Every Sabbath Alfred Krell, clad in long coat and black hat, proudly strolled to synagogue with his daughters, Lea and Ruth, on his arms. The sisters described the early years of their childhood in Sinsheim, Germany as “wonderful.” Alfred, who owned a gourmet import business and served as the synagogue’s caretaker, provided them with a comfortable home and his wife Anna created a warm and loving atmosphere. Lea was born in 1932 and Ruth followed a year later, about the same time Hitler came to power. Their early years, though comfortable and secure, were colored by growing antisemitic persecution.
In 1940, the Krells were deported to the internment camp of Gurs in the French Pyrenees. Alfred was separated from Anna and his daughters who spent the next several months languishing in the drafty barracks of the immense camp. They slept on straw and subsisted on watery soup, “but it was still okay,” recalled Lea, “because our mother was still with us and it wasn’t like we were by ourselves.” Then the unspeakable happened: Alfred and Anna (who had found a way to communicate with each other in the camp) made the wrenching decision to entrust their girls to a French Jewish philanthropic organization called the Children’s Aid Society (OSE) which promised to shelter them. Lea and Ruth were never to see their parents again. They lived first in a group home and later with a kind foster family in a small farming community. Posing as Catholics, Lea and Ruth were safe only until the villagers began to suspect their true identities. Then the OSE moved them to another orphanage where they remained until war’s end.
In 1946, the girls’ grandfather Jakob Kapustin brought them to the United States. He died only six months later. Ruth and Lea moved in with an aunt and uncle who treated them unkindly. When a Jewish relief organization offered the sisters the opportunity to move to another city and complete their schooling, they took it. Both recalled that they chose Houston because they knew there were cowboys in Texas. Lea married fellow survivor Sam Markowitz and had four children. Divorced in 1970, she married Charles Weems, her “wonderful cowboy Texan” four years later. Ruth married Larry Steinfeld, raised three daughters and opened a hair salon that quickly became successful.
The sisters were involved in a number of Jewish causes, Lea serving as the president of the Houston Council of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and on the board of the Children’s Aid Society. Ruth was active with B’nai Brith and Hadassah. Both served on the board of Holocaust Museum Houston. Ruth and Lea were among the first survivors to talk publicly about their experiences and they were much in demand as speakers.
Alfred Krell, d. Auschwitz, 1942
Anna Kapustin Krell, d. Auschwitz, 1942
Ruth Steinfeld, survived