Hitler wanted to reduce Ruth “Margot” DeWilde to a number: 47574.
With the freshly tattooed identification inked into her left forearm, DeWilde grabbed a handful of gravel to scour it away, said Anneke Branderhorst, who teaches Holocaust literature and art.
“She wasn’t willing to let them label her, control her,” Branderhorst said. “I just cringe at the pain that must have caused. But it was her making a statement. She just had a lot of spunk.”
Her Nazi captors again tattooed the number into her arm, and DeWilde later showed it off as a stark reminder of Nazi atrocities.
“In the ’90s, Margot was concerned with people who were denying the Holocaust,” said Clare Kelly, DeWilde’s grandniece. So DeWilde went to schools, churches and community groups to talk about the cruelties of the concentration camps and the lessons she learned — tolerance, strength and forgiveness.
“She wanted it not to be forgotten. She wanted it to be real. She wanted to let them know that these people [who lived and died in the Holocaust] were real,” Kelly said.
DeWilde, of Plymouth, formerly of Richfield, died on May 1. She was 92.
Born in Berlin, she moved with her family to Amsterdam in 1932. After the Germans invaded the Netherlands, DeWilde worked in the Underground, producing forged identification papers to help Jews escape. When she and her husband, Ludwig Meyer, tried to flee to Switzerland, they were captured and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Meyer died there; 22-year-old DeWilde became part of Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments for mass sterilization. She never had children.
After the war, DeWilde reunited with her family, who had survived the war in hiding. In the 1960s, she joined her brother and came to the United States, where she married Rudolph DeWilde, who preceded her in death.
“Margot made all the unimportant things in your life important,” said Shari Hanson, DeWilde’s caretaker and friend for 15 years. “She was a witty, funny lady … who loved shoes and shopping.”
She also loved holidays, and not just the Jewish ones, Hanson said. “She celebrated Christmas with me. She celebrated Kwanzaa, even Boxing Day,” she said. “It was another day to celebrate, have joy and have a party.”
And every year she held one day sacred — May 5, the day she was liberated from the Nazis.
DeWilde’s didn’t “sugarcoat” the horrors and cruelties of the concentration camps, Branderhorst said. But she didn’t speak with hatred.
“Hatred is not the way,” DeWilde said in a 2007 Star Tribune interview. “Hatred only falls back on the person who feels it. We all have to live together in this world, to try, person by person, to bring a little peace to it.”
DeWilde paid severely for trying to help Jews escape and yet she never regretted it, Branderhorst said. “There’s something really powerful about that,” she said. “She challenged students not to be just bystanders to something going on in their school, neighborhood or the greater issues of the world. They should make a difference. … They should stand up for what’s good and just.”
And find humor wherever possible. In the camps, the bowls they used for food “were the only things they had to pee in,” Kelly said. When they needed to be emptied, DeWilde and her friends chucked them at Nazi trains, she said.
“She was one of the funniest, most crass, most wonderful women you could ever imagine. And she had a huge heart,” Kelly said.
DeWilde is survived by nieces Patricia Pulford-Lustig, Gloucestershire, England; Victoria Peery, Minnetonka; and Claudia Lustig Kelly, Medina; a grandnephew and six grandnieces.
A memorial service will be held on July 18, her birthday, at Sabes Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park.