When Ruth Elias of St. Louis Park finally summoned the inner strength to return three years ago to Poland, a place of devastating loss for her family in World War II, she hoped that somewhere in the void she would find seeds of Jewish life.
She did, in the most unexpected of places.
“I couldn’t even imagine what he was doing,” said Ruth, referring to Vitek Straus, her young Polish guide at Hasaq, the labor camp where her parents and other relatives worked as slave laborers with as many as 5,000 others.
Hasaq is located in Czestochowa, a city of 100,000 on the western side of Poland. Thirty-five thousand of Czestochowa’s citizens were Jews.
When Ruth and her husband, Walter, toured Hasaq in 2013, they found it a desolate shell surrounded by barbed wire. So she was stunned when Straus approached the camp’s perimeter wall, snapped off five brittle strands of barbed wire measuring about 3 feet each, and offered them to her “like a bouquet.”
“I told him I don’t take things from memorial places,” Ruth said. Straus, a volunteer guide accompanied by his father, Kristof, explained that the camp would be demolished within the year and only a memorial plaque would remain.
“It was really clear that I had to take it,” she said.
But what to do with it?
Claude Riedel of Minneapolis is a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in adoptive families. But he also is an artist whose passion is a unique form of Jewish expression.
Riedel is one of the world’s most prolific creators of Jewish “eternal lights.” Also called a ner tamid in Hebrew, this essential artistic piece hangs above the ark in synagogues worldwide as a symbol of God’s unwavering presence. Some burn with oil; others use gas or electricity. They are always to remain lit.
For 25 years, Riedel has collaborated with glass blowers, as well as metal and bronze workers, to craft more than 100 eternal flames for congregations large and small across the globe (clauderiedelart.com). “I specialize in this,” Riedel said, “because it’s what is meaningful to me.”
Riedel, 65, was born in Germany. His maternal grandfather was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp on Kristallnacht in 1938, when the Nazis torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed nearly 100 Jews. His grandfather survived and eventually made his way to Ecuador with his wife and daughter.
Riedel’s parents later immigrated to the United States, first to California, then to Minnesota in the early 1950s, when Riedel’s father, Dr. Johannes Riedel, began working at the University of Minnesota.
His first ner tamid hung in a former Lutheran church in Hopkins when it became the spiritual home of Bet Shalom Congregation. In 2003, the light was embellished to fit the scale of the congregation’s spacious and modern new sanctuary in Minnetonka.
“I loved seeing the way people responded to it,” Riedel said of its place in the new building. “They’d say, ‘Thank you for this beautiful, meditative piece.’ ”
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Ruth, a 68-year-old teacher of GED and English language learners, and Walter, a 72-year-old health consultant, have two grown children and one grandson. Ruth noted that daughter Liora’s name means “My Light” in Hebrew. Son Daniel’s middle name, Yair, means “Will Bring Light.”
Everything about this story, she said, “is cosmic.”
At a family wedding in 2012, Walter reconnected with a cousin, now living in New York. Both men’s families escaped Germany “in the nick of time.” Now the cousins wanted to visit Germany “to search our roots,” Walter said. Ruth decided to join them, as did other relatives.
“I realized that I could not go to Germany without also going to Poland,” she said. “It was a surprise to me to feel that need to go.”
Ruth grew up in Los Angeles, “protected,” she said, from the stories of many elderly family members who perished during the war. At Jewish holidays, though, she couldn’t miss the heaviness in the air.
“The longing, the sadness,” said Ruth, whose first language was Yiddish. “They missed their families.”
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Preparing for their Eastern European trip, the Eliases connected via Facebook with Vitek and Kristof Straus, who, they were told, “will show you around. They’ll be good to you.”
The father-and-son guides, Ruth said, “were very interested in helping Jewish people looking for their roots. It was an experience in differentiating between then and now, an exercise in looking at the people in front of you.”
After accepting Vitek’s gift, Ruth wrapped up the wire strands “in many, many, many layers of Saran wrap” and placed them in her suitcase. After returning home, the Eliases reached out to David Harris, director of the Minnesota Jewish Arts Council (RIMON). They met Riedel at a fundraiser and knew they’d found their answer.
“I went up to Claude and told him about the wire and he immediately resonated with it,” Ruth said. “It’s been a work of love.”
Riedel remembers seeing the barbed wire for the first time. “It was rare and sacred,” he said. “You barely want to touch it. How do you incorporate it in a way that’s uplifting?”
His answer is a ner tamid with a dark and whirling glass base in blue, green and pink, created by Minneapolis glassblower Michael Boyd. The center features a light and molten glass flame soaring upward, topped by a Star of David.
The piece’s six copper chains feature stained glass window cutouts absent of glass to recall Kristallnacht. Most poignant, in the middle of each strand of chain is a stark black strip of barbed wire.
“It’s perfect. Perfect in the chain like that,” Walter said.
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The three are now shopping for the right home for this extraordinary ner tamid. They imagine it placed in a center for Holocaust education or Jewish learning, or perhaps a synagogue with a strong educational component where members and visitors can reflect on its luminous beauty.
“My parents would be amazed and proud,” Ruth said.
“My mother would cry,” Riedel said.
“But isn’t that our story?” the artist continued. “We came from darkness to light.”