75th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights

Ceremony in the town hall of Recklinghausen – Contributions by Ruth Weiss

On Sunday, December 10, 2023, in the town hall of the city of Recklinghausen-all chairs in the council chamber were occupied, and some guests had to stand at the ceremony ’75 years of the Declaration of Human Rights. Ruth Weiss’s contribution was in line with the words of the representatives from politics and education—in a special way:

Her contribution was read by two schoolgirls who had met her at the Holocaust memorial service in the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia on January 27 and had been deeply impressed by her speech on that day. Visibly proud and a little nervous, they read it aloud and the answers to their pre-asked questions. The fact that it was important for two schoolgirls to take Ruth’s part at the event for Human Rights Day was able to console the festive congregation a little over the fact that a video connection to Denmark had not been established for technical reasons:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

This is stated in the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (AEM) of the United Nations.

This includes all the remaining 29 articles that every person should accept and support. Before November 10, 1948, when 48 UN states accepted this and 8 abstained, the protection of individual human rights was a matter for individual states. Even in 1945, at the most important Nuremberg trial against the Nazi leaders, the Shoah (extermination of the European Jews) was one of the charges, but this was not in the foreground but in the last place. The word “human rights” was used by the prosecution for the first time in court.

If you read the AEM articles on personal protection, which include the prohibition of slavery or torture, and on civil liberties such as freedom of expression, social and cultural rights, the right to work, food, and more, you will, unfortunately, find that every right is violated many times every day in too many countries. How sad! According to Wikipedia, more than a third (36.9%) of the global population lives in a dictatorship and less than half (45.3%) in a democracy. Norway is named the ‘democratic frontrunner,’ ahead of New Zealand and Iceland. North Korea, Myanmar, and Afghanistan occupy the last three places. Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are counted among the “complete democracies.”

An overview of several African countries and their governments, which I read today, proved to me that even on this continent, despite past wars of liberation, many elites are now violating these liberal democratic basic rights themselves. Often disregarding their democratic constitutions, the paragraphs of which are not followed.

The fight against human rights violations must, therefore, be a priority. Unacceptable authoritarian systems must be widely publicized and condemned. For example, sanctions and other measures could persuade dictators and their supporters to take new steps to move closer to democracy.

I wish the many courageous activists much strength and success in their irreplaceable efforts to make the UN Declaration of Human Rights recognized worldwide and, above all, to ensure that it is respected so that people have fewer rights violations to complain about!

Ruth Weiss with students of the Th.Heuss Gymnasium Recklinghausen after the Holocaust Remembrance Hour 27.1.23 in the Landtag Düsseldorf (c) RWG/M.Voss

Questions to Mrs. Ruth Weiss

As a 12-year-old child of a Jewish family, you had to flee Germany with your mother and sister from the Nazis and emigrate to South Africa. As a journalist, you were unable to return to South Africa after a trip for political reasons and later had to leave Rhodesia.

Did these experiences of “flight” contribute to your commitment against exclusion, anti-Semitism, and racism, or did they lead to it in the first place?

Answer. No, that was the consequence of everything that had preceded the flight: the sudden change in my country of birth, where I was ostracized as a Jew at the age of nine in elementary school and had left it.

My father lost his job at an “Aryan” company as a Jew in the first weeks after Hitler’s seizure of power, so we left the village. Fortunately, he had relatives in South Africa, so he was able to emigrate as early as 1933. My mother, sister, and I stayed with our grandparents in my hometown of Fürth until 1936, where I went to the Israelite secondary school. These three years under the Hitler era, during which the Nuremberg Laws were passed, which, among other things, increasingly disenfranchised us Jews and finally withdrew us from the protection of the Reich, shaped me through humiliation, persecution, and ever-new anti-Jewish laws, as well as through the growing insecurity and fear of the adults around me.

Since Fürth is next to Nuremberg, we also experienced the euphoria of the annual NSDAP party rallies. We knew our way around the new flags, the marches, and songs like “When the Jewish Blood Spurts from the Knife.” Once, I was followed to school by a horde of boys, and before that, by smaller children about my age, on their way to the synagogue. We were no longer allowed to go out on the street alone. I had done this twice and felt the aggression. My whole life changed. We didn’t visit our relatives and friends like before. The small school was overcrowded; some classes were taught on the stairs and in the auditorium. This did not stop the boys from playing football enthusiastically, albeit outside of school under the constant supervision of concerned teachers. We knew that all parents were looking for a country that would give asylum to their family; often children were missing without saying goodbye, so we knew that their family had managed to escape.

My grandfather was a very devout Jew, so we were members of a small congregation founded by a rabbi in the 17th century, when Jews had been expelled from Vienna. I had learned a lot from him, so my Jewishness became important to me.

After the war, I learned that my best friend, her three sisters, and her mother had been deported and murdered. The father had been forbidden to work as a Jewish butcher; he had looked in vain for work in Holland. We also had to mourn several relatives after the end of the war; others had fled to America; a brother of my father, his wife, and the eldest son with his wife and two children followed us to South Africa.

So, no adult, at almost 12 years old, had to explain to me when I arrived in South Africa that in this country, light-skinned people were in charge and considered and treated all dark-skinned people as subhumans, just as we Jews were regarded in Germany because of our religion.

I had seen how badly the African servants were treated and experienced it almost every day, as at the railway bridge over which I went to school, where Africans were randomly picked out of the arriving passengers, stopped by policemen, and asked for their I.D., which was a thick passport book. If anything was wrong, they were detained and chained to others until no more workers’ trains from the black ghettos arrived, only to be brought before a magistrate, who sentenced them to prison. Which mostly meant hard work on farms.

This and much more had politicized me from day one, and in South Africa, I had made friends outside our suburbs, especially, but not only, among other refugees. Later, in my profession as a journalist, I was able to write about it and report on it, which made me an ‘unpopular person’ in racist countries such as South Africa, then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and also in Portuguese colonies at that time. Once, on a boat trip in Beira, Mozambique, I was woken up at night by the Portuguese secret service, who wanted to tell me that I was not allowed to enter the country. Then, I went ashore in Kenya, which had become independent. Since I was expelled from South Africa and had my South African passport revoked, I worked in London, African countries, and London in the 70s for three years in Cologne. For my little son, it was an eventful childhood with friends from several countries.

Question: Human rights were published 75 years ago, when you were a 24-year-old young woman.

At the time, did you perceive the publication as an improvement in the human rights situation in your environment? Have you been able to identify any changes or improvements that are causally related to this?

Of the 30 articles, is there one that is particularly important to you?

What has been achieved so far? Where do you see a need for action?

Answer. First, it was clear to me that the incomprehensible Nazi atrocities against humanity, the genocide of the extermination of 6 million Jews, as well as 220,000-500,000 Sinti and Roma and other oppositionists, were unacceptable crimes. This should never be allowed to happen again. In doing so, I understood that the concept of human rights and human rights violations was first mentioned in court in 1945 at the Nuremberg trial of the Nazi leadership, which later led to the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” defines these rights and their violations. In addition to the United Nations, various non-governmental organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, were also established at that time. They were able to observe and testify—both the violations and suspects—and prosecute them or publicize the human rights violations through press releases and accurate reports. In the meantime, the International Criminal Court has been in existence since 1998, before which those responsible for such crimes have already been tried and convicted.

But that’s not nearly enough! Contempt for human rights and their violations is far too widespread and is not sufficiently denounced and prosecuted. Too many countries oppress their populations and have passed laws that allow them to arrest members of the opposition without bringing them to court, and their security agencies commit crimes such as kidnapping, torture, or murder. The list of human rights violations is overwhelming. No autocratic government should go unpunished, as is still the case today. That is why committed lawyers and the active participation of civil society are essential!

Support for the defence of human rights is commendable.- Understanding this should begin in childhood and adolescence.

Even a child should be told not to participate in bullying! Not to insult, despise, or exclude anyone because of their origin, beliefs, appearance, or “being different”!

Please don’t look away when someone is mistreated by others. Protest, condemn the disregard, and intervene if there is no other way!

Question: After reaching retirement age, older people fill their everyday lives with things that they enjoy and that there are no longer any obligations to do. Despite your advanced age, you still undertake arduous journeys to tell young people, in particular, about their life stories and to ask them to stand up against racism, xenophobia, and exclusion.

What drives you, and where do you get the strength to do it?

(c) 3-Religions Primary School Osnabrück 2022 (Ruth Weiss visit 2.9.22)

Answer. As I said, I could not bear the injustice done to the majority of the population by the white minority in the new homeland where we found asylum. I had experienced injustice myself. The values of my religion taught me that all people are equal and must be treated with respect. An example of irreverence from that time is when the future South African president, Nelson Mandela, told his first white teacher that his name was Rolihlahla. She waved it off; she couldn’t pronounce it or remember it, and she just said, “I’ll call you Nelson,” and that’s it!

And today? The increasing anti-Semitism, up to the denial of the genocide of the Jews, the Shoah, and growing xenophobia have, of course, indicated to me that those who experienced the crimes of the Nazi era are slowly dying out and will soon no longer be able to tell the younger generation about them—those who were survivors of the cruel concentration camps or refugees like me at the time. That’s why I thought I should keep talking to young people as long as I could.

No human being is born with prejudice. You can get them from your family or others! But before you condemn someone for hearing something derogatory about their origins, try to inform yourself! Then you will find out that you were wrong; this derogatory thing was not true and was only spread because this person is “different” from the majority and there is no reason to attack them for it.

That’s why I started writing novels in retirement. When I first visited elementary schools and read there, I learned that they knew nothing about the Jewish religion and the long history of the Jewish people. How could they? So I began to write stories about fictional people who may have lived at certain historically documented times since the first century of our era. I also wrote some novels about Africa and other countries. My hope was that readers would enjoy the stories and learn about the histories of other people in the process. I was pleased that my book “My Sister Sara” was twice selected by the state of Baden-Württemberg as compulsory reading for secondary schools.

Such novels can break down prejudices. One of my friends once said he didn’t like Indians. He had to admit that he didn’t know any Indians. Until he was treated in a hospital by an Indian doctor with whom he had a good conversation and understood well. It didn’t stop there; they became friends and stayed that way!

Encounters and understanding are usually enriching. In any case, “knowledge” fights racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-Islamism. This is helpful in a country with minorities. Unfortunately, it does not prevent the terrible conflicts that are currently taking place around the world, in Ukraine and the Middle East, as well as in other countries!

Question: What would you like to see? What would you like to pass on to all of us?


My wish is that:

… a new fair world order is emerging so that the planet can recover from the exploitation of humanity.

The autocratic rulers, elites, and super-rich are less concerned with their own privileges and instead help solve global problems, starting with the great gap between the hungry and the wealthy. Unfortunately, this list is also far too long.

The critical situation of this time brings all people to their senses, and everyone understands that we have to tackle the problems together instead of fighting each other!

Without peace, humanity faces a dark, difficult future.

I wish you all the best!