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Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
18 November 1938
Ruth Webber was born in 1934 as Ruth Alexa Kiewer in Berlin as the only child of Eduard and Erna (née Lechner) Kiewer. Her parents worked in the maternal family’s business and lived in a flat with the maternal grandmother. The family though not very religious kept the high holidays. Ruth does not have many memories of Berlin. When her father was arrested and brought to Sachsenhausen after Kristallnacht the family decided to emigrate. Her mother – presumably with her brother’s help who was already in England and working as a doctor- obtained a domestic visa that included Ruth. She has vague memories of the trip and that they stayed in the beginning with the uncle where her father eventually joined them. He had left Germany via Denmark where they had family.
With the beginning of the Blitz Ruth was evacuated to Caerau, Wales where she stayed with a very friendly family. Her father was interned on the Isle of Man – while her mother remained in London working. When her father was released, he started working for the same family in Sonning. Ruth then changed families to be near her parents. In 1942/43 the family moved to Reading where her father had found work in the biscuit factory, Huntley and Palmer’s, and her mother in a local haberdashery shop. Ruth had to look after herself when she came home from school and kept herself busy with reading. Sometimes she went down the road to play with children in a hostel who had come on the Kindertransport. Ruth’s parents approached the Reading United synagogue and Ruth had Hebrew lessons, but they never felt accepted and actually looked down on.
Members of her maternal family left Germany for various destinations and survived, her father’s family was less lucky and three sisters perished in the Holocaust. This haunted her father later and he suffered from episodes of depression. After he left the factory, he worked for the AJR. He only went back to Germany to pursue his compensation but her mother never went back. Ruth finished grammar school and before she went to university taught English in Switzerland at the Ècole d’Humanité -which had been the Odenwaldschule in Germany before the war. Then she studied English literature in Oxford. Here she met her future husband, Will, and they got married despite both sets of parents’ reservations. Ruth went into teaching which she enjoyed throughout her professional life and only interrupted to raise her children. She identifies as “Jewish Continental with English in lots of tastes.”
Kiewer. Lechner. Berlin. Inowroclaw, Poland. Sachsenhausen. Domestic visa. Caerau, Wales (Morgan family). Sonning (Lonsdale family). Reading. Denmark. Isle of Man. École d’Humanité. Oxford. AJR.
I remember I had Erika, my doll. I remember we went on a boat. We must have had a cabin, because I remember a table, and you lifted the table up and it was a wash stand. I thought that was absolute magic. When I say I remember, I now remember remembering it but I haven't been told. These are not things I've been told. This I remember. I remember we arrived in a London station. I don't know which station it was. My uncle Alfons met us. And that's all I remember of the journey.
Caerau. It's a little mining village in Glamorgan. Very small, very friendly. We were all put in a local hall. They gave us orange juice and then people chose. “I'll have that child”, “I'll have that child”. And the family that took me, tell me- I was the last one chosen, because they thought I was mentally deficient. Because I didn't speak English. And I was really lucky. I mean, really lovely family.
We were advised- everyone was advised not to speak German in public in the war. And so I was ashamed of having German-speaking parents. I'm sure this is a very common story that you've heard from lots of people. And I forgot my German because I wasn't living with my parents, I heard English all day at school and at home. My parents, obeying the rules, spoke to me in English - very accented English, but still English. And then, and for many years, I just wanted to be normal. I wanted to be English. I didn't want to have anything to do with being somebody who was different, despised - what have you. I’m a bit ashamed of that, but that's how it was.
Yes, always [had her German doll, Erika]. I also had an English doll, which I called Margaret Rose. Shows how English I’d become. I didn't like her as much though. Erika was the one. [Did they get on?] We had dolls’ tea parties. I know that!
We were going to get married in Hendon Synagogue - United. And they said to me, “Well, where is your proof that you're Jewish?” I didn't have all the right documents. I went home in tears to my father in Reading. And he said, “I'll deal with them.” And he trotted in in fury the next Sunday; they were open on Sundays. And he showed them all these details about Germany and what have you, and his passport with “Jude” written all over it. And- and that thing- his release from Sachsenhausen- you know – the lot. They gave in to him at once.
Everyone was advised not to speak German in public in the war. So I was ashamed of having German-speaking parents. My parents, obeying the rules, spoke to me in English–very accented but still English. And then & for many years, I just wanted to be normal. I wanted to be English. I didn't want to have anything to do with being somebody who was different, despised–what have you. I’m a bit ashamed of that, but that's how it was. It made a gap between me and them. I was very close to my mother, actually. She was a really nice person. I think it had more of an effect on me as a person, that I wasn't at ease with myself. It must have seemed to them–& they did their very very best for me–that I was quite ungrateful in lots of ways. & I was. I think they found it very hard. They hadn't been used to being servants. They'd been used to being the servant-owning classes, very middle class. What on earth was my father doing? Who needed a butler in the war? It was all rubbish. & my mother's cooking–well![laughs]
My room [postwar in Reading] was tiny. Their room had a double bed, our eating table, their trunks. Our 'everything else' room. We stayed 8 years. My mother had to fit in with the owner: cooking when the owner wasn't cooking–dreadful for them. I'd sit in the shed in the garden mostly. I organised a couple of metal bars, so if somebody banged them, I'd know. I made it my little den. It was only a tiny little shed. I would sit & read. My mother would leave me a tea in a little round tin. That Gollancz leaflet? 'Nowhere to hide their heads' that was published at the end of the war, which my parents hid. This yellow pamphlet about concentration camps. I found it & I read it & I- absolutely terrified.