Ruth, Eva and Mirjam Wiener in Amsterdam in 1940
Ruth, Eva and Mirjam Wiener in Amsterdam in 1940

I am the Project Coordinator for The Holocaust Explained, a website run by The Wiener Library which aims to teach schoolchildren about the Holocaust. Whilst carrying out research for our online resource I wanted to further look into the history and experience of the Library’s founder, Dr. Alfred Wiener, and his family. In particular, Ruth Wiener, who was Alfred’s eldest daughter. Following the Nazi occupation of Holland, Ruth was imprisoned first in Westerbork and later in Bergen-Belsen. Ruth survived both camps and was one of the few people to escape the Bergen-Belsen on an exchange scheme in January 1945. Ruth married, had children, and passed away at the age of 84 in 2011. Her papers were donated to the Library by her son, Michael Klemens, in 2014. The life story that unfolds within her documents is both compelling and extraordinary. This blog post aims to give an insight into her journey and life.

Ruth Hannah Wiener was born on 4 August 1927 in Berlin, Germany, the first daughter of Dr Margarethe Minna Wiener and Dr Alfred Wiener. Ruth had an older brother, Carl, who died shortly after she was born, and two younger sisters, Eva and Mirjam.

The Wieners were staunch anti-Nazis. After returning from fighting in the First World War, Alfred had quickly risen through the ranks of the Central Association for German Citizens of Jewish Faith (CV), an organisation which attempted to combat antisemitism. Margarethe worked for a publication scrutinising the Nazis’ economic policy. Due to the nature of their work, the Wieners foresaw the future danger following the Nazis’ rise to power earlier than most, and moved to Holland in 1933. 

By 1939, Alfred knew that it was only a matter of time before Holland would become unsafe for both his family and his work. He was able to move his Library to London shortly before war broke out in September 1939. Whilst Alfred was working to get Margarethe, Ruth, Eva, and Mirjam visas to emigrate and join him in London, the Germans invaded Poland. The remaining Wieners were trapped. 

On 10 May 1940, Germany invaded and occupied Holland. New Nazi segregation laws soon affected Ruth. She had to attend a new Jewish school, she could no longer play outdoor sports, and she had to wear a yellow star. As their friends and family began to disappear without trace or explanation, the family prepared for the worst. Early in the morning on 20 June 1943, Ruth, Eva, and Mirjam were detained by the Nazis and sent to Westerbork transit camp. In January 1944, after seven months in Westerbork, the family were deported to Bergen-Belsen. 

In January 1945, a rare opportunity to be part of a prisoner scheme between the Nazis and the United States appeared. The Wieners were chosen for this exchange and transported to Switzerland. Shortly afterward, Margarethe was too ill to continue travelling. On 25 January 1945, she was taken into a Swiss hospital and died just a few hours later. Out of the three sisters, only Ruth was permitted to attend her funeral, where she said her goodbyes to her mother alone.

Soon after, Ruth, Eva, and Mirjam boarded a Red Cross ship, the Gripsholm, bound for New York where they were reunited with their father.

Read this blog post in full and find out more about Ruth Wiener’s experiences during the Holocaust, including newly digitised material from Ruth’s collection in The Wiener Library archives, here.

Recommended further reading:

Ben Barkow, Alfred Wiener and the Making of the Holocaust Library. Vallentine Mitchell, 1997.

Presser, J. Ashes in the Wind: the Destruction of Dutch Jewry. Souvenir Press, 2010.

Taubes, Israel. The Persecution of Jews in Holland, 1940-1944: Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen. Jewish Central Information Office, 1945.

Warmbrunn, Wermer. The Dutch under German Occupation, 1940-1945. University Press, 1963.