Ruth David obituary

Other lives: Child refugee from Nazi Germany who wrote a memoir of her early life and became an educator about the Holocaust

My friend Ruth David, who has died of Covid-19 aged 91, was a remarkable woman. A child refugee from Nazi persecution in Germany, she made a new life in the UK and became a teacher, before publishing a powerful memoir about her early life and becoming a prominent educator about the Holocaust.

Ruth was born and grew up in the village of Fränkisch-Crumbach, in the Odenwald region, with her father, Moritz Oppenheimer, who ran the family cigar factory there, her mother, Margarete (nee Krämer), a maths teacher, and five siblings. On Kristallnacht in 1938, the men of the household were assaulted, her father and brother taken away and the family home left ransacked.

Ruth David, then Ruth Oppenheimer, middle right, at home in Germany in 1938, with her siblings: back row, from left, Werner, Hannah and Ernst; and front row, Michael and Feo (looking round).
Ruth David, then Ruth Oppenheimer, middle right, at home in Germany in 1938, with her siblings: back row, from left, Werner, Hannah and Ernst; and front row, Michael and Feo (looking round). Photograph: FAMILY PHOTO

When Ruth was sent alone to Britain on the Kindertransport aged 10, her parents accompanied her to Mannheim station and insisted that they would soon be reunited, but Ruth wondered whether she would ever see them again. She spent most of the second world war in a refugee hostel in Windermere, Cumbria, and received occasional letters from her parents, who were deported to France in October 1940 and then on to Auschwitz, where they were murdered, in August 1942.

After the war, Ruth won a scholarship and took a degree in French at Bedford College, University of London, and a PGCE at University College London. She then taught French at various Leicestershire schools for 30 years; many students kept in touch with her for years.

In 1958 she married a fellow teacher, Andrew Finch; they had a son and a daughter. After their divorce in 1978, Ruth lived alone, but at the age of 63 she married Herbert David, an American professor, and went to live in Iowa. She returned to Leicester in 2009; she and Herbert were divorced two years later and he died in 2014.

Ruth David’s memoir was a moving account of her life under the Nazis
Ruth David’s memoir was a moving account of her life under the Nazis Photograph: None

While in the US, Ruth wrote her memoir, Child of Our Time (2003), a moving account of her life under the Nazis and as a refugee. One striking episode describes her reunion in 1957 with Mina, the family housekeeper who had ignored the edict forbidding her to work for Jews. Ruth’s mother had asked her to keep a priceless collection of letters and photographs, many of which appear in the book.

Having been wary of returning to Germany, Ruth began giving talks to children there about the Holocaust in the 1990s. After doing this annually for almost two decades, she was awarded the Order of Merit by the German government. She also gave frequent talks at the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, in Nottinghamshire, as well as in the US and Israel. This living history had immense power. A lifetime of teaching meant she knew how to connect with a range of audiences.

She never lost her curiosity and love of books and music, nor her vivacity and gift for friendship – 600 people had to be informed of her death. Until the end of her life, she walked up to her second-floor flat and enjoyed a weekly yoga class.

Ruth is survived by her children, Margaret and Simon, two grandchildren, her brother Michel and sister Feo.

David Pollak

The GuardianTramp

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