'Little Ruth, my personal Anne Frank'
She was his childhood friend in 1930s Germany, before Yehuda Amichai immigrated to Palestine. But the memory of Ruth Hanover, who was killed in the Sobibor camp, persisted in the poet's memory and writing
Written on the eve of Hanukkah 1990, the entries in the diary of Yehuda Amichai concerning someone he referred to as "Little Ruth" are preserved today in his archive in the modern poetry section of the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Amichai wrote these pages 47 years after the young woman in question perished at the Sobibor camp in Poland.
"Little Ruth" was Ruth Hanover, daughter of Rabbi Siegmund Hanover of Wuerzburg, Germany. When she was 9 years old, her mother died. At about the same time, her mother's sister, Ernestina, was widowed; in 1933, Ernestina moved with her children to Wuerzburg to marry Rabbi Hanover, Ruth's father. One of the aunt's daughters was also named Ruth, and she was older than Ruth Hanover. Therefore, in the new family that was created, the latter was nicknamed "Little Ruth" to distinguish her from her cousin/stepsister.
Rabbi Hanover's family and the Pfeuffer family were friends and neighbors. Friedrich Pfeuffer, Yehuda Amichai's father, was one of the pillars of the Jewish community in Wuerzburg. Little Ruth and Yehuda were in the same kindergarten at the Jewish school; every day they walked to and from school together, and also spent many hours together after school.
"There was a friendship between us that determined my entire life. A friendship between a boy and a girl of the same age. Something very emotional and wonderful. A friendship that on the one hand was playing and on the other - love without sex." Thus Amichai told his friend Dan Omer in an interview that was published in the journal Proza in 1978. The members of his family jokingly called Ruth and Yehuda "the bride and groom."
In 1935, when Ruth was 11, a car hit her as she rode her bicycle on one of the city streets. Her leg was amputated just above her knee and she had to be fitted with a prosthetic - a situation that would ultimately determine her fate.
In his diary, Amichai notes that Little Ruth's accident occurred several days before an argument they had. This contradicts Nili Scharf Gold's unfounded claim, in her book "Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel's National Poet" (Brandeis University Press, 2008 ), to the effect the accident occurred immediately after the argument, and that therefore Amichai felt guilt toward his friend.
"Little Ruth's accident affected not only Yehuda , but also the entire community," wrote Miriam Shamai-Stollberg, a native of Wuerzburg. "Ruth's terrible catastrophe shocked the entire Jewish community and is engraved in my memory and that of my two sisters, children at that time, to this day ... A trauma from that catastrophe has also remained with me. Incidentally, neither I nor my sisters have ever touched a bicycle" (letter to Amichai, July 7, 1998 ).
Amichai later said, in a 1990 interview with Liran Frank ("Rosh Ehad", July 6, 1990 ): "This was the most traumatic thing in my childhood ... After her parents, I was the first person she asked to see when she woke up from the anesthesia ... Gradually she was rehabilitated. I sat with her every day, we spoke about everything. They fitted her with an artificial leg, something clumsy with all kinds of metal and iron parts, a real machine. With the help of instructions from the physiotherapist I made the first attempts at walking with her. A year later I immigrated to Israel."
"A year before we immigrated to Israel, on the way home from school, when she already had the prosthetic leg, [German] children attacked us and knocked me down. There were three or four of them. They were usually big cowards. Always three or four against one. They also knocked her down and I heard the artificial leg make a kind of metallic noise. And this is one of the things that has stayed with me, more than all the Auschwitz stories. I was not in Auschwitz, but I did hear the prosthetic leg. They knew her ... They knew she was disabled," Dan Omer quoted Amichai as saying in his piece in Proza.
In 1936, the 12-year-old Yehuda immigrated to the Land of Israel with his family. This is how he later described the event (in a 1971 interview in Bamahane ) that tipped the scales and convinced his father Friedrich Pfeuffer to make aliyah: "It was a small community, of 2,000 Jews [in Wuerzburg], and there was a volunteer burial society [hevra kadisha]. If someone died, the prosperous members of the community performed the purification and the burial, and they considered this a great honor. I remember one day my father came home - they didn't let us hear this, but we found out - and they related that two local Jews had been brought to the Jewish hospital there, who had been badly beaten and died in the hospital. My father saw their corpses, came home from the purification and the next day decided to sell his business. Within a few months he persuaded all his brothers-in-law, brothers and sisters, of whom there were very many, [to do the same], and this whole tribe immigrated and is now living in this country."
The Hanover family, however, remained in Wuerzburg: Rabbi Hanover felt a duty to remain and support his congregation. In an extensive study, German historian Edith Raim described the persecution and deportation of the family, its attempts to get out of Wuerzburg, and, specifically, the efforts by Friedrich Pfeuffer to obtain a certificate that would allow Little Ruth to emigrate.
On Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938, in Wuerzburg, the Jews' homes and businesses, as well as the synagogue were destroyed. Rabbi Hanover was detained, as were most other members of the local community, and sent to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. He was released from the camp on December 12, and was forced to promise the Gestapo he would leave Germany within about two months. In the interim, the Gestapo demanded that he continue his work in Wuerzburg: dealing with Jews who had no source of income and selling property, like the Jewish teachers' seminary and other buildings.
The Hanover family tried feverishly to obtain immigration permits, but with no success. In the meantime, however, word came of a rescue transport of Jewish children from Germany to Holland, organized by the Jewish community in Munich. The Hanover family decided to send Ruth to Amsterdam, where they would collect her once they managed to receive a visa to America or England.
On January 4, 1939, Little Ruth set out with other children on the transport to Holland. There she was taken in by a series of foster families and continued her schooling. She wrote letters to her family and Yehuda. The Hanover family succeeded in leaving Wuerzburg for Holland in April of that year, with the hope of finding Ruth and continuing to London. However, because of her disability, Ruth did not receive an entry visa to England. The family decided to proceed to London nevertheless as an interim stop on the way to America, and to arrange to bring her over once they got settled. The war had not yet started at that time.
The Hanovers were granted an entry visa into the United States valid until May 3, 1940, by which time they had to leave Europe. They sailed from Liverpool at the end of February, 1940, and arrived in New York in April, without Ruth. Meanwhile, Yehuda's father continued to try, unsuccessfully, to obtain a certificate for her to enter Palestine.
In May 1940, the Germans occupied Holland. Some time later Ruth was sent to the concentration camp at Westerbork, and on May 18, 1943, she was sent to the death camp at Sobibor. She was 20 when she was murdered there.
"Big" Ruth and her sister Rosie immigrated to the Land of Israel in 1938, thanks to Friedrich Pfeuffer's efforts, and lived with his family in Jerusalem. About his father's prolonged efforts to save Little Ruth and obtain a certificate for her from the British Mandatory authorities, Yehuda Amichai was quoted as saying in the Bamahane article: "... that year when we were still there, she matured very quickly while I ... nevertheless remained a child. After we immigrated to Israel, at first I would write to her. After that a new world started for me, and adolescence began and those things didn't interest me any more. But she apparently continued to nurture this and she wrote me wonderful letters. One day she wrote to me that the girls in her class were whispering she had a boyfriend, so she wasn't talking to anyone. She wrote, 'Apparently this boy doesn't want to know anything about me anymore.' A girl of 14 who writes like that - it's something wonderful! And after that I did not hear anymore about her .... [Ruth's father and mother planned to bring her later because the Americans did not give an affidavit to handicapped people. And then the Germans entered Holland and it was already too late]. When I was 17 or 18 and I knew from her sister she was hiding in the Dutch underground - word of this came through England - I often wondered: What will happen if one day she comes here? I think that even though in the meantime I had fallen very, very much in love with another girl, if she were to come I would have married her instead of joining the British Army."
"At first, there was a letter every day. For me, this country was such a beautiful and new world, and from my side, the letters became fewer in number. She was very adult, more mature ... She continued to write, because there the situation was really becoming bad. The Jews were concentrated into a ghetto. At the age of 15, she wrote to me: 'Nu, you have probably found yourself other girls there.' Beautiful letters. They have been lost. A pity. In 1938 the connection was broken," Liran Frank quoted Amichai as saying, in 1990.
The memory of Little Ruth accompanied Amichai all his life, and in all of his writing - from the book "Two Hopes Away" (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1960 ) and the novel depicting his childhood in Germany, "Not of this Time, Not of This Place" (Schocken, 1963 ), to his last work, "Open Closed Open."
"She always comes back," he told Dalia Karpel (Ha'ir, November 3, 1989 ), "because for me there is no earlier and no later. Time is a space in which I move forward and backward easily. I am not cut off from her the way I am not cut off from myself ... Perhaps I feel guilt toward her, like that guilt soldiers feel about their return from battle alive, while their friends have been killed ... Today she is a part of me. My witness, like my parents."
And, as he told Eilat Negev, in a 1998 interview in Yedioth Ahronoth: "[Little] Ruth is my personal Anne Frank. I do not feel guilty of her death, but I have often asked myself whether I would be able to love a disabled woman."
Ruth Ruth, who died in my youth, now the two giants,
Yitgadal and Yitkadash, Magnified and Sanctified,
will watch over your death
in place of the two other giants, May He Bless and May He Keep,
who failed to watch over your life.
- From "Open Closed Open" (translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000 ).
The author is the widow of Yehuda Amichai, who died on September 22, 2000.
Like us on Facebook and get articles directly in your news feed