Survivor recalls escape on the last train to freedom

For years, Robert Ronald's friends told him he should write a book about his experiences during the Holocaust, but he resisted.

It was the thought that his three children might someday want to know the whole story, however, that finally moved the San Mateo insurance agent to write his self-published memoir, "Last Train to Freedom: A Story of a Holocaust Survivor's Travels to America."

"It's important for them to know their heritage, especially because they don't go to temple. They don't get that," Ronald said in an interview.

Ronald, who also told his story for Steven Spielberg's "Survivors of the Shoah" project, says being a survivor has made him appreciate what is important.

"I live on borrowed time. I could have been dead years ago. I've been given a kind of reprieve.

"My wife says it's made me more generous, more optimistic. Discrimination is so senseless. People need to understand what happens when you discriminate."

As German Jews, Ronald's family experienced prejudice even before Hitler's rise to power. His grandfather, Paul Rosenthal, was told that he could never be a judge in Berlin because he was a Jew. To protect his seven children from this kind of discrimination, he had them all baptized.

Though Ronald's father married a Jew, he didn't consider himself Jewish and even celebrated Christmas.

In 1933, Ronald's 8-year-old sister, Steffi, was kicked out of public school because she was Jewish. Until that day, "My sisters and I were unaware of the fact that we were different from other children," Ronald wrote in "Last Train."

That same year, his father was summoned by the Gestapo after the family's hired nurse lodged a complaint. "In the climate of the time, not much evidence was needed to lodge a complaint about anything against a Jewish employer," Ronald wrote.

Alarmed by these events, his family immigrated to Paris where they lived without strife for six years.

That changed in September 1939, when France declared war on Germany. Ronald's father was interned in a POW-style camp. Gas masks were passed out only to French schoolchildren. Ronald was allowed to visit his father in the camp but found it frightening.

"I was not used to visiting prisoners' camp, seeing my father behind barbed wire, guarded by soldiers, unable to get out," Ronald said. "He hadn't done anything wrong."

In June, as the Germans advanced toward Paris, the Ronalds went south on the last train to Vichy.

"We got kicked out of Germany for being Jewish so we go to France to start a new life. Six years later the same thing happened in supposedly a friendly country. The prejudice followed us across the border," Ronald said.

In 1941, they went to Cuba because they could avoid the French quotas on immigration to America.

In Cuba, Jewish refugees saw an opportunity to revive the traditionally Jewish diamond industry — which had been effectively closed down by Hitler's expansion across Europe.

Ronald thus learned diamond cutting, as well as Spanish.

He found Cuba to be a tolerant country, although there was tension between older immigrants and newer ones. "Western European Jews looked down on Eastern European Jews. They segregated socially," he said.

Six years later, the Ronalds sailed for America, ending up in New York City. There, they changed their name from Rosenthal to Ronald. Ronald adjusted to American customs like eating pie with a fork and buying health insurance.

Once in America, Ronald continued his education — which he had stopped at 13. He took night classes at Washington Irving High School and City College of New York while working at a refinery company during the day.

He ended up in California when a friend asked him to drive her across the country. Gazing upon San Francisco, he found love at first sight.

"[I] was immediately enthralled by the city skyline backlit by the setting sun," he wrote.

He moved to the city, working in the flag business, then starting his own. According to the book, when the landlady of his Pacific Heights boarding house discovered he was Jewish, she remarked, "But, it couldn't be…you are so nice!"

In 1954, he served a 21-month stint in the army. After that, he enrolled at San Francisco State, where he met his wife, Trish.

They were married a little over a year later, in 1957. Ronald's father was pleased to have a non-Jewish daughter-in-law. Echoing his own father, Ronald's father felt his grandchildren would suffer less discrimination raised as Christians. Ronald agrees.

Citing as an example the recent anti-Semitic vandalism at Cody's bookstore in Berkeley, he said, "Prejudice is still there."