Born in Berlin in 1926, Ruth Wiener Klemens came from an influential, well educated family. Her father Alfred Wiener was a newspaper editor and a prominent organizer against antisemitism in Germany.1 Her mother Margarethe had a doctorate in economics. Fleeing Germany after the rise of Nazism, Wiener moved with her parents and two younger sisters in 1934 to Amsterdam, where her father established the Jewish Central Information Office to collect Nazi publications, propaganda, and other materials. In 1938, Alfred began to arrange for the family to move once again, this time to England.2 Although he managed to get to London himself, by the time he was able to get papers for his wife and children to emigrate, it was too late. In June 1940, the German army invaded the Netherlands.3
In June 1943, Nazi authorities interned Ruth, her mother, and three sisters at the Westerbork transit camp.4 Seven months later, they were deported to Bergen-Belsen. Thanks to her father’s maneuvering in diplomatic circles, they were sent to the Aufenthaltslager (“detention camp”) in Bergen-Belsen, where prisoners were held to be exchanged with German prisoners abroad.5 Specifically, she was in the Sternlager (“star camp”) with approximately 4,400 other “exchange Jews,” who all wore a Jewish star badge.6 Conditions in the “star camp” were more bearable than elsewhere in Bergen-Belsen, though starvation and disease were rampant.7
For most of her imprisonment at Bergen-Belsen, Ruth was forced to work in the Schuhkommando ("shoe work group"). It was here that she gathered the materials used to make this bouquet of flowers. Ruth sorted shoes once owned by people murdered in the camps. The leather was to be used for the German army.8 Male prisoners worked to take the soles off of the leather uppers. Women used small knives to take apart buckles and laces. Stationed in a room that Ruth recalled as very cold, the Schuhkommando worked almost twelve hours a day with only Sunday afternoons off.
Perhaps because of her place in a special section of the camp, Ruth managed to keep some of the leather and create this small bouquet, which measures approximately six inches high and two inches wide.9 The leather petals are held together by knots of dark leather string. The colors of the faces of the flowers are striking. Ruth likely collected them from different shoes. The dominant colors are brown and black, including the leather strips that represent stems bundled together by one tie. These colors are more common for shoe leather.
In spring 1944, other prisoners who were not part of the exchange program were deported to Bergen-Belsen, leading to overcrowding, disease, and extreme hunger. Ruth and her family were among the few “exchange Jews” who were actually exchanged for German prisoners. In January 1945, she and her family were brought to Switzerland for the hand off. Her mother died the first night after their arrival in Switzerland as the result of disease and starvation before they could be reunited with Alfred in New York City.
In 1988, Ruth donated this bouquet of flowers, along with this leather belt and charm pin that she also made in Bergen-Belsen, to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.10 In the list identifying her donations to the museum, she labeled these items “memorabilia,” reflecting both their historical importance and significance for her memories of Bergen-Belsen. Pieced together from the only materials available, the bouquet presents an uncommon contrast with similar leather items salvaged from the period.
Piles of shoes have frequently been featured as exhibitions in Holocaust museums, standing as a symbol of lives lost and conveying a sense of the victims' anonymity.11 Upon seeing such an exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Ruth explained that this bouquet of flowers came precisely from these kinds of piles.