Towards the end of the Second World War, a murder hunt took place in north Staffordshire. Mrs. Annie Lovatt was blackberrying with her 12-year-old daughter, Pamela, in a quiet, rural spot called Counslow when she found a young woman’s body in a gravel pit. According to her post mortem, the woman, Ruth Schmerler, a Polish refugee, aged 20, had died from “shock and internal haemorrhage due to stab wounds in chest. Murder by person or persons unknown.” Her clothing was torn and dishevelled and one of her stockings was missing. Police did not think that robbery was the motive for her murder. They had recovered one of her shoes and her necklace, a gold cross which perhaps indicated that she had converted to Christianity – who knows? – and her black leather suitcase was missing.
I know about this story because my mother grew up in a small market town nearby and her family knew the people who had found the body. My mum would tell me about it, and – as she often did with the family stories she would tell – she gave it an air of mystery as if she knew that there was something more to the tale (she didn’t). My mother had a big heart and – even though she only knew the story second hand – many years afterwards she would still feel emotional and have such empathy for a young woman who had come to this country as a refugee and died, abused and alone, miles away from home that her eyes would fill with tears.
I researched the background of the story a while ago and couldn’t discover any evidence to support any kind of cover-up or conspiracy about Ruth Schmerler’s death as some writers have alleged. It seems to me that it is simply the old, old story of the “poor murdered woman laid on the cold ground” as the folk song has it. This is as much of Ruth’s story as I can manage to find out.
Ruth Schmerler was born in Poland in around 1924, probably in Galicia. Her family were Jewish, the Schmerlers seem to have been a religious, even Rabbinical family. It seems that most of Ruth’s family were wiped out in the Holocaust. She and her younger brother Kurt, came to England in 1939 as part of the Manchester Children’s Refugee Movement. At some point she worked as an assistant in a pharmacy in Manchester but – according to some reports – she left her job, joined the Women’s Land Army and was working in Worcestershire in 1944. Others say that she was taking an “agricultural holiday” with a Jewish group in Bromsgrove. Whichever it was, Ruth decided to travel back to see Kurt, who was by then an apprentice optician in Manchester. He may well be the same Kurt Schmerler who had an optician’s practice in Harley Street after the war, in which case he died in 1999.
During the Second World War, it was common to hitch hike and presumably, this was how Ruth planned to travel to Manchester. She was last seen accepting a lift from a soldier: the Nottingham Post reported on 3rd October 1944 that she was picked up by an “Army touring model motor car” in the outskirts of Birmingham at 1pm on the 21st of September. The police were looking for the driver, a soldier “about 30 years of age, rather tall and of slim build.” Another report described him as “aged 30, height 5ft 10ins, slim build, rough complexon with a full moustache.” When he came forward, he told the police that Ruth had got out of his vehicle and into another that was heading north.
Ruth’s suitcase and her missing stocking were found near Shap Fell in Cumbria where they were probably thrown from a vehicle. A soldier was interviewed at Thornhill, Dumfries in Scotland but no charges were ever brought.
The police made strenuous efforts to find Ruth’s killer. They sent squads of police officers to interview soldiers in barracks around the country, used mine detectors in the quarry at Counslow and even grafted a photograph of Ruth’s head on to a picture of a policewoman dressed in her clothes and carrying a similar suitcase in an attempt to create what they called “a walking picture” of the victim and jog people’s memories.
At a time when there was all kinds of movement around the country and tremendous upheaval, when people of all kinds of backgrounds and characters had been conscripted into the British, US and other military forces, burglaries, rapes and murders were all committed during the war by soldiers away from their home areas who were almost impossible to trace and identify. Ruth Schmerler was one of the victims. It is all the more poignant somehow that this woman, who had fled such persecution and survived the Nazis when most of her family had not, should die in such a lonely, violent and unnecessary way.
I think my mother wanted me to write about Ruth Schmerler, so that she would not be forgotten.