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


World War Two

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