Review: Ruth Maier’s Diary

An artist’s brief and dark womanhood

By Amanda Hopkinson, March 19, 2009

By Ruth Maier (Ed: Jan Erik Vold)
Harvill Secker

Though Ruth Maier died in 1942, her diary has only now been published in the UK, two years after its first publication in Norway, Maier’s home for the last four years of her short life preceding her deportation to Auschwitz. It takes its place within a climate of interest in such offerings alongside Helene Berr’s Journal in France and Deborah Moggach’s recent television adaptation here of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Maier’s family was bourgeois and intellectual, based in Vienna, but with relatives in Brno, Moscow, and in the small Moravian village of Zarosice, where they holidayed and for which Ruth had a special affection.

In 1933, when Ruth was 13, her adored father became ill and died, and life then broadly continued on a downward spiral. After the Anschluss, the Maiers were moved from their comfortable home into a ghetto; Ruth’s 18th birthday coincided with Kristallnacht and, by 1939, her mother, grandmother, and younger sister Judith (who instigated the publication of Ruth’s diary) fled to England. Ruth herself went to Norway.

She was doubly an outsider. Her diary was at first withheld, supposedly because it lay concealed, but more probably on account of its content, particularly its sexual ambiguities. Certainly Gunvor, the Norwegian woman with whom Ruth fell most conclusively in love, surrendered the diaries entrusted to her to a publisher.

Ruth defined her intentions when she began writing, still only 15: “There are two groups of people who write diaries. The first really are moved to write by an inner spirit. The others in the secret hope that their diary will one day be discovered by an unknown muse and become a sensation… Sometimes I’m in the first group, at others in the second.”

She frequently addresses her comments to an external reader, a friend (often back in Vienna) or a family member. Elsewhere, she argues with herself about how her diaries would be read and what others would think of her.

This is not a work to be read for the subtleties of its prose. She tends to categorise those she meets as either ugly or beautiful and intelligent or silly. But it has a collective impact beyond the writing. Ruth was a talented artist and photographer, and some of this work is included here. There should have been more. She was more visually than verbally skilled and her sketches echo those of Charlotte Salomon, the brilliant young German-Jewish artist who shared Maier’s tragic fate. There is also a Norwegian influence discernible in Maier’s conscious adoption of the style of Edvard Munch.

Ruth Maier’s time in Norway, right up to her doomed deportation, comes across as tough and lonely — but the sense of courage outweighs that of tragedy. Her last words in a letter to Gunvor were: “Why shouldn’t we suffer when there’s so much suffering around? Don’t worry about me. I might not even wish to change places with you.”

Suite Française this isn’t. Its interest is rather that of a life transition — from the personal to the political (she adopted socialism) and from girlhood to womanhood.

Amanda Hopkinson is the director of the British Centre for Literary Translation

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