“I do miss it,” admits Ruth Posner, her voice cracking slightly. “I find it incredibly nourishing seeing the faces of young listeners move from curiosity to sadness, before landing always on respect.”
“Often teenagers can be very self-conscious and reluctant to engage. But it doesn’t take long before they perk up, and their questions are always fascinating.”
The 91-year-old Holocaust survivor is reflecting on her experience of adapting to the pandemic, ahead of next week’s Holocaust Memorial Day.
She feels an urgent need to share her testimony but aches for a return to in-person meetings. “Telling my testimony over Zoom isn’t the same. I’ve tried it, but I’ve found it doesn’t have the same impact, which is a real shame.”
Ruth, a celebrated dancer and actress, is a relative newcomer to Holocaust education. Until five years ago, she’d suppressed the past by focusing solely on her new life. What changed? “It was the resurgence of antisemitism I saw around me,” she says.
She became acutely aware of the acrid forms of nationalism rising across Europe, and felt especially disturbed by the antisemitic rhetoric enveloping the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
There was also the daubing of swastikas on synagogues and Jewish graveyards, which stirred up memories of the environment in which she had grown up in Poland.
She had witnessed the ‘little’ signs of intolerance and racism that ultimately developed into a murderous ideology. Her fear of allowing the past to repeat itself prompted her to share her story with the next generation. “I find antisemitism the most painful thing I can think of. I’d thought we’d learnt enough to definitely stop it from happening again. I might be wrong.”
In her own words, much of her story is a “horrendous fairytale”. Her father managed to secure work for Ruth, then 12, and her aunt in a factory just outside the Warsaw Ghetto, producing leather goods. They were slave labourers working in appalling conditions, but “it undoubtedly saved my life”.
Once a week, workers were marched to a public bath on the ghetto’s edge. She vividly recalls her aunt pulling her aside one afternoon: “We’re going to try to escape from here. If we don’t, it’s certain death sooner or later. So that’s it, we have to try.” The escape was “implausibly simple”.
It entailed crossing the road straddling the ghetto boundary. The aim was to blend in: with Ruth’s perfect Polish accent, they had a slim chance and they were successful.
Tragedy, though, befell her aunt’s two children, aged eight and six. Denounced by a Polish farmer after a spell in hiding, both were murdered by the Nazis.
Ruth was 16 when she came to England. “I was full of guilt because out of everybody I was one of the few to survive.” What followed was a successful career on film and on stage. She became a founding member of the London Contemporary Dance Company and later retrained as an actress, working at the Royal Court and teaching at RADA and Julliard in New York. Since then, her life has been full of remarkable interactions.
Many years after the war she and her husband made friends with an American Jewish couple. The conversation turned to the husband’s wartime occupation as a pilot.
“One of his missions was flying over Essen while we were being forcibly transported through the area. It’s quite likely he flew over us dropping bombs,” Ruth says, adding: “You have to laugh. You won’t survive otherwise.”
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