Obituary: Ruth Adler
Saturday 26 February 1994
RUTH ADLER was the first Scottish Development Officer for Amnesty International. Her life was driven by three passionate concerns: for justice, for children and for her family. To all these she brought a formidable intelligence, unflagging energy, extraordinary determination and, above all, generosity of spirit and loving kindness. These passions were to touch the lives of countless people.
Born in 1944 to parents who, as newly qualified lawyers, were unable to pursue their profession in Nazi Germany and came to Britain as refugees in the 1930s, Ruth went to North London Collegiate School and Somerville College, Oxford. Moral philosophy remained an abiding interest and she subsequently obtained a doctorate in jurisprudence at Edinburgh University.
Ruth Adler was an applied philosopher who believed that philosophy could illuminate questions of public policy. Her PhD thesis and the book based on it, Taking Juvenile Justice Seriously (1985), which brought together her long experience as a member of Lothian Region's Children's Panel and her 'practical philosophy', sought to achieve the coherence of theory and practice which she regarded as a necessary condition for achieving justice for children, a coherence needed more today than ever
Adler knew, however, that for rights to be protected and justice achieved sound theory and individual commitment are not enough; organisations are needed. She was a founder of Scottish Women's Aid in 1974 and later turned her energy to establishing the Scottish Child Law Centre.
While much of Adler's intellectual energy and practical activities was rooted in her vision of the role of the law in the protection and promotion of individual interests, she had an equally clear vision of its potential deficiencies and injustices. Typically she was determined to reduce these. From 1987 to 1991 she was Assistant to the Lay Observer for Scotland, now the Legal Ombudsman, responsible for investigating complaints against solicitors. Here she combined a dispassionate analysis of evidence with a passionate commitment to the redressing of wrongs.
All these achievements, and from 1988 her work as a JP, could reasonably be thought enough for a short working life but they tell only a small part of Ruth Adler's existence, which was centred on her parents, Lotte and Rudi Oppenheimer, Michael her husband and Jonathan and Benjamin her sons. Unusually for a woman of her generation and her abilities Ruth was sure about the balance between her public and her private life and clear about her purpose and contribution. Her paid work was therefore, until her Amnesty job, always part- time and her work was integrated, apparently without conflict, with her family and community life.
Ruth Adler was able to build bridges between different worlds and different people. The Adler household, with its warm, inclusive hospitality, draws all manner of people to it who are cared for and connected to each other in ways they never expected. This must be written in the present because what Ruth helped create was built to last. Children have a special place here, the object of real attention and interest; even those who met Ruth Adler only rarely remember her vividly and mourn her death.
Adler's power to integrate was also evident in her internationalism and her grasp and celebration of different cultures. Although not conventionally religious she was proud of her Jewish past and was Secretary of the Edinburgh Jewish Literary Society and President in its centenary year, in 1988. She kept roots in her parents' and grandparents' culture, being bilingual in German, and translated several books on legal theory. She was also deeply committed to Scotland, her adopted country, and determined that the protection of human rights should be strengthened through Amnesty's firm connection with Scottish institutions.
To this last job with Amnesty, at which she worked until a few days before her death, Adler brought her history, her philosophy, her head and her heart. As she fought her death (from cancer), which her doctors had expected to come much earlier, her family and close friends came to see in this work the remarkable integration in Ruth Adler's life of the individual and the social, the private and the public, the personal and the political. Her own experience confirmed the conclusions reached by Bruno Bettelheim in The Unformed Heart (1986), his analysis of the determinants of survival in Nazi concentration camps.
The strongest motive for staying alive is that one has something for which one is determined to remain alive at all costs . . . there is no problem as long as one has strong attachments to others, for whose sake one wishes to remain alive . . . The sheer will to live cannot take the place of the strength one derives from outside support . . . This is why those . . . who lovingly work for one's return to the living are the strongest influence imaginable, the most powerful motive for staying alive.
Ruth Adler lived for her family; she also lived and worked lovingly for other people to protect their rights, to secure them justice and, through Amnesty, to return them to the living.
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