Saturday, January 19, 2013

R U T H  M A I E R

A Jewish refugee arrives in Norway in 1939

The publication of “Ruth Maier’s Diary” with the subtitle “A Jewish Refugee in Norway” (Gyldendal, 2007) represents a historical shift in the account of the Norwegian Jewish narrative. Ruth was 22 years old when she boarded the “Donau” leaving Oslo on November 26th, 1943. She would never return.

The Norwegian poet Gunvor Hofmo (1921 – 1995) kept the diaries of Ruth Maier for fifty years, a collection of eight diary notebooks and 500 letters written from 1933 to 1942. The fact that we have access to them today is partly due to Gunvor Hofmo.

The Norwegian lyricist and poet 
Jan Eric Vold, the son of anti-Nazi fighter Ragnar Vold, has translated this extensive collection of altogether 1400 handwritten pages. Through them we get a picture of what was left out of our basic understanding of the Jewish destiny in Norway and it stands as a somber reminder of all the things we lost. Ruth’s writings give a captivating portrait of her as a very knowledgeable and insightful young woman. Thus Maier will also be the one we know most about among the 758 Jews from Norway who were killed during WWII.

The philosopher, public intellectual and author Espen Søbye, also of Norway, asks why it took several decades before we could read about Ruth Maier’s destiny and her diaries. Furthermore, why did it take a poet to provide us this chapter of Norway’s’ history? Why did not the academicians, the historians, focus their research on topics like these decades ago? Research on the WWII has spawned careers for many, but why did it take several decades to produce even a single dissertation on Jewish persecution during the war in Norway. Why?

“The answer is unfortunately easy: It was not considered relevant. Jewish persecution was perceived as a matter between the Germany occupation, the Quisling regime and the Jewish people in Norway. In this perspective the very topic of the Holocaust fell outside Norwegian history as such. The German historian Dan Diner has said that Holocaust has no narrative, but only statistics. With the publication of Ruth Maier’s diary, Vold has secured that Ruth did not become part of the statistics but made her insights available to us as evidence of a life lived.

Ruth Maier‘s diaries reflect the rich central European cultural tradition with German as the dominant language, a tradition that also has meant so much in Norway’ discourse within the humanities and the arts.
Jakob Lothe is a professor of English Literature at the University of Oslo and writes in his article: It pained RuthMaier deeply that the Nazis vulgarized the language of her literary heroes Goethe, Schiller, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, whose literary impact are continually present in her diaries.

Ruth grew up as the eldest daughter in a secularized and assimilated Jewish middle class family in Vienna. As it happened, their lives were turned upside down when Austria was annexed into the Greater German Reich. Quite rapidly their daily life saw elements of anti-Semitism, persecution, plundering and violence. The Austrian Jews were forced into a pariah situation and Ruth and her family ended up in having to live in a Jewish ghetto area in the city.

Ruth’s father, Ludwig Maier, had a high position in the postal and telegraphs service. He was the general secretary of an international postal workers' union and had a PhD. in philosophy and mastered nine languages. He died in 1933 only 51 years of age and thus was spared the humiliation of a pariah existence. However, his wife and two daughters - Ruth and her sister Judith (who is still alive, residing in Manchester, England) – were to experience all of it—to the bitter end of persecution!

From being a diary of a reflective young girl whose thoughts were occupied with school fights, conflicts with parents, amorous infatuations, literature, her diary also deals with persecution, escape, harassment, torture, suicide, murder and concentration camps. The diary can be read as a vivid description of what Jewish existence in Vienna was like during the 1930s. Ruth’s experiences and observations as a Jew in Vienna stand in sharp contrast to the Austrian postwar myths about the country as Nazi’s first victims—to say the least.

Some excerpts from Ruth’s diary: “It is early in the morning, not a person in the street. A Jewish boy, youthful and well dressed turns the corner. Two SS men show up, one strikes and then another strikes the Jew on his ear, he covers his head and moves on. I, Ruth Maier, 18 years old, ask as a person, ask the world as a human being, if such things should happen." 

"I ask why such is allowed, how a Germander, a German, is allowed to strike a Jew on his ear for the simple reason that one is German, the other a Jew! I am not speaking about pogroms, about harassment of Jews, about breaking the windows, plundering the residents. . It is not in the bottomless cruelties are expressed, but precisely in the strike on the ear. If there is a G-d. .I do not believe there is and I hardly call him by name. . but now I will, him. . if there is a G-d. This strike on the ear has to be paid for with blood.”

Around her 18th birthday Ruth writes: “They have beaten us. Yesterday was the most horrible of days I have ever experienced. Now I know what pogroms are, know what people are capable of doing. Human beings, images of God. We did not dare go to the streets, we told jokes, we were anxious. Dita (one of many nicknames of her sister Judith) and I took a cab home, it is hundred steps. We ran up the street, it was like in a war. . People stared, the air was chilly, many people in the street and in front were a truck full of Jews, and they stood on the deck of a truck like animals for slaughter. . ."

"I must never forget this image. Jews as animals on a truck heading for slaughter. People staring. They beat a 75-year-old woman and she screamed, they rampaged her apartment with a hammer, etc. Today I walked through the narrow streets. It is like a graveyard. Everything is broken. Everything. The Jewish stores covered with panel and board. With a note: Inventory in this store is Aryan. Do not destroy!”

“I am aware of my Jewish identity,” she writes in October 1938. “I can’t help it.” This fall her sister Judith moves to England with a kinder transport. Ruth is 17 months older, too old for the kinder transport. On the day before her sister’s departure, she writes: “The sisters will never meet again.” Ruth finally gets permission to travel to Norway.

Thanks to her late father’s international contacts, the Norwegian telegraph employee, Arne Strom, is willing to act as Ruth’s host and guarantor. She arrives to central railway station Østbanen in Oslo on January 30th, 1939. In the first letter to her sister she expressed her great joy and relief in having escaped the Nazi regime in Austria. While she is well received in Norway, Ruth wants to continue traveling to England in order to be reunited with her family.

One week after her arrival, the war between Germany and the Western Allies is a fact. Ruth is at that point accepted as a student at Frogner high school in Oslo. She chooses to postpone the travel to England and remains in Norway to take the exam. Of course, she understands full well that the war now makes the possibility of reunification with her family even less likely. 

Even so, she continues to dream. Ruth walks alongside the harbor in Oslo and imagines sneaking on board a boat heading for England. The relationship with her host family in Lillestrøm is getting strained and her condition as a refugee ever more lonely. “It is unsettling not to know anyone here. The family Strom is gone. Furthermore, the German invasion of Norway on April 9th, 1940, makes any reunion impossible. An airport in Lillestrøm (near Oslo) is bombed and Ruth has to seek refuge in the basement.

Ruth had unique artistic and intellectual gifts. Already two months later following her arrival in Norway, she reads Knut Hamsun’s celebrated novel Hunger in Norwegian, which she did not find particularly difficult to read. She took the Norwegian undergraduate college exam in one year and spoke perfectly Norwegian.

In the fall of 1940, Ruth signs up for voluntarily women’s work. Lack of food is a threat and farmers are lacking labor force. Through hard work on various farms on the west coast she meets like minded people like Liv Width and her friends Karen and Gunvor Hofmo. Liv who introduces Ruth to Gunvor by saying: “She is one that will give you much joy!” remembers Ruth as a somewhat reserved, quiet and intelligent person. A close friendship develops among the four young women, especially between Gunvor and Ruth. Ruth writes about Gunvor: “I love her reserved ways of talking about things…[she] is a priceless human being.”

Vold describes with great insight and with utmost respect their close friendship. This relationship however, does not prevent Ruth from experiencing her situation as more and more hopeless. She does not see future possibilities, does not know how she would get a job or an education. 

To live as a refugee in a country occupied by Nazis is exactly what she had escaped from. It wears on her. Finally, she asks for professional help and is hospitalized in a psychiatric ward at Ullevål hospital: “What kind of life is this! Not enough that I have no prospect whatsoever to get work earn money, become independent and now I will also add to that my illness that awaits me outside the institution and that frequently overwhelms me. Escape attempt.” 

On February 4, 1941 Ruth, still on the psychiatric ward, writes: “I am sharing room with a woman. She is 38 years old. Tells me her story. Everyone has a story. There are few happy people.” Around the same time she notes, that her relationship with Gunvor Hofmo, her intelligence, human warmth, and love of literature, serves to counter-balance the raw brutality of the Nazis. And plaintively asks: “Why do people like Gunvor who is not a warrior end up in a place of resignation? “

After Ruth is released, she travels with her friends to another work assignment, this time to Ryfylke where things turn dramatic. “The idea of the trip was to find a boat that would take us across to England,” tells Liv Width. This did not happen. However, Gunvor Hofmo is arrested. It seems she has in a letter to a friend suggested something about their plans to escape and the Nazi authorities picked up this letter. She is released 10 days later. Ruth and Gunvor continue their existences in the occupied Norway. Early in the fall of 1941 they are both employed, working in a flower shop in Trondheim called Iris, all the while longing for family tears her heart. They head south. Gunvor heads for Oslo and Ruth to Lillestrøm.

Ruth was also preoccupied with what it meant to be a Jew – she entered a synagogue for the first time in June 1942, just months before she was captured. “I didn’t feel as if I belonged there. I was a stranger. The Jews had black hair and they were short and dark. I saw them as Jews and myself... as... a non-Jew.” She had proudly declared herself Jewish in a ‘Questionnaire for Jews in Norway’ which was Ruth’s undoing. She was later captured in a round up and clearly understood her fate.

Dreams and the meaning of dreams, short prose and poetry increasingly dominate Ruth’s diaries. She finally gets her own place in Dalsbergstien 3 in Oslo, a hospice for young women called “Home of Angels”. She starts modeling for the sculptor Gustav Vigeland a sculpture that would later be called “Surprised”. Ruth writes about the artist: “His hands are still young. But it is my impression that he is not a wise man.” “Surprised” was kept as a figure in plaster in the Vigeland museum till 2002 when it was cast in bronze and installed in the park.

“I live in this little room with view of the backyard, a yellow railing seen through the window, no view at all. It is very quiet here. A small bookshelf stands by the bed. It is dark and the ceiling lamp is a white hospice lamp that gives no illumination. Gunvor shows up every so often wearing her gray coat. I read. I read a lot now." 

According to the diary, she also reads Swedish. Vold seems to imply that she was considering an escape to Sweden. Gunvor Hofmo had contacts that would have made this possible. It is a fact that over 900 Norwegian Jews made it across the borders. Why they never crossed the border, no one knows. A possible explanation is that Ruth did not want to leave without Gunvor. Gunvor also did not want to leave her family who was financially dependent on her, according to Vold.

“Jews arrested 26 October 1942. All Norwegian Jews arrested: It does not surprise me. I am nauseous. People are oppressed for their opinion. One kills each other to defend your country. But no one is being punished; no one hits people because of what they are, because they have Jewish grandparents. This is madness, something idiotic about the concept. It would drive anyone mad. It is again common sense. Perhaps they will come and pick me up too. Once it will all come to an end and then all will be well. Everything I have started has failed. It is as if it was too late for me. As if my life has lost out of something essential. The only comfort is to put my hand over my forehead. Seek peace in one’s own pain.”

One of the women, who lived in the hospice during the same period, recalls that she kept much to herself. “I remember only a sad face and her big brown eyes.” Most of the women shared rooms, but Ruth did not. She had a tiny room. When the air- raid alarm sounded, she did not run to the basement with the others, but went hiding in a closet in her room.

The last paragraph in the diary is from November 1942 and reads: “To mother: it happens that I wait for you.) My fatigue, and my empty desire for something completely different than this, is my life. And you appear. You always did. A curtain has touched the wind, a scent of rain has reminded me of my childhood. Soft voices from the street have reached me. A girl’s laughter; a child’s frail cry. And then, you left and I remained bewildered. My forehead is so cold.

At dawn on November 26th 1942 the doorbell rings at the “Home of Angels.” Several of the 60 women who live in the dormitory awaken. Two Norwegian policemen stride up the stairwell. A firm fist bangs on Ruth’s door. When the frail Jewish girl leaves the dormitory accompanied by two brawny policemen, the hallway is packed with terrified women. They follow Ruth and the police down the stairs. One of them notices the gold watch on Ruth’s narrow wrist: “Take off the watch. We will take care of it till you return!” “I will never return,” Ruth replies.

One of the girl’s recounts: When they were outside the door, we ran to the window. In the early dawn, a huge, black car is parked in the street. In the back seat were two frightened girls. Ruth was pushed inside and they drove off.

Gunvor Hofmo is among the few Norwegians who were at Vippetangen (Oslo’s harbor) when 532 Norwegian Jews were being taken on board the Donau on November 26th. Ruth managed to smuggle a note to Gunvor from the skip: “I think it is just as well that it comes to this. Why should we not suffer when there is so much suffering? Don’t worry about me. I would perhaps not wish to replace my destiny with yours.

Five days later, on December 1, 1942 Ruth Maier is murdered in the gas changer in Auschwitz with 345 other women, children and men with disabilities from Norway. The bodies are being burnt in an open field. Ruth turned 22 years old.