At 88, Jack Ratz has a full head of hair and remains passionate about life despite the tragedies he experienced during the Holocaust.
His book “Endless Miracles” is used to educate students in both public schools and yeshivas about that time in history, he has lectured at schools throughout the country and recorded his stories on DVD.
But this past Monday, Ratz, a Brooklyn resident, received a piece of paper that he was denied earning due to the Nazi occupation of his native Riga, Latvia. He was presented with an honorary high school diploma from Rambam Mesitva during the Lawrence’s school graduation ceremony at Congregation Beth Shalom, also in Lawrence. His grandson, Brian Fine, was one of the graduates.
“Like no other person he will be able to tell his children, his grandchildren, ‘I graduated high school with my grandfather,’” Ratz said. “Who ever heard of such a thing?”
Unfortunately not Ratz’s family or the thousands of Jewish people in Riga who were divided up by gender and age with men and a some boys surviving to work and women, children and the sick being annihilated.
Ratz was the second oldest of five brothers. The oldest, conscripted into the Russian Army, was never heard from again. His father and Ratz survived, while his mothers and brothers. 12, 9 and 1 were all killed.
Instead of carrying high school textbooks, Ratz was hauling heavy duty pipes. “I am sick today because of the labor camp,” he said. “Water pipes 20 feet long, 15 inches in diameter, my whole shoulder — tore my rotator cuff — is kaput.”
However, due to “endless miracles” he survived, came to the U.S. in 1947 and has thrived. Two years later Ratz picked up his father, who had remained in Germany after the war, in his own car. Ratz met Doris Wittenberg in 1949 and a year later they were married. The union lasted 57 years, until Doris died. It was his wife who pushed him to write the book. They had two sons and a daughter. There are now 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Spending hours with his grandfather, Fine said he has heard all the stories, but one specific death march — no food, no water — is particularly memorable. A woman prisoner saw an apple, but a fence separated her from the fruit. Climbing the fence would be risking her life. “My grandfather saw this woman dreaming about this apple and realized she was too weak to climb the fence,” Fine said. “After accepting he was going to die, my grandfather climbed the fence, retrieved the apple and fed this woman.”
The Nazi guards didn’t see Ratz recover the apple. Fine said it was one of those countless miracles Ratz recounted. “I am honored to have him graduate with me and to see him accomplish something he was denied over 70 years ago,” said Fine, who seeks to help other as a lifeguard and may become a doctor. The West Hempstead resident plans on attending Queens College.
Ratz was a TV repairman from the time he came here until 1976. That year he began as an electrical helper for the MTA and retired in 1990 as an assistant superintendent. “Something like this is once in a lifetime,” he said about receiving the diploma. “You go through hell, then you come here, it’s history.”
A history lesson that can educate many. “Mr. Ratz went through unspeakable horrors during his school years and yet survived with faith, dignity and a message for all of us,” said Rabbi Zev Meir Friedman, Rambam’s dean. “There is so much we can all learn from him.”
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