Holocaust survivor Ruth Weiss: A woman who broke the chains that bound her to a Nazi horror in Germany and apartheid in South Africa

Posted: 11 July, 2024 | Category: Uncategorized

Ruth Weiss who marks her 100th birthday in Germany on 26 July 2024. She is an author, novelist, anti-apartheid and anti-Nazi campaigner all of her adult life.





On the afternoon of 5 July,2022 a handsome Jewish woman of 97, stood in courtroom 600 at the Palace of Justice in Nuremburg.

Ruth Weiss was waiting to be honoured by friends and fans from around the world.

As she waited to receive an 800-page Festshrift (German for a liber amicorum, or book of friends), waves of memory washed over her.

Later, she told me she found it hard to breathe in a courtroom that was the venue for the trial of so many prominent Nazi leaders in1945/1946.

For Ruth Weiss. that took her back to the beginning once again.

She said- “In this court, the accused had to defend their dead Fuhrer’s totalitarian autocratic ideology, that had led them to perpetuate cold-blooded massacre of many millions. How often had I shuddered at their names, the enormity of their unspeakable crimes. I had never understood how they had been able to draw their people into accepting – no much more than that – into participating in their crimes. I found it impossible to envisage the scene with those murderers seated on benches in this room, listening to their lawyers. These had forcefully defended the totalitarianism of their rule, the crime and belief in the Final Solution, the extermination of people of Jewish faith.”

From outside the courtroom Ruth said she heard a summer-time brass band in the street outside playing songs from My Fair Lady.

Ninety years before, it would have been music more strident from the Nazi hymn book, with special emphasis on one that marked the canonisation of a Nazi street-fighter called Horst Wessel.

For a while as she tried to stay calm and breathe properly Ruth Weiss was nine years old again, a pretty Jewish girl in a flowery dress and summer hat waiting with her mother and sister at a bus-stop in a small town called Furth close to Nuremburg (venue for Hitler’s most spectacular rallies and speeches), all of them and wondering what dad was up to in a new place that Ruth had found in a school atlas, a place called South Africa.

On 28 April 2023 Ruth Weiss received an Order of the Companion of O.R. Tambo. President Ramaphosa spoke of her contribution to the liberation struggle and for “shining the light of injustices in South Africa.”


On 28 April the following year, Ruth Weiss sat next to Cyril Ramaphosa, this time finding it much easier to breathe properly.

She waited as the President of South Africa, stood up and half-bowed in her direction as he bestowed an Order of the Companions of OR (Oliver)Tambo on her “for her contributions to the liberation struggle” and for “shining the lights of injustices in South Africa.”

Melannie Boehi, who has written widely and well about the life and times of Ruth Weiss, said the award stands out because it is the first time the author, journalist and novelist was publicly recognised in South Africa.

Boehi, a research assistant at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, wrote:  ”Although South Africa has been a central focus throughout her career, she was not widely known in the country. This is because she mostly worked for international media, her publications were often in German and most of her books were published by small publishing houses with limited distribution. Nonetheless, some of them captured the attention of the apartheid state’s censors. Women Against Apartheid, a 1980 book she edited, was declared undesirable because several of the women activists featured in it had been detained among them Helen Joseph and Winnie Mandela. Because of her critical reporting about apartheid, Weiss herself was considered an undesirable immigrant and consequently refused re-entry into South Africa after she left in the 1960s.”

She added: “Women’s contributions to these struggles (for freedom and social inclusion at all levels) have never been recognised widely enough and even less so the contributions made by women journalists. Hopefully, this award will make Weiss and here exceptional work – reportage, fiction, non-fiction and an extensive journalism archive – known to a wider public.”

Ruth Weiss speaking at an economic forum in Harare, Zimbabwe soon after Independence in 1980 (Picture: Trevor Grundy)


Ruth Weiss’s many books – fiction and non-fiction – are well known among African-watchers, the sort of people who might read what I write on this very slowly (very)  growing website.

So it is not my intention to write a lengthy article about a woman I have come to know and respect over the decades.

This is not a synopsis of her life.

See it more as a verbal birthday card.

She and her many friends and her dear son  Alexander (Sacha) will gather at Aschaffenburg on 26th July to mark 100 years of full and creative life.

Melani Boehi outlines several of the highlights of Ruth’s extraordinarily rich and diverse life and I hope one day she writes a book about a writer we have come to admire and in some cases love.

To those who want the full story (rather, the story as told by the author) should get hold of Ruth’s autobiography “A Path Through Hard Grass” which has an interesting foreword by the late Nadine Gordimer.

There is much about her on various websites and also an excellent article about her life in  The Rift -The exile experience of South Africans by Hilda Bernstein (Jonathan Cape, 1994).

Since the 1970s, Ruth Weiss became known as a Zeitzeugin in (historical witness) and she speaks regularly in  Holocaust seminars and before thousands of schoolchildren in Germany about her experience of growing up in Nazi Germany, leaving homer for South Africa, her life there, rise as a journalist and  as an anti-apartheid activist and novelist.

Her best book-writing is, in my opinion, the novel My Sister Sara and two non-fiction works, The Women of Zimbabwe and (if you read German) Frauen Gegen Apartheid.

Ruth Weiss – travelling light but with a heavy message to the world about the need to fight apartheid, racism  in all its many forms


An 800-pages Festschrift  (book of friends) on the  the life and work of Ruth Weiss was published in 2022. It contained the article ( below) by Trevor Grundy about how he first met Ruth Weiss shortly before Christmas in London in  1973.

Women played a key role in the struggle for Zimbabwe but they were often overlooked by their male counterparts and former comrades. Journalists like  Ruth Weiss worked hard to change their image and applaud their achievement.


I end on a purely personal note about my first meeting with Ruth Weiss and how it changed my life.

It is my way of saying ‘Thank you, Ruth Weiss’ on your landmark birthday. And may there be many more happy and creative years to come. Telling you to slow down would be like telling the clock not to tick.





by Trevor Grundy


She came into my life in Fleet Street, London a few days before Christmas 1973 and never really left it again.

I was working for Drum magazine in Fleet Street and longing to return to Africa where I had lived and worked as a journalist since 1966, first in Zambia, then in Tanzania and Kenya.

On the way to a local pub at lunchtime, I bumped into a man who I’d not seen for years, Mike Pierson, who was the managing editor of The Times of Zambia in Ndola on the Copperbelt.

He was with a proud, well dressed and good-looking woman who was silent as we talked about why we were all in central London that day.

She, looking for an English school for her young son.  He, to find a replacement for the woman with him as business editor of Zambia’s leading English language newspaper, The Times of Zambia.

We shook hands.

‘Trevor Grundy,’ I said.

‘Ruth Weiss,’ she said.


A short while after lunch, Pierson told me I’d got the job and he would like me to start work, under Ruth Weiss’s initial supervision, in Lusaka in February 1974.

I couldn’t wait to get out of England with its achingly boring politics and the three-day week. Those, plus the lies of Drum owner Jim Bailey who told his upper-class friends at London’s exclusive dining clubs that his famous African  magazine was so successful because he had (in his words) “removed the hand of whitey.”

Every single word in Drum was written or edited by Europeans. Loads of black reporters and photographers took all the risks, yes.

But the magazine was totally controlled by whites in London. And for a short while, I was one of them.

Ruth Weiss told me that as well as running the business section of the paper, I’d also inherit her two most prominent “strings” – correspondent in Zambia for the Financial Times and the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme, then edited in London by a brilliant Ugandan, Israel Wamala.

I knew next to nothing about this educated, cosmopolitan, rather austere woman apart from what Pierson told me about her –  how her Jewish family left Germany shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933 and that she was well known in South Africa and Rhodesia as a fighter against racial discrimination.

Our respective childhoods could not have been more different.

But in those days I was able to forget who I’d been and where I’d come from.

Or so I thought.


I worked alongside Ruth Weiss for only a couple of weeks.

It was hard stepping into her shoes because she knew a great deal about the economic side of life in Africa and understood long before Bill Clinton said it that if you want to understand politics “follow the money.”

Whenever I met senior African politicians or expatriate businessmen I was known as the man who’d taken over from Ruth Weiss.

Not many were pleased about the change.


From 1966 to 1980 I knew next to nothing about this famous -in African circles – woman other than she was a close friend of the great South African writer Nadine Gordimer, a friend of almost every prominent European anti-apartheid activist in Europe and the Commonwealth and a journalist who had made a deep mark as a commentator about Africa at Deutsche Welle, then based in Bonn.

But in 1980 our paths crossed again, albeit briefly.

Ruth Weiss was lead tutor in a government -backed training programme for young journalists following the end of white rule in Rhodesia.

Her training partner was an Egyptian called Mahmoud Amr who had been my editor in London when I worked for the Egyptian -government owned Middle East News Agency (MENA) from 1963-to 1966.

There were brief greetings and short conversations but I lacked understanding about what she was trying to do– put in place the eyes of the best type of Western journalist onto the faces of young people who had been told they amounted to little in a world that was a whiter shade of pale.

Alexander and Ruth at Sacha’s Bar Mitzvah in London in 1980


Almost a quarter of a century went by before Ruth Weiss re-entered my world, again in an unexpected way.

In October 1996, I left Africa thirty years after entering it and returned to the United Kingdom with my wife, Jane.

For almost two years, we lived in Edinburgh and that was where I started and finished a book about my own strange beginning as a boy in Sir Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement which before the war was called the British Union of Fascists.

I tried to write a second book about my life in Africa but memories were painful and my fingers froze.

So instead of writing, I edited and was employed from 2006 to 2009 by a woman called Susan Woodhouse who had been the private secretary of the last of the great white liberal leaders in Rhodesia before it was taken over by Ian Smith and white supremacists.

Before I started work for Susan, I was told to read a book already written about Sir Garfield Todd by a woman I might not have heard of – Ruth Weiss.

An exchange of books (Ruth Weiss’s autobiography and another by Trevor Grundy) started a friendship of two journalists who spent most of their adult lives in Africa and who knew nothing about one another until recently. 


I looked her up on various websites and found she had written a book about her childhood in Germany, a book called “A Path Through Hard Grass – A Journalist’s Memories of Exile and Apartheid.”

I wrote to Ruth and told her how much I’d enjoyed her book.

I told her I’d also written about my childhood and I sent her a copy of Memoir of a Fascist Childhood.

Ruth said she was amazed and knew nothing about my past.

She said she would one day write about me. That she did. She praised me for breaking away from what had shaped me as a child and young man and for starting again and making an effort to find the truth.

Since then, we have been in constant communication. She now lives in Denmark. I live in Yorkshire.

Ruth’s passion for Africa remains as strong as ever.


Before I started writing this little piece to honour Ruth and what she had achieved, Jane said that it’s a pity I’m not a novelist because the story of the inter-connections between a German child haunted by Hitler and an Englishman haunted by Mosley would make a good story.

It would and might also underscore (if needs be once again) what I most admire about a woman I now call a friend and that is  her ability to locate and break the un-forgiving chains that weld us to the past and turn us into slaves.


Telling Ruth Weiss (pictures here on the eve of her birthday) to slow down would be like telling a clock not to tick


A final word before Ruth Weiss’s birthday (on 26th July, 2024) is celebrated by family and friends in the in the town of Aschaffenburg, close to Frankfurt in Germany.

Ruth Weiss was born in Germany in 1924.

Today, she is as active as ever – a great writer and human being.

But think what might have happened to her and her family had they not left Nazi Germany and re-settled in Johannesburg in 1936.

The facts speak for themselves. There is no need to say more.

  •   In 1933 there were 1,990 Jews in Furth
  •   By early 1936, there were 1, 400 Jews in Furth.
  •   In November 1938 (Kristallnacht) there were 1,200. After synagogues were destroyed and Jewish shops defaced    about 132 Jews were deported to Dachau.
  •   All except a handful of those who remain in Furth after Kristallnacht,  fled abroad or to other parts of Germany or   were deported to concentration camps.
  •   Virtually all those who remained in Germany were deported to their deaths.
  •   By 1944 only 23 Jews were left in Furth.
  •   Overall, 1,068 Jews  from Furth were murdered in the Holocaust.