Caroline Moorehead

Light thoughts in a dark time

Ruth Maier’s Diary, edited by Jan Erik Vold, translated by Jamie Bulloch

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Ruth Maier’s Diary

Edited by Jan Erik Vold, translated by Jamie Bulloch

Harvill Secker, pp. 412, £

Ruth Maier’s Diary, edited by Jan Erik Vold, translated by Jamie Bulloch

‘Why shouldn’t we suffer when there is so much suffering?’ wrote Ruth Maier to her friend the Norwegian poet Gunvor Hofmo in a letter smuggled from the ship deporting her from Oslo to Auschwitz in the autumn of 1942. Ruth was then 21, a thoughtful, talented young woman just beginning to make her mark with her poems and water-colours. She had a thin, lively face and had started to model for an artist.

Ruth left behind her with Hofmo over 1,100 pages of diary. In the late 1990s, a Norwegian editor, Jan Erik Vold, visited Ruth’s sister, who had taken refuge in Britain in 1939, and gathered together the many letters written by Ruth from Norway. The resulting book is a carefully woven mixture of diary entries and letters, the letters providing continuity where the diaries are missing. It takes the reader from 1933, when Ruth was 12, the older daughter of a Jewish senior official in the Austrian postal service in Vienna, to her arrest in Oslo.

Ruth’s early childhood was happy. There were visits to Zarosice, the village in Moravia where her much loved father had grown up, and holidays to the lakes in Austria. The diary is that of a light-hearted girl, full of curiosity, beginning to experiment with writing, friendship, politics and love.

On 9 November 1938 — Kristallnacht — Ruth turned 18. But by then her life had already changed. Gone were the parties and the skiing trips. Her father had died suddenly and she and her mother and sister Judith were now forced to move to the Jewish quarter of Vienna. Having grown up in a secular household, Ruth began to reflect on her Jewish identity. Judith was able to leave for England, soon to be followed by her mother and grandmother. Early in 1939, Ruth was invited by a former colleague of her father’s to live with his family in Norway. The first letters she wrote to her family in England were resolutely uncomplaining. ‘I’m quite sure that I’m a socialist!’ she told her sister. ‘And I think I’m a Zionist too!’

But both diaries and letters grew increasingly bleak. After Germany invaded Poland, Ruth tried to find ways to join her family. She was extremely lonely. ‘Jews are not wanted here’, wrote a classmate on her desk. Despite an intense new friendship with Gunvor Hofmo, and better times doing labour service on a farm, she spent two months in a psychiatric hospital. Wherever she was, however, she kept writing, illustrating her letters and diary with sketches and poems. As she grew up, so she began to read more widely in German and French literature and think seriously about the nature of love, society and the future. ‘I’m writing in order to resolve my feelings’, she noted, ‘which would otherwise get stuck into me and dry into wounds’.

For a while, Ruth’s friendship with Gunvor turned into love, but she knew that it was a relationship that would not last. Her longings to find a man appear on almost every page. These, and her reflections on herself and those around her make poignant reading.

One day they would reach America, she told her sister, and there they would read Ibsen together. It was not to be. Germany invaded Norway. On 26 November 1942, Ruth was picked up in a round-up of Jews in Oslo and deported to Stettin and then Auschwitz. All the women and children on board were sent straight to the gas chambers. As with Anne Frank and Hélène Berr, two other clever, very talented young women murdered by the Nazis, it is impossible not to wonder what Ruth Maier might have made of her life.