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How Does Life Go On After Holocaust? It's An Almost Impossible Question To Answer

27/01/2017 08:39 | Updated 27 January 2017
Iain Masterton via Getty Images

Seventy-two years ago today, a young man, just 21 years old, experienced his first day of freedom for 5 years. He weighed just five stone. It was freezing cold, and all he was wearing was a pair of striped pyjamas. The Soviet Army had just liberated him from Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Joe was just 17 when he handed himself into the Nazis. His sister had been deported, so he found out where she was being held and presented himself at the camp. He wanted to protect her.

Before the war, Joe had been interested in boxing. In Auschwitz, he boxed for the Nazis for an extra ration of bread. He gave the bread to his sister.

It is beyond imagination. A young man, a teenager, living in horrific squalor, in overcrowded and unheated barracks designed for 52 horses but holding 500 human beings, with barely any food or sanitation, with only a pair of thin stripped pyjamas in freezing temperature - in these conditions, he boxed, putting himself in even more danger, just for an extra piece of bread. And then, he gave it away.

His sister died in Auschwitz, age 16. Somehow, Joe found the strength to keep going until the day he was liberated.

A couple of weeks ago, Joe's story was told on an Antiques Roadshow special episode by his widow, Sybil. She had brought with her the trousers that Joe had been wearing when he was liberated - the blue and white stripped pyjamas. She said that he had kept the trousers because he felt they were 'a part of him'.

These were trousers that he had worn, every day and every night, in unimaginable conditions. Trousers he stood for the roll call wearing, in the freezing cold and the blazing sun, with no protection from the elements, where if he had stumbled and fallen, he would have been shot. The same trousers he would have slept in, boxed in to earn an extra piece of bread. And he felt that they were 'part of him'.

After he died, his wife decided to donate them to a museum. But after a few weeks, feeling she had betrayed her husband, that she had given away a part of him, she asked for them back.

Today, we mark Holocaust Memorial Day. The theme this year is 'how can life go on?' For Joe, he was liberated, and he moved to the UK where he got married, had children and grandchildren, and rebuilt his life. But his wife also showed a pre-war photo of his family. I counted the people in it - 22. Adults and children. He was the only one who survived. His wife recalled that he would wake up in the night screaming, remembering the horrors in his nightmares.

So how does life go on? It's impossible to answer that. For those like Joe that survived, life went on in different ways. For them, the Holocaust isn't something that happened in history. It isn't just a lesson in a classroom or a page in a textbook. It's something they live with every day of their lives. And for many survivors today, it is something that they stand up and speak about in front of hundreds of young people at a time, reliving their most painful memories to ensure that what happened to them, their families, and the six million Jewish men, women and children who were murdered, is never forgotten.

But the simple answer to 'how does life go on?' is that for six million Jewish men, women and children, it didn't. This Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember those people who were killed, including nearly two million whose names we don't know and may never know, because not only were they killed, but everyone who knew them was killed. Their community was wiped out, their synagogues were destroyed, and no memory of them remains, not even their name.

Karen Pollock is the Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust. For more information about our work, go to het.org.uk

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