Actress, comedian and mental health campaigner Ruby Wax uncovers the tragic story of her parents, Austrian Jews who came to America to escape the Nazis
In the 1990s, comedian and actor Ruby Wax found a new role. Following a diagnosis of depression, she trained in cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness, and has since worked tirelessly to promote better understanding of mental health issues.
“I think I have lived most of my life in a high anxiety state and so I want to know where that came from,” she says. “And I keep blaming my parents. It would be interesting to know who they’re blaming.”
It’s a story centred on Austria because, although Ruby was raised in Chicago, her parents, Edmund Wachs and Berta Goldmann, were Jewish émigrés who fled the Nazis. “They took the war with them and brought it to our table,” says Ruby.
It’s a remark that reflects a dysfunctional childhood. Her mother had a condition dubbed “hysteria”, while her father was volatile – “a ‘torturer’” in Ruby’s mother’s estimation.
Neither talked much about the past, but Berta left a suitcase full of photographs, documents and letters that, with limited German, Ruby is unable to read. These mementoes prove crucial to Ruby reaching a new understanding of her parents and her wider family.
Dr Doron Rabinovici helped Ruby research the lives of her great aunt and uncle, Salomon and Gabriele Birer
In Vienna, Ruby first heads for a prison where her father was imprisoned in 1938, the year the Nazis took control of Austria. Edmund had given the impression he was in charge of aerobics in the jail, but the truth is darker.
The reality is that Jewish prisoners were tortured, in part by being made to perform humiliating and painful exercises. “Why didn’t he tell me anything?” Ruby says. Edmund was freed because he promised to leave the country. He flew to Belgium in September 1938.
Before leaving, he married Berta, but she remained in Vienna until December 1938. This means she lived through Kristallnacht, “the night of the broken glass”, in November when, across the German Reich, the Nazis targeted Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues.
Ruby wishes Berta had been able to talk about what she saw. “My heart would’ve bled for her,” she says. “I had no idea.”
Ruby quickly located the graves of her grandfather and great grandfather at Vienna Central Cemetery – but finding the final resting place of her great aunt, Olga, was more tricky
Next, Ruby wants to know more about the letters in her mother’s suitcase from Ella and Salo, written in 1941. A genealogist explains that Ella was the sister of her maternal grandfather, Ruby’s great aunt. Salo was her husband.
One of the letters refers to the couple growing thin at a time when Jews were denied foodstuffs. But Ella also says she’s learning English, evidence perhaps that she hoped to get a visa for the US.
Instead, Ella and Salo were sent to Theresienstadt ghetto, in Czechoslovakia. There were no gas chambers here, but 33,000 largely elderly prisoners died of disease and starvation, including Salo. The fate of Ella is less clear and Ruby can only hope she didn’t get sent to Auschwitz.
In a shocking twist, archivist Dr Lenka Matusikova revealed that Ruby’s great grandmother, Berta, was also admitted to a psychiatric hospital
Having identified various figures for the first time in a Goldmann family photograph from her mother’s suitcase, Ruby also traces the story of another great-aunt, Olga. Olga’s final address was Am Steinhof – a psychiatric hospital in Vienna. Prior to this, she was resident at another institution, in Brno, now in the Czech Republic.
Visiting Brno, Ruby discovers that her great-grandmother, Bertha Goodmann, was also institutionalised – after selling her furniture and saying she was going to commit suicide.
“You know, I could have saved myself a lot of time and money,” reflects Ruby. “Rather than doing therapy, I should have been doing genealogy. Now knowing my ancestors, I understand a lot more about myself.”