Holocaust survivor Ruth on her 'thoughts and reflections of old age'
- Credit: Christopher O'Donnell
"I don't want to die from Covid but if I do I have had the enormous luck to have lived many lives," says Ruth Posner, dancer, actress and Holocaust survivor.
While the pandemic has meant shielding for the Belsize Park resident, she's grateful to have husband Michael at her side.
"This is a dreadful time for everybody but I'm luckier than most," says the 91-year-old, whose latest book The Third Stage of My Life is out now.
"It's about what I feel now I am in the last stage of my life. I have a supportive husband, we still talk to each other after 70 years of married life. But I have no family and I find that very difficult. I used to say 'you choose your friends not not your family,' but lately I feel this incredible lack. Sometimes I think Hitler won."
Born in Poland in 1929, Ruth was raised by Jewish parents who "felt Polish" - she recalls getting a national costume for her birthday and wearing it with pride. When the Nazis forced them into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, her father secured false passports for her and an aunt and they escaped and lived under cover for three years.
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"I still sometimes wonder at all the coincidences," says Ruth, who lost her beloved son to a drug overdose aged 37.
"I could have been dead many times. I escaped from the ghetto, crossed the street, others did the same and were shot on the spot. Even when we had false passports my aunt and I were put on a train to be exterminated at the end of the war - they didn't care if we were Jews or Poles. But the American bombers came over, we ran away and lay down. A lot of people died when the planes tried to clear the place with machine guns. We survived."
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"My aunt was an extraordinary strong character. She had two children, eight and six, who she sent to the country to stay with a family. But someone denounced them and they were taken by the Gestapo and shot. She didn't want to live after that but she had to look after me."
Ruth and aunt Irene saw out the war with German farmers "milking cows - they didn't know we were Jews".
They were scooped up by the advancing British who gave them work in their kitchens but an observant RAF Squadron Leader spotted Irene's shaking hands and prised the truth from her. He swiftly arranged a transport to England for 16-year-old Ruth and a place at a dance and drama boarding school through the Jewish Refugee Committee.
By 18 she was "a very serious girl".
"I didn't know how to flirt and was conscious that I was uneducated".
She met Michael at a tea dance who talked to her about books and films and asked for a date. During their marriage they lived in six countries including New York where he worked for Unicef. Ruth, whose motto is "find some comedy in every tragedy" danced with London Contemporary Dance, taught physical theatre at Juilliard, Lamda, Rada and Central, and acted with the RSC and Royal Court.
"When I wrote to my aunt to say I am retraining as an actress she said 'you gave your best performance when you were 13, can you ever match it?' But she was also the actress living under an assumed name, always frightened that someone might recognise us on the Aryan side of Warsaw."
Ruth's first book Bits and Pieces of My Life dealt with the war years, and her second Thoughts and Reflections of an Ageing Actress covered her acting career. Pre-Covid, she toured schools for the Holocaust Education Trust telling pupils about her experience.
"For years I didn't want to talk about what I had been through. What made me want to speak was seeing the resurgence in anti-Semitism lifting its ugly head. The kids would ask me amazing questions. We talked about what is racial hatred and what happens when it becomes an ideology. I learned a lot. I hope they did too."
Her life also inspired Julia Pascal's play Who Do We Think We Are? which she says was "cathartic" to perform, especially when they toured to Germany and a local official introduced himself afterwards as a former Hitler Youth.
"He had tears in his eyes. He said 'when I was young I wore my uniform, I was proud of my nationality, but this is what we have to learn'. As an actress I worked through a lot of my problems through my work."
Her acting career was "very good and also not so good depending on the size of the egos," she says drily.
"We act because we want the applause, and often actors play characters who are more interesting than themselves. I've had quite a lot of work but I'm in a different category to Judi Dench. Unless you have a name, after 60 you vanish. The only jobs open to you are commercials for incontinence pads."
These days Ruth swears by 15 minutes gentle exercises every morning and writing as "an outlet for whatever I feel". For years she avoided researching what happened to her parents, but a decade ago she visited Bloomsbury's Wiener Library to find out.
"I knew it was a camp but not exactly where".
After an agonizing wait while Israel's Yad Vashem searched their records, she was handed two sheets of paper with her parents' names and final destination: Treblinka.
"Looking at the dates they were separated, which upset me because they were extremely close. I sat down and couldn't stop sobbing. It was another carthasis."
"Sometimes when I tell my story I feel I almost dreamed it, but I have images in my head, I see certain things and think 'Oh my god it really did happen'."