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Leather Bouquet of Flowers Made in Bergen-Belsen

Bouquet of flowers made in Bergen Belsen from shoe leather by Ruth Wiener Klemens.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Ruth Klemens

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.

See Ruth Klemens' 2001 oral history in the Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation, interview 51777. Alfred Wiener had been a key member of the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith (Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens) in Germany since 1919. Founded in 1893, the organization worked to oppose the rise of antisemitism in Germany. For more on the Centralverein, see the related items in Experiencing History, "Saxa Loquuntor" and "As an Emigrant in Shanghai." 

This documentation eventually became the basis for the Wiener Holocaust Library. See Ben Barkow, Alfred Wiener and the Making of the Holocaust Library (Vallentine Mitchell, 1997), for further information. Ruth describes her father's work in her oral history for the USC Shoah Foundation as turning the Nazis into "a witness to their own evildoing."

However, according to Alfred Wiener's correspondence with friends and colleagues from this period, Margarethe Wiener did not want to leave Holland for England despite his efforts to convince her to join him (Barkow, Alfred Wiener, 36–37). 

Arriving there at the age of sixteen, Ruth harvested potatoes and worked in the camp laundry for the German and Dutch officials. She also helped load people into cattle cars during deportations to concentration camps. She said she knew by that time that they were going to their deaths. See the Ruth Wiener Klemens Papers, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, for the bath pass that Ruth Wiener was allowed to use once a month in Westerbork and other documents. In an oral history for the USC Shoah Foundation, she said she could not remember the food in Westerbork, commenting that "it's amazing how one forgets some of the things. Or perhaps not so amazing. One wants to [forget]." She recalls that women in the barracks exchanged recipes and talked about memories, but never about the future, which was so uncertain. For more on the persecution of Dutch Jewry, see the documentary "Goodbye Holland: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry" (Willy Lindwer, 2004), in which the director analyzes archival documents, including those from his own family's experience, to discuss memory of the Holocaust and of Dutch collaboration. 

See "Bergen-Belsen Main Camp," The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and GhettosVol I: Early Camps, Youth Camps, and Concentration Camps and Subcamps under the SS-Business Administration Main Office, Part A (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2009), 278. See also Jo Reilly, David Cesarani, and Colin Richmonde, eds., Belsen in History and Memory (London: Frank Cass, 1997).

From the "star camp," Ruth once glimpsed Anne Frank and her sister Margot through a fence. She knew the girls from her synagogue in Amsterdam and from attending the same Jewish high school during the German occupation. Unlike Klemens, Frank and her sister did not survive imprisonment in Bergen-Belsen.

Life in the Sternlager was different from other concentration camps and indeed from other parts of Bergen-Belsen. Ruth was able to stay with her family (although men and women were in separate barracks) and keep her clothing; she did not have her head shaved, did not get tattooed with a prisoner number, and was allowed to keep a diary. Conditions were nevertheless dire: there was little food, forced labor, no sanitation, and deaths due to disease and exhaustion. For more on memory and the Sternlager, see Evelien Gans, "Remembering the Sternlager of Bergen-Belsen: Anecdotes, Humour and Poetry as Survival Strategies," in Narratives of War: Remembering and Chronicling Battle in Twentieth-Century Europe (New York, NY : Routledge, 2019), 190–203. Klemens, like others in her part of the camp, were allowed to keep diaries.

Ruth Klemens oral history, Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, Yale University, March 19, 1987. In his oral history, Ernst L. Presseisen describes his work in the 10- to 15- foot high pile of shoes, but said he did not think that they were from other concentration camps. See Giuliana Tedeschi's memoirs for her recollections of working on the "shoe commando" at Auschwitz-Birkenau: There is a Place on Earth: A Woman in Birkenau, transl. Tim Parks (New York: Pantheon, 1992).

Letter from Ruth Klemens, May 2, 2005, Donor File, US Holocaust Memorial Museum. She also refers to them as "home-made objects fashioned from the leather straps in the workplace" (“Memorabilia of Wartime Holland, as well as camps in Holland and Germany,” 1988).

She also donated this pin with a Star of David, which she received for her birthday while in Bergen-Belsen.

On this topic, see Sharon Oster, "Holocaust Shoes: Metonymy, Matter, Memory" in The Palgrave Handbook of Holocaust Literature and Culture, ed. Victoria Aarons and Phyllis Lassner (Springer International Publishing AG, 2020), 761–84.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Ruth Klemens
Accession Number 1988.126.29
Date Created
1944
Dimensions Height: 6.250 inches (15.875 cm) - Width: 2.250 inches
Material Leather.
Maker / Creator
Ruth Wiener Klemens
Owner
Ruth Wiener Klemens
Location
Bergen-Belsen, Germany
Reference Location
Westerbork, The Netherlands
Object Type Equipment
How to Cite Museum Materials

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