Ruth Webber found her father again in October, more than 70 years after she lost him in the Holocaust.
Szmul Muszkies was a professional photographer in the Polish town of Ostrowiec, a city of about 80,000 residents, including about 8,000 Jews.
He photographed portraits and pictures of important life events for the Jewish and gentile communities, including weddings, baptisms, first communions and undoubtedly bar mitzvahs, though no such photos have been found.
He also took pictures of school, social and trade groups and of the town’s businesses and industry, including its important steelworks. His studio was regarded as the best of the town’s several photographers’ shops.
Webber, 81, of West Bloomfield was the younger of the two daughters born to Muszkies and his wife, Malka.
Muszkies’ connections with influential non-Jews helped save his family, though he died in Gusen, a sub-camp of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, just a few days before it was liberated.
Several months ago, a resident of Ostrowiec published a book of Muszkies’ photographs, an event marked by a ceremony that Webber, her three daughters and other family members attended. She was able to learn more about the father she barely remembered.
“My memories of him are mostly about the hugs I received when he came home from work, his genuine concern about my well-being and the joy I experienced when I was allowed to play in his studio,” Webber said.
The War Years
After the Nazis invaded Poland, the Ostrowiec Jews were sent to a ghetto. When their ghetto was going to be liquidated in 1942, Muszkies arranged for his older daughter, Helen, to live with a gentile family. She spent the rest of the war passing as Catholic.
He, his wife and their younger daughter went to a nearby work camp, where conditions were less harsh than in the concentration camps. The family moved together to several labor camps, but eventually Muszkies was taken away separately.
Webber and her mother ended up in Auschwitz. The infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, who would determine with the flick of his thumb which arriving prisoners would be immediately gassed, didn’t show up to meet their train, so they were sent to barracks.
Webber was able to stay with her mother for a few months; but then she was sent to a barrack for children, many of whom were designated to be subjects for Mengele’s perverted medical experiments.
Her father was also at Auschwitz, and he sent her a message to meet him. “My father looked like an old man, although he was only 45 years old, hardly the father I remembered,” she said. It was the last time she saw him.
She was liberated Jan. 27, 1945, and taken to a Krakow orphanage where her mother found her. She was not yet 10 years old.
After a short time in a transition camp in Germany, and then a period in Munich, Malka Muszkies and her two daughters moved to Toronto, where they had family. Webber met her husband, the late Mark Webber, at a survivors’ gathering in Toronto and moved to his home in Detroit. Together they raised three daughters, Susan of Washington, D.C., Elaine of Huntington Woods and Shelly of Ann Arbor.
Many years later, Wojtek Mazan, a young man interested in the history of his hometown of Ostrowiec, found some old photos stamped on the back with “Rembrandt,” the name of Muszkies’ studio. He never knew the name of the man behind the photos until a few years ago.
In January 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Mazan found a photo of child prisoners, including three girls from Ostrowiec. One was identified as Ruth Webber, nee Muszkies. Mazan remembered a small photo he had found in an abandoned house that was stamped on the back, “Master Photographer’s Studio, Sz. Muszkies, Ostrowiec, Ilzecka 16.”
He found a long interview with Webber from the 1990s about her Holocaust experiences, and realized her father was the “Rembrandt” of the photos he’d been collecting. That small photo from the abandoned house was the only one he found with the photographer’s name. It had probably been made before Muszkies adopted “Rembrandt” for his studio.
Through a Polish colleague, Mazan connected online with Webber’s daughter Susan and Marcia Spilberg, a cousin from Brazil, who were part of a Facebook group, Descendants of Ostrowiec. Together they began a relationship of discovery about the Rembrandt photographs and the Muszkies family’s history in Ostrowiec.
Mazan later met Webber’s sister, Helen Mueller, in Toronto, where she lives. Through Susan Webber and Mueller, he was able to learn more about Muszkies and also to obtain copies of family photographs, which had been sent to relatives who left Poland for Brazil before the war.
Mazan placed ads in local papers looking for copies of photos with the “Rembrandt” stamp, and talked to the town’s oldest residents.
“Elderly residents remember ‘Rembrandt’ was a Jew, but none of my interlocutors knew the name,” said Mazan in his introduction to the book he created from the photographs showing a portrait of Ostrowiec’s residents in the 1930s.
He collected 150 photos, most of which are presented in the book. Where he’s been able to identify the people or organizations pictured, he also provides their stories.
There are no photos of Jews or Jewish events, except for those Mazan got from Muszkies’ family.
Ostrowiec held an event to launch Mazan’s book on Oct. 29. Webber attended with her three daughters, two cousins from Brazil, a niece and nephew from Israel and her sister-in-law Rae Nachbar of Southfield.
Webber described her wartime experiences at the book launch, speaking in English with a Polish translator.
“The room was packed, and there was dead silence when she spoke,” said her daughter Elaine Webber. “By the end, the audience was in tears.”
Webber has mixed feelings about the trip. She’s happy her father’s legacy is being preserved, but she didn’t enjoy returning to Poland.
She didn’t want to stay in Ostrowiec, so the group didn’t spend even one night there. They arrived in Poland through Krakow, where they visited her husband’s parents’ graves and saw the building that housed the orphanage where Webber lived after her liberation from Auschwitz.
Elaine Webber, who teaches nursing at the University of Detroit Mercy, said the trip gave her mother an opportunity to open up about her story, which was helpful. She also said the publication of Mazan’s book was important for the local residents.
“The people should know the history of the town and of the Jews who lived there,” she said. “The photos show what a great cross-section of people lived there.”