On October 16, 1934, Ruth Maier wrote in her diary: “I want to be famous. I don’t want to fall or die like a cog in the machine. I can’t imagine myself in the gloom of anonymity, as it were. People disappear. I want to live! To leave something behind, a document that I was here. Some big, beautiful enterprise.”
Maier was only 14 at the time − a Viennese girl from a bourgeois, intellectual, assimilated Jewish family. Like many girls her age, she envisioned great plans for the life that awaited her. Over the next eight years, her diaries filled up 1,100 pages. In addition to these she wrote some 300 letters. Her notebooks overflowed with philosophical debates, literary musings, poems and the experiences of an adolescent girl living in the shadow of the Nazi regime − unrequited love, first sexual experiences, confusion, fear, despair − as well as with evidence of a full, rich and cultured life.
At 22, Maier was murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. For almost 50 years her diaries lay hidden in the home of her lover, the Norwegian poet Gunvor Hofmo, whom she met during the final years of her life, as a refugee in Norway. The diaries, mostly written in German, were found in Hofmo’s estate following her death in 1995.
Processing and editing the material took more than a decade, and the work was completed after the subsequent discovery of Maier’s letters, which her family had saved. “Ruth Maier’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Life Under Nazism” was published four years ago in Norway; the English edition, by Random House, came out in 2009. Now the diaries of “the Norwegian Anne Frank” − as she was dubbed in Europe − have been published in Hebrew as “Yomana shel Ruth Maier” (Schocken Books; translated from German by Arno Baehr).
Maier was a person of contradictions, and her diaries are filled with examples of this: her attraction to men as opposed to her love for women; her disgust with religion and Jewish nationality in contrast to her Zionist activity and yearning for the Land of Israel; and also her love of life versus her desire to die. Her father’s death from illness, when she was 13, left its mark. Three years later she wrote in her diary: “Yesterday I lay in the hay wagon and looked at the sky. I asked myself what death feels like. The best thing will be if we are reborn again, if we come back and feel alive. Because it’s so good to be here. But if that isn’t possible, if it goes against reason, then it’s also good if we have lived just once.
Because after you’ve seen it all, the sun, the flowers, the forests, and if you have also loved someone, then in fact you’ve seen it all, and there isn’t any need to go on living.”
After perusing the condolence letters her mother received after her father died, she wrote: “It’s depressing to see that people wrote such pointless and stupid things. It’s sad to think that the turn of the pointless people who wrote such letters will also come ... When I think that all that remains of a beautiful and rich life is a few condolence letters, I feel like throwing up.”
Maier’s sense of life’s ephemerality was translated at times into a fierce desire to exploit it to the full.
“In life you have to look for the beautiful and the good. Not wait until it comes of its own accord. If you expect too much from life, you will surely be disappointed. But if you look at life without any expectation and hope, you discover the marvelous everywhere, and even in the smallest and lowliest place,” she wrote in May 1937. Five months later, she added: “Sometimes I think that everything is so fleeting, and everything living and vibrating that I hold fast to my heart today, will be gone tomorrow. And will rot in the grave. It’s hard to think this. It’s saddening. Frightening. And also: Every person should be loved, because life is short.”
By November she was looking at things around her through the prism of death: “How lovely to walk the streets, just to look and walk. To wander around, hands in pockets, and enjoy life. People playing a hand organ. A grandmother babysitting her grandson and waiting for his mother ... At that moment I thought: This boy, with the smooth, happy, innocent face, was born to shoot other people to death ... This boy, with the soft wrinkle-free face, they will incite to murder and blood. And this boy will be killed by a shell, and at the time of his death will cry out for his mother. It was so clear. All of a sudden.”
On that same occasion she also referred to herself: “I think it is not natural that life goes on only for so long as it goes on, 50 or 70 years. Perhaps I will get to live all of life. Perhaps I will get to create something or other. I shall act and write, or live. I will have a beautiful life, or perhaps paint ... Maybe someone will read this after my death. I wish him happiness ... There is no point in dying. I will fight for a better world. I make this promise. I will keep it.”
‘Shout and scream!’
In March 1938 the Nazis invaded Austria. On October 5, Maier wrote: “Early morning, no one is out on the street. A young Jew appears, elegantly dressed. Two SS men materialize.
One, and also the other, give the Jew a slap, he teeters ... grasps his head ... continues walking. I, Ruth Maier, 18, ask as a person, ask the world if such a thing is possible ... I ask why it is allowed ... I’m not talking about pogroms, about abusing Jews, about shattering windows, about looting in apartments ... there the abysmal despicableness is not as striking as here, in this slap ... If there’s a God: This slap must be avenged with blood.”
Further on she added: “What more will you demand? Slit my arteries so that my Jewish blood spills. Shout and scream! You pigs. And if you read these lines, pull out my hair, slap me. I am at your disposal ... And afterward play jazz music and enjoy life. Because it truly is a pleasure. Yes! I had clean forgotten that there are still fields, golden stalks, sun, soft wind, stars, blue skies. Now it is all so distant.”
The situation escalated and reached a climax later in the year, on Kristallnacht, November 9-10. “They beat us! Yesterday was the hardest day I have ever experienced. Now I know what a pogrom is, know what human beings are capable of doing. Human beings who were created in God’s image. There across the way a truck full of Jews. They stood erect, like sheep to the slaughter! That sight I shall not be able nor want to forget. We fled home like animals being pursued, we went up the stairs huffing and puffing. And after that it began: They beat, arrested, broke furniture, etc. We sat at home pale-faced, from the street Jews came up to us who looked like corpses.”
As was her custom, Maier also added commentary to her descriptions of events: “Even if we are all forced to bear a yellow patch − the morality, what is within us, the world we carry inside us, that they cannot take from us. And so they take out their fury on the display windows.”
The pogroms evidently augmented the young woman’s feelings of ethnic affiliation, despite her assimilated background − as seen in another entry in late November: “Yes! This is the thing, to feel at home, to feel secure, to be a human being. That is what the term ‘the Promised Land’ says to me. The life I could lead in England, in France, and maybe also in America, are nothing but ‘migrants’ lives.’ Who knows better than us, German Jews in the year 1938, how tragic, how horrific these ‘migrants’ lives’ are ... Is it not obvious that tears will come to our eyes when we see Palestine for the first time? Will we not feel like rejected children, tortured, pale, tired, sick and beaten, who have found their mother at long last?”
Ruth Maier’s sister, Yehudit, left Vienna two months later as part of one of the Kindertransport rescue operations, and along with thousands of other Jews found refuge in England. Maier described the farewell in her diary: “Grandmother cries and Mother cries.
Boys and girls with rucksacks and small suitcases. Another kiss, one more, and one final one ... heart-wrenching sighs. ‘Mother,’ I said, ‘Mother, look, this is our youth, the Jewish youth and it will stand tall, it has learned, it has suffered as only few have suffered, and it will build with its own hands a new life.’”
Maier’s mother and grandmother also escaped to England in the months that followed, but Ruth refused to join them − apparently because she thought she would be forced to work as a domestic servant there. In subsequent years all her efforts to obtain an entry permit to England or the United States failed.
At the end of January 1939 she fled to Oslo; a friend of her late father’s had agreed to host her in his home there. As happened with other older men in her life − including a Latin teacher and a famous sculptor for whom she modeled − the relationship with the Norwegian shifted between infatuation, sexual attraction and fierce loathing.
She never saw her family again. Contact with her mother, grandmother and sister was maintained through numerous letters, which reveal Maier’s distress and loneliness. In October she wrote her sister: “When I have no letter from you, you are far from me as though we were strangers to each other. I feel clearly that what connects us is only the few lines we exchange between us ... When I look at you in pictures, I sometimes feel that you are a stranger. It’s hard to believe that we lived together.”
Her entry in January 1940: “You are beginning to turn into supernatural legendary characters. The idea, that the four of us will be together again, is too beautiful to be real. And nevertheless that thought of you is what causes me to hear the word ‘future.’” And she added later, “It is terrible when you love and cannot meet. But there is nothing to be done. I live only for our renewed meeting.”
Too late, Maier realized the fatal mistake she had made in immigrating to Norway instead of England. “My coming to Norway was the biggest folly of the century,” she wrote. “I must get out of here.”
She found a measure of comfort in her romantic relationship with Hofmo. While their love also gave rise to immense pain, which led to Maier’s hospitalization following a nervous breakdown, it also led to a number of love poems that appear in the diaries.
On April 9, 1940, the Germans invaded Norway; the king and the leaders of his government escaped to London. Within a short while a local puppet government was installed, which operated under the orders of the German Reich. The authorities began persecuting the country’s Jews, despite protests among the public and the Church, and despite the activity of the underground resistance that fought the Nazis. Half of Norway’s Jews, some 800 people, perished in the Holocaust.
In the fall of 1942, some 500 of Oslo’s Jews were arrested and sent by boat to Stettin, in Poland, and then by train to Auschwitz. Maier was among them. Her final letter to Hofmo was penned on the boat: “I believe that it is good that it has come to this. Why should we not suffer, when there is so much suffering?”
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