW: Do you feel like that would be condoning it?

RS: I don’t give it a thought, but I just know it would be completely wrong for me. After all, people are different.

EW: What kinds of things do you remember about your father? What would you say, if you wanted to give a tribute to him, the way you just gave [one] to your mother?

RS: When my father gave the [Passover] Seder, I think that was one of my best memories. We had a big – would I say couch? – but it was not like our couches, it was like – like web stuff, like a reed couch, and there he set up the Seder that was carried in from the office with the best pillows on it. I just – that was very beautiful.

EW: Did he set the Passover table on that?

RS: Oh, at Passover the table was set ‘specially nice.

EW: Oh, and he brought this other sofa –

RS: To sit on.

EW: I see, especially for Passover.

RS: I got the cloth off the table.

EW: Is that something that he did every year, one of the family traditions?

RS: (Nods.) Another thing I remember, there was a lodge brother who had a son and he didn’t – anyhow, he couldn’t make a living with what he earned. And he ate once a week with us, for lunch. I mean, they divided him up [so] that he would at least have one meal. He came once a week.

I didn’t mind the guy, but our table couldn’t sit him. We were already squashed – like when you sit three people here (indicating one side of a dinette table), you can’t sit a fourth one without taking this chair off. So, I got a little table and had to sit extra.

EW: That was a very kind thing.

RS: Well, today I wonder why I didn’t speak up that Walter or Erich once should sit there!

Elizabeth then continues to ask Ruth about her life in Allentown, Pennsylvania and the move to Salt Lake City, Utah. She and her husband Josef (“Seppi”) had a chicken farm for a while. Her mother could never understand why they would do something that was ‘beneath them’ – something that differed so wildly from the successful business they had left behind in Germany.

Ruth tells how she and Josef decided to join her brothers in Salt Lake City. Walter played organ for Salt Lake’s Jewish community and gave piano lessons on the side. Erich followed Walter, and then told Ruth and Josef about a clothing store – The Golden Rule – that was up for sale.

They “took care of” the soldiers, putting stars on the ribbons “and the little diddles.” She shortened pants, did whatever tailoring was necessary, and trimmed the store’s windows every Sunday morning.

Ruth also worked at another Salt Lake store – Auerbach’s – where she met two women who influenced the rest of her life: Mrs. Bealey and Mrs. Stuart. Mrs. Stuart ran Auerbach’s, while Mrs. Bealey was “the lady from the craft house.”

Following an initial confrontation – Seppi to Ruth, “You don’t have to take it, just quit!” – Ruth and Mrs. Bealey became best of friends. In 1947, Ruth designed a wall hanging commemorating the centennial of the “Days of ‘47”, when Mormon pioneers landed in Salt Lake City. Not only did that wall hanging sell, but they asked Ruth to help them out for a few weeks.

That association lasted more than 55 years, with Ruth teaching weaving to 1,000 or so students. Elizabeth met Ruth at The Craft House, and remembers Ruth’s patience and extraordinary skill both at her art, and at the art of teaching.

Ruth also earned her Bachelor’s degree from Westminster College (Salt Lake City) at the age of 58. She majored in art and minored in Spanish.

But the interview ended with more reflections about Ruth’s remarkable father.

EW: Ruth, I understand that your father went and volunteered in World War I. Will you tell about that, and about what happened, and what the results were?

RS: Naturally, I was a little kid. World War I, when it started, I was only two years old, so there are not too many memories. I remember, though, once he came home dressed in his soldier outfit, and I was so scared, I run away from him.

EW: Did you not recognize him?

RS: No. I never had seen him in that outfit, and I was really scared. But I visited him once where he was stationed, with my family, and that was the only time I really got a rebuke from my father. There were French soldiers as prisoners. I was not quite four years old, but I remember from kindergarten how you learn little things you shouldn’t learn, and I made one of those little sayings which were nasty and I said to him – to this soldier – my father was next to me. Oh! I never said a thing like that any more.

EW: You said something, and your father got right after you then.

RS: He sure put me down. He said you never make – say anything negative about people, especially not when they can’t help themselves and retort nothing. The prisoner can’t.

EW: Your father sounds like a really wonderful man.

RS: He could have a temper. If he saw something wrong, you better were not in the neighborhood. I was fast! And something happened. Here sat my father, here sat my older brother (indicating a spot next to their father), I sat down here. He never caught me, but he always caught my brother!

EW: Your brother never learned not to sit right next to him, hm?

RS: I was too fast for everybody. …

EW: Pete mentioned that your father had received honors –

RS: Ja, from the government. As a lawyer you could get an honor. Most lawyers didn’t. At least – you had to be twenty years a lawyer. I mean, in other words [so] that they could look back if you were decent, helpful, and other positive things. And when they felt somebody should get honored, my father got it when he was twenty years a lawyer. Some people get it later, and some lawyers never, ever get it.

[Editor’s note: Ruth’s father held the coveted title of Justizrat, which was more than a simple honor. There is no equivalent in U.S. law. In England, these are known as Privy Councillors.]

EW: And that was separate from honors he received for his military service. Did he also receive honors for military service?

RS: There was an iron cross on his desk that was military. Otherwise, I don’t know; I was too young.

EW: Do you know, Pete, if that was – the iron cross – was that because he was injured in the war, or was that associated with his service?

Pete: With his service, the iron cross.

RS: It’s a service. … Oh, he was very patriotic. Wow! We all were.

EW: It’s very ironic, isn’t it?

RS: Ja, for a family who lives so long in Germany, it’s very ironic, but – …

EW: Where feels like home to you?

RS: Oh, home is right here. You make up, in the beginning, wherever you are is home. When we lived in England, that was home, period. When I came to America, that was home. You can’t live in what’s past. You always have to make the best where you are. And life was pretty good to us.

EW: It seems like you’ve been pretty good to life, Ruth, and have had a lot of influence.

RS: I could work all the time, found work, and could work. I live here 58 years now? (To Pete) Okay, I take your word for it.

EW: On April 27, [2002] you’ll be 90, and you have lived in Utah now 58 years and you have taught at the [Pioneer] Craft House for 55 years out of those 58. And you have probably – Oh, I think I figured it out here – you’ve probably had more than 1,000 students at the Pioneer Craft House.

RS: I guess they added up, over the years. … I know it’s funny, because sometimes in town somebody comes up to me [and] says, “Hello! Do you remember me?” And half the time, I don’t, but I wouldn’t say it.

EW: You’re probably safe in saying, “Were you in my rug-weaving class?”

RS: Oh, they say it before I ask.

EW: Yeah! Well, thank you for your time. It’s delightful getting to know you better and getting your story down so that other people can get acquainted with you too. You’ve made wonderful contributions in your lifetime – not just to your family, although those are significant – but also to the community that you made your home.

RS: Well, we tried.

= = = = = = = =

Ruth Schwager nee Teutsch, born April 27, 1912 in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany, died October 9, 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. Here is her obituary, with information about her burial (PDF file): Schwager obit 2013-10-09.

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