Ruth Marcuse Hagedorn’s life is a testament to pain, survival, love and forgiveness.
The daughter of parents lost to the Holocaust, Hagedorn, who died July 12 in Miami Beach at age 89, never failed to give those she ran across the one gift she always had available: her smile.
“Despite the suffering she went through during the war, she always kept a smile,” said her friend Ana Elena Sanchez. “Her life was a story of compassion and forgiveness. She was very popular in her building on the Beach.”
Sanchez remembers a recent surprise in Hagedorn’s honor at the busy Dade Boulevard Publix supermarket in Miami Beach that she frequented. Employees got a tip that it was Hagedorn’s birthday, so cashiers, bag boys and managers gathered to sing Happy Birthday. Hagedorn loved the gesture.
Hagedorn remained active. Though in her late 80s, the onetime Miami-Dade County Elections Department and Bass Museum of Art volunteer was so determined to cast her vote in the 2012 presidential election that she was game to stand in line for two hours — and would have had it not been for a kind soul who stepped aside to allow her to move to the front.
She was born March 26, 1925, in eastern Germany to Albert and Phillipine Marcuse. Her childhood was marked by hushed conversations between neighbors and friends. She never knew the details of those furtive chats, but the tension on the adults’ faces revealed more than enough to her.
“She couldn’t be a better person,” Hagedorn would later say of her mother to Sanchez, who helped transcribe her friend’s memories into a photo book. One night in January 1939, the Marcuses gathered a teenage Ruth, her sister Eva and uncle Leo for transport to Brussels, Belgium. Brother Hans had already made his way to London.
“I cried during the entire trip,” Hagedorn recalled. “I didn’t want to leave my parents. They promised we were all going to be together for my 15th year.”
But it was a promise that could not be kept. Her parents died during World War II.
During the war, Hagedorn lived with her mother’s brother, her uncle Herman Lewin, a merchant who cared for her until the fingers of war found him and he was ordered for deportation to Germany. Lewin, a small man, used his diminutive frame to his advantage, hid between war tanks, and managed to flee to Argentina, where he later raised a family.
Hagedorn’s cheerful personality bewitched one of her uncle’s customers. Madame Jeanne Bonnecaze, a French businesswoman who had lost her family to tuberculosis, basically adopted young Hagedorn. The two eventually settled in Nice, where they opened Frou-Frou, a small lounge frequented by soldiers from England and the United States. “We weren’t millionaires, but at least we had [enough] to eat,” she said.
After Bonnecaze died in 1964, Hagedorn, who became fluent in French and adored singer Edith Piaf’s standard, La Vie en Rose, reunited with her brother, Hans, who had moved to Montreal.
A year later, Hagedorn moved to Miami Beach with her brother and his family. The siblings managed the Algiers Hotel at 26th Street and Collins Avenue. She worked in the souvenir store there, where she met her husband of 10 years, the late Fred Hagedorn, an immigrant from Germany.
Her memories would live on with film director Steven Spielberg, who tapped her stories, along with those of other survivors, while making his film Schindler’s List in the early 1990s. She is also a part of the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation, which documents survivors’ stories of the Holocaust.
“She had a good life because she forgave most everything that happened during those years,” Sanchez said.
A memorial will be held in the fall.