Ruth Rosenfeld survived the Holocaust and two bouts of breast cancer. And in order to help her friend survive, she did something remarkable, becoming what may be the oldest kidney donor in the United States.
The 77-year-old who lives in Deal, New Jersey, said she was not worried about her age when making the decision. About twenty years ago, her sister needed a kidney. “It turned out we were not compatible,” Rosenfeld said. “So when my friend told me she was at end stage kidney failure, I knew it was something I could do because I was prepared to do it before. So it wasn’t such a big leap.” She had to check with her doctors to see if medication for her auto-immune disease, psoriatic arthritis, would preclude her from donating her organ. They said it wouldn’t. She filled out a form with Renewal and the ball got rolling.
As she went through tests to see if she could donate her kidney, she told no one except her husband, Jerry. “I immediately said, ‘if you want to do it, do it,’” he said. “It’s the ultimate gift you can give. It was nerve-wracking during the surgery, but I said to do it.” A glucose test revealed she could be pre-diabetic and it seemed she would be ruled out from helping her friend. But after discussions with medical staff, she was allowed to go forward. Her friend was “moved to tears” that she would be willing to donate her kidney. Then, two weeks before she was scheduled for surgery, Rosenfeld developed a fever. “I’ve been married to this lady for 56 years,” her husband said. “All her life has been based on the idea of giving back. Nothing can stop her.”
Rosenfeld said she is an honest person, but there was one secret she decided to hide. Though her fever abated and she was cleared for surgery, there was a fact that could have stopped it. The legal cut-off for a kidney donation is 75. “Legally, I am 75,” she said. “When I was in my 20’s, our biological family traced us to America and with that, I found out I was really two years older than I thought I was. But I kept that from the doctors.”
The story of how Rosenfeld survived to get to America is a miraculous one. She was born in Wadowice, Poland in 1940. After first hiding his two daughters in an attic, her father knew he had to hide them with Christian families. Being a communist, he had a friend that agreed to do it. She said her most vivid memory was having to rush down to the cellar and hiding in wooden barrel of poppy seeds when Nazis would search the house. “I just know we knew it was a dangerous time and we had to be quiet,” she said. “I can’t explain it. We just knew we had to be quiet. I do remember that the Nazis were poking their rifles. I remember my heart pounding and my throat closing up. I was barely able to breathe.” She said she knows that moment could have been the end of her. “I believe in G-d very strongly,” she said. “I feel like I have a close personal relationship with G-d and He had his hand in it.”
After close calls, the sisters were split up to live in homes of sisters. Helen lived with a woman named Anna and Rosenfeld lived with a woman named Julia. Rosenfeld said she believes her mother and grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz, while her father was taken off a train and shot at an earlier date. A Jewish organization called Polei Agudah came to help surviving Jews who were hidden. They found her sister, Helen, and offered money to take her. They complained the sum was not enough and the organization offered more. Eventually, an agreement was made, but Helen kept crying that she wanted her sister. They thought she meant a Christian child she had become attached to. “They didn’t know I was a couple of houses away,” Rosenfeld said.
They soon found her and the sisters were secretly smuggled into Prague. They were in a deportation camp and then went to France. At an orphanage there, there was a plentiful amount of meat. “Helen and I sat there and wouldn’t eat it because we were kosher,” she recalled. They would stay in four other orphanages and they came to America in 1949, a year after the creation of the state of Israel. She said being a survivor has made her the person she is. “I am a strong Zionist,” she said. “If there had been an Israel, many people would have been saved.”
She has spoken about being a survivor to many school children of various ages. Shortly before her surgery, she spoke to a group of students, but did not want them to come up and hug her after because she could not risk being exposed to germs. So she told the students that she was going to donate her kidney, to serve as an example that might inspire them to do the same years down the road. The children were given her e-mail address and she anxiously checked for comments from students, but found none. She focused on being healthy for the surgery and letting nothing stop her. The surgery, which took place on February 26th, was a success. Her doctor and her friend’s doctor both marveled at the condition of her kidney. Rosenfeld has three children and six grandchildren. Her granddaughter, Eleanor, 19, said her grandmother stands out for her giving nature.
It’s not surprising,” the Hampshire College student said. “She’s a very generous person, and has always been open to helping others. Most people her age wouldn’t even think of it. When the doctor said her kidney was the most pristine he’d ever seen, it blew my mind.” When she came home from the hospital, Rosenfeld found out why she didn’t receive any emails from the students. They’d all hand-written notes to her that showed great time and consideration was taken by the students and their teachers. All of them had at least one question. She said she spent the whole day writing back to the students. She said that she gets a lot of questions, with one of them being: “Did you ever wish you weren’t Jewish?” she said her response was and is that she never wished she wasn’t Jewish, because she knew that she hadn’t done anything wrong and the people committing the atrocities were the ones who were to blame. When she speaks to younger children, she comes with a bouquet of flowers and asks children to pick out their favorite. She then asks if others should be eliminated and talks about how there was a bad man that believed there was only one type of good person. She talks to them about how different shapes, sizes and colors make the world beautiful.
Two months after her surgery, Rosenfeld said she doesn’t feel any pain and hasn’t taken anything more than a Tylenol, even after surgery. “I’m not even sure they really took a kidney,” her husband quipped. Rosenfeld said for those considering donating an organ, it’s something special. “I would encourage it,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful experience. It’s the greatest mitzvah and it’s a wonderful feeling to know you have helped someone in such a profound way.”