Posts Tagged ‘deserved’

Holocaust survivor: ‘I did my best acting during the war – it deserved an Oscar’

October 29th, 2014

Ruth, 84, is acting out the story of how she escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto.

She lived there with her parents, and tells me: “The unfortunate story is that my father wanted to save me.”

Her father helped Ruth and her aunt – whose two children had already been killed by the Nazis – get a job working at a leather factor outside the ghetto. He also managed to acquire false passports for the women, giving them Catholic names and identities.

The plan was for the pair to escape during one of their regular trips to the bathhouse, where workers were taken weekly.

“We were marched with guards on each side and marched back again,” explains Ruth. “On one of those events my aunt had the false passports. She explained to me, ‘this is my chance’.”

The two of them managed to run out of the bathhouse and on to the Aryan side of the road. “It was sheer luck. It was always, you might be lucky and you might not be. But it was worth taking that chance.

“Like a cat, I have many lives, I think.”

‘My life in Poland was finished’

Ruth aged nine

For the next year or so, Ruth and her aunt pretended to be Catholic. It wasn’t as challenging as it might have been for others. Ruth did not ‘look Jewish’ and her not particularly religious family had already assimilated to Polish life.

Ruth’s parents were tragically taken to Treblinka, the concentration camp, where they died. She believes that they always had plans to follow her, but were deported before they had a chance to put them into action.

The rest of her story is not told in the play.

When she was 13, Warsaw was evacuated and Ruth was moved to Germany.

“We were taken as prisoners of war to Germany, but not as Jews. As Christians,” she tells me.

“It was very very cold in the winter and we had to clean the snow away from a railway. This was kind of my school. It wasn’t as bad as being in a concentration camp like Auschwitz or Treblinka, where my parents died. But you know, it wasn’t a piece of cake. We weren’t tortured, we were not beaten. But the circumstances were not easy.”

When the war ended, she went to England and has lived here ever since. Her aunt eventually returned to Poland but Ruth decided not to follow.

“My life in Poland was finished,” she says. “There was no one left for me.

“I was asked what I wanted and I said that I wanted to be schooled. My schooling had been totally disrupted. Of course I didn’t speak a word of English. But I was still young so I learnt quite quickly.”

That was also when Ruth started to deal with everything that she had gone through.

“When I came to this country at the tender age of 16, one goes through different emotions. There’s a bit of, ‘I survived and I feel a bit guilty because everyone is gone’. But at that age you actually want to put the past away from you and move forward.

“I didn’t want to be a victim and I didn’t want to be different from anyone else.”

‘Your best acting? That was in the war’

Ruth dancing on a beach in Tel Aviv

“I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to learn the language as fast as I could and be a teenager like everyone else. The only thing that distinguished me from others was that I was a bit more serious.

“I wasn’t looking for boys and flirtations – but I made up for it later in life.”

Ruth went on to become one of the first members of the London Contemporary Dance Company, where she worked for 17 years. She met her husband Mike at a tea dance there and went on to have a son – who sadly died at the age of 37.

Then, during her forties, she made the switch from dance to drama.

She told her aunt about this decision. her reaction? “’I thought you already did your most wonderful performance, you’ll never match that.”

Ruth laughs: “She referred to the fact that I had to keep changing my character [during the war], and that was my best performance, my best acting, for which I should have got an Oscar.”

She went on to have a successful acting career, but this is the first time that Ruth is acting out her own story on stage. She has played Holocaust survivors before, but never herself.

So how does it feel to relive those memories in such a public way?

‘I didn’t want it to be a public confession’

“The idea was very strange and I wasn’t ever sure I wanted to do it,” she says.

“Initially I just thought ‘I’m not really interesting enough’. Give me a character I can hide inside of – it’s much more comfortable than revealing my own experiences. But actually it’s proving to be incredibly satisfying. It’s kind of getting rid of the onion skin and getting to the core of something.

“I didn’t want it to be a public confession and make people feel sorry for me because I was the victim of the second world war. I didn’t want that. You can’t recollect all the memories and indulge in them. It has become something that is your text and you’re dealing with it now as an actor. You know what you’re revealing but you sort of have to distance yourself from it, or it will be confessional self-indulgence.“

This refusal to be the victim seems to sum up much of Ruth’s survival instinct. She refuses to do so in her art, she hated doing it as a teenager coming to London, and she clearly differentiates between being a victim of a personal tragedy, and one of history.

“I often think about this. I was not a victim of personal family problem.

“I’m a product of the tragedy of history – I think it’s much more difficult when you’re the victim of a personal tragedy.

“I was part of six million others. It wasn’t happening only to me. The basis of my life that I remember was a happy childhood. That’s why I’m not bananas.”

‘Who Do We Think We Are?’ is on at the Southwark Playhouse from 29 October to 15 November

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Antony Beevor: ‘I deserved to fail history. I was bolshie…’

October 20th, 2014

Surely even Putin wouldn’t be so reckless as to lock up one of Britain’s leading historians? His brow furrows. “Perhaps – but frankly, Russia is so unpredictable these days.”

Now is the moment to explain why Beevor thinks his success was down to good timing. In the chaos that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, he was given unprecedented access to the Red Army archives. “They didn’t know how to handle a foreign historian. Didn’t know what was and wasn’t important.” By the time the Russians realised that keeping the archives open might not be such a great idea, it was too late. Beevor had the material he needed both for Stalingrad and his follow-up book, Berlin.

The Russians loved Stalingrad, hated Berlin. “The Russian ambassador here condemned me for lies, slander and blasphemy against the Red Army. Even one of the Russian professors who had helped me was so shocked by the Berlin book he accused me of spouting Goebbels’s propaganda. It was rather unsettling.”

The reason? Beevor’s revelation that as many as two million German women may have been raped by Red Army soldiers at the end of the war. “It was far worse than I had imagined. My translator had a typically dismissive Russian reaction at first, but then, when we came across documents that revealed that the Red Army had even raped their own women, the ones who had been sent to Germany for forced labour, she was shaken.”

I ask him what he thinks of the comparisons world leaders have been making lately between Putin and Hitler. Fair? Unfair? “Dangerous. You couldn’t insult a Russian more. There are some scary but superficial parallels — the German annexation of the Sudetenland and the echoes of Danzig, with the Russians wanting a corridor to Odessa.

“But Putin is not Hitler. Where there is a similarity is in the way you have a national resentment combined with a national self-centredness: Russians declaring that only their requirements are worth listening to.”

Not all of his research comes from archives. He also likes to interview eyewitnesses. I ask him what it felt like to meet German officers who had been in the Führerbunker at the end. “Shaking the hand that shook Hitler’s, you mean? It does get to you a little. The one I won’t forget is the young Panzer captain sent to try to change Hitler’s mind. Hitler pretended to take his side against the generals — he was brilliant on the psychology of weakness, which is why Chamberlain was such a pushover for him.”

Ah yes, as Duff Cooper, who resigned from the Cabinet over Munich in 1938, said of Chamberlain: he lacked the imagination to deal with Hitler. I invoke the name because Beevor’s wife is Cooper’s granddaughter. Given this, and the fact that Beevor’s father served with the SOE, was a career as a historian of the Second World War inevitable for him, a little unimaginative, even?

“Far from it. I was planning to stay in the Army all my life, but I ended up being posted to a training camp in Wales and was so bored there I wrote a novel. Thankfully, it was never published, but in my arrogance and naivety it made me think I could be a writer, even though I had failed my English and history A-levels.”

Our leading military historian failed history A-level? “I deserved to, because I was bolshie. Didn’t do any work. Terrible waste. My father, who had a double First from Oxford in Mods and Greats, was absolutely furious. The good thing is, it meant Nella and Adam [his son] never felt under any pressure academically, and as a consequence did well.”

Does he ever feel like an imposter when he is with other historians, because he went to Sandhurst instead of university? “No, I don’t feel vulnerable in that sense. But I would sometimes go to a conference and they would ask, ‘Do we address you as doctor or professor?’, and I would say, ‘Actually I’m neither, I’m Two A-levels Failed Beevor’. They were embarrassed.”

There is psychological texture here, then, it seems, as well as a pleasing line in self-deprecation. According to his daughter, indeed, Beevor has a great ability to laugh at himself. He also seems more vulnerable than his robust public image would allow. As a child he suffered from Perthes disease, which meant he was on crutches, and was bullied — and he only joined the 11th Hussars (better known as the Light Brigade) because he had a “physical inferiority complex”.

And he tells me he had a nervous breakdown after writing Berlin. “It was partly from the strain of the deadline, partly from the horror at the material. I couldn’t face doing another big battle book straight after, so I did one about Chekov’s niece instead.”

How his publishers must have fainted when he told them that… Luckily for them he is back “on brand” with his latest book, about two-thirds of which is devoted to the Eastern Front, which Beevor believes redresses the balance of previous histories of the Second World War. “Ninety per cent of all Wehrmacht losses were on the Eastern Front. As far as the Germans were concerned, we were a sideshow. But each country sees the war from its own perspective and memories.”

Montgomery’s ill-conceived battle of Arnhem, the 70th anniversary of which fell last month, seems to be a case in point. It is dealt with fairly briskly in Beevor’s book, yet it represents one of our greatest military disasters. Was it simply a matter of Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, pandering to Monty’s ego? “Well, Monty was desperate to get across the Rhine before the Americans, it’s true, because he felt Eisenhower would then have no option but to give him all the supplies and troops. That was his way of becoming land commander. Vanity played a large part in it.”

He thinks Monty — who, lest we forget, is still considered a national hero — behaved even more badly during the Ardennes campaign (the Battle of the Bulge), the subject of his next book. “Thanks to Monty, it became the biggest disaster in Anglo-American relations. The ill- feeling created by him continued for years afterwards, tragically so. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m even wondering whether Monty was high-functioning Asperger’s. He had no way of understanding how other people reacted to him. It is sheer speculation on my part, and I am probably going to get hammered for saying it.”

But not, hopefully, a prison sentence — we British being rather thicker-skinned than those oversensitive Russians.

‘The Second World War’, by Antony Beevor (Phoenix), is available to order from Telegraph Books at £9.89 + £1.95 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit

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