Holocaust Memorial Day: Survivors Confront Trauma And Necessity Of Telling Their Stories, 70 Years On

Holocaust Survivors Confront Trauma And Necessity Of Telling Their Stories, 70 Years On

On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Huffington Post UK is running a series of pieces looking at how we remember the Holocaust: The victims and perpetrators and the untold stories, on what's likely to be one of the last major commemorations with living survivors.

As survivors, families and educators mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau this week, a fact will weigh on their minds. This is likely to be the last significant date that more than a handful of survivors are alive to tell their stories.

In a decade's time, survivors old enough to remember the Holocaust will be nearing 100 years old. By the centenary, the genocide will pass from living memory into history. Survivors themselves know this acutely, says Aviva Trup, manager of Jewish Care's Holocaust Survivors Centre.

Some will only record their testimonies on their death beds, some will never speak at all. "Suddenly something can happen in their lives, and they will say, I need to tell you now. Sometimes people can be in hospital and we get a call saying, 'come and record my story'. Our therapists sit down with survivors who have not spoken about it for 70 years, and some will never be ready. We still get 20 referrals a month, and half we don’t know exist. People are so resilient, they have not needed our services."

For those that do speak to students, it can be traumatic to relive the most damaging of memories on a near-weekly basis. Others will use art or creative writing to preserve their memories. "They paint what makes them feel good, they use a lot of colour because black and white can be a trigger," Trup says.

Others have taken on the task of preserving memory too, with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust commissioning works by seven British writers and artists including Stephen Fry, from poetry, ceramics, sculpture, animation to film, to tell the stories of genocide survivors.

Five Holocaust survivors tell Huffington Post how they tell their stories, and the parts that are still too hard to speak about.

Sabina Miller, 92, was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1923. She came from a close family with two brothers and a sister. In 1939, when she was 16, the Nazis ordered her family into the Warsaw Ghetto. Her mother and father died of typhus, and it’s presumed the Nazis murdered all her siblings. Sabina escaped the Ghetto, living on the run in the countryside, and eventually ending up in a slave labour camp for Poles in Germany, where no one discovered her Jewish identity. In 1947, she came to England with her husband. She is a prolific speaker and has been awarded the Freedom of the City of London for her work on Holocaust education. Her story has been illustrated by visually impaired artist Kimberly Burrows as part of a series on art and memory by the Holocaust Memorial Trust.

"It took me about a year after I moved to England to start saying I was a Jew again. I would say, when people asked, ‘I’m from Poland, but I’m also Jewish’. English people thought that was strange, ‘I’m not asking for your religion?!’. But I wanted to say it. In England I found a home. I love this country more than anything. It gave me freedom. I can say out loud ‘I am a Jew’.

"Anti-Semitism in Poland was rife. My sister was banned from university because she was Jewish, and eventually the place she got to study made her stand apart from the other students, as a Jew. And after all the hardship and terror of the war, you come to England, and all you get is understanding, and a new life, and a wonderful community.

"We had a very happy family life in Poland. My parents always played with us, took us out for tea and spent a lot of time with us. I had a dream of a childhood. I remember asking my mother why everyone was so angry with us, why there was so much hate. You couldn’t understand it.

"And you cannot imagine what it was like when we were sent into the ghetto, even now it is very hard to describe. There were bodies in the streets, covered up with newspaper, dead. You saw it, and you knew what it was. But it became something you saw everyday. And it just made you think, ‘I want to survive’. It sounds very harsh, but that’s how it was.

"For a very long time I never told anyone what had happened to me. After I came to England, we talked quietly amongst ourselves, with other survivors, very good friends you acquire. Now it’s discussed everywhere but it really wasn’t before.

"I am very lucky to have my daughter, my son died in an accident, but my daughter knows my life story from A-to-Z. I have six granddaughters who are deeply immersed in it. They boast about their grandmother, as if I was an important person! They will take over. I am sure of that."

Freddie Knoller, 93, was born in Vienna but because of rife anti-Semitism after the Anschluss [the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938] with Germany, he left Austria with his two brothers, and travelled to Antwerp. He later fled again to France when the Nazis invaded Belgium, briefly being captured but then escaping to Paris. In occupied Paris, he worked with Nazi soldiers taking them to nightclubs until a run-in with a Gestapo officer. Working for the French resistance in the south of France, Freddie was betrayed to the Nazis by an ex-girlfriend. In 1943, he was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He survived a death march, and ended up in Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated in April 1945. His story has been made into a BBC documentary.

"Until 35 years after liberation, I didn’t talk to anyone. I wanted to forget everything about it. But one Friday night in 1980, I was sitting with my two daughters, and they said, 'why don’t you tell us about what happened to you, that you were in Auschwitz?' And they told me that it wasn’t fair that I wouldn't talk, because they needed to know, that they wanted to tell their children.

"It suddenly made sense to me. So we sat together that evening, until 4 o’clock in the morning, I talked. And it was wonderful for me. I had had so many nightmares. After I spoke about it, I had no more nightmares.

"Once I started talking I felt the world really should know about it. Even now, at my young age of 93, I still go to schools at least once a week.

"But even now, there are still difficult parts to speak about. There are things I am ashamed to talk about. I did things that under normal circumstances that I would never do. We were sleeping in barracks, all the men together and I saw one of them put a piece of bread under the mattress. I feel so ashamed to say that, the only thought in my head was my survival, by hook or by crook.

"I took that piece of bread. I ate it. And I feel very ashamed about it. But this is one of the things that I want the world to know - how desperate we were. I had to run with 25kg of cement on my back. Men collapsed all the time, I had to keep up my strength. We did anything to keep going, there was no solidarity, no question of making friends. I don’t think people realise that side of it.

"My hope is that in 20 years that our stories will live through books, videos and archives. I hope the children I speak to will tell their children my story. But I don’t want my whole identity to be about that period of time, most definitely not. We are more than that. I have lived a long life. And thank god I am here in England."

Harry Olmer, 83, was born in Sosnowiec, Poland, where he was one of six children. He was an inmate in Plaszow concentration camp near Krakow which was featured in the film Schindler’s List. He worked as a slave labourer in the Skyarzysko munitions factory, and spent the last two years of the war in Buchewald and then Theresienstadt concentration camps. He came to England through the Central British Fund who helped youngsters who survived the camps.

"The conditions were horrific, in the munitions factory it was the most terrible place you could possibly imagine. No one can picture it. Everyone was yellow, they were pickled. There was the bitter smell, everywhere, no one could clean themselves, there was no sanitation, no showers, nothing. We wore the clothes we had worn when we left home.

"There was a little solidarity, we did help each other from time-to-time. But for a lot of us, it was everyone for himself, what else could we do?

"I was extremely sick when we were liberated, I could barely move, I couldn’t talk, I didn’t know where I was. My whole body was in spasm. One of the hardest parts is remembering that time, it still hurts to talk about it. A nurse came over to me one day and said ‘Have you got a sister called Sara? I’m sure she’s alive. I saw her six weeks ago.’ I couldn’t speak, I was so ill. So she went away.

"It always gets me, that memory of being there. Many days later, we were in Prague and I recognised a voice from an open top lorry going past, someone shouted, ‘Your sister is alive.’ But I still didn’t know how to find her.

"My name was not on the list of boys [the charity] was able to bring to England, I was too weak. But one of the boys had found his father alive in Poland and wanted to go there, so I went under his name. I was in the north of Scotland in a hostel with 27 boys, and later in Glasgow. Most of the boys found relatives but I was totally alone. It was a very poor hostel, six of us to a room.

"I still hadn’t found my sister, I wrote to the Red Cross, to everywhere that I could. A boy in my hostel eventually got in touch with his uncle who was from the same town. And one day he got a letter from his uncle, and he had another letter he didn’t know who it was from. Suddenly I recognised my sister’s handwriting. And she wrote and told me our brother was also alive. She had no idea I was living until that time.

"I was only 17 and I knew no one and I didn't speak English. So I studied, I went to evening classes, I took my exams a year later and then the Scottish Highers. Finally, I got a place at Glasgow University eventually, and studied for five years in dentistry, but the condition was that I would join the army to do the British national service.

"And the first posting was in Germany. There was nothing I could do about that, but it was very strange, I admit. While I was there, I stayed only with the British soldiers, I didn’t want to mix with Germans.

"I never told anyone my story until 1972, when the Imperial War Museum got in touch. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. It was terrible, very, very hard indeed. The researcher had to drag it out of me. Now I go into schools and tell them about my life. But most of all, I am happy that my children know my story well, especially my daughters. I know that they will keep telling the story, they will make it live on."

Eve Kugler, 84, was born in Halle, Germany, and was seven years old when her happy family life was disrupted by Kristallnacht, where Jewish shops and homes were destroyed. Eve and her sister were sent to a children’s home, eventually taking the place of two sick children to get precious visas to America. Remarkably, her parents survived concentration camps, and the family reunited. Eve worked as journalist in New York before coming to the UK with husband. She goes every year on the March of the Living commemoration with young British Jews to Auschwitz.

In 1941 the United States issued visas for several hundred Jewish children trapped in French concentration camps, but the French Resistance was unable to help enough children escape, so they were given to the Jewish welfare organisation that ran the home we lived in. But they were for children who were orphaned or whose parents were in concentration camps, so we didn’t get one.

"At the last minute, two children got sick and my sister and I took their place. We weren’t supposed to go. I don’t know what happened to the child whose place I took. I used to think about that child a lot. I live with survivors’ guilt, but it was very specific guilt. It wasn’t just a feeling of ‘why am I alive and others not?’ I know why. It’s because of a specific person. I have to live for those who didn’t make it. I feel that when I tell my story. I owe it to them.

"I am one of the people who really don’t remember much, neither does my younger sister, who was hidden in France. I only remember stepping off the ship onto the wooden pier in New York, and that’s my earliest memory. My memories are basically what I heard from my elder sister, and my mother. I sailed from Lisbon to New York when I was 10 years old, and I have no memories of it at all. I remember thinking, later on in my life, I don’t want to live like this, with no memory, I don’t want my life to start aged 11.

"I was a journalist at the time, and I wrote a book about the whole family’s story, Shattered Crystals. My mother took a huge interest in the book, she wanted the story to get out, she kept saying ‘people have to know’. I always think now, the work I do, going into schools, is for her. I do it for her.

"I have come to feel that it is an obligation, a duty, for those who survived. I find it easier to speak about my experience than some others, because I have less emotional memories. Hitler robbed me of my memories."

Renie Inow, 85, came over on the Kindertransport in May 1939, when she was nine years old, from the town of Wuppertal in Germany. She never found out what happened to her parents, who are believed to have perished in the Łódź Ghetto or in a nearby concentration camp. She has a 94-year-old sister, living in Israel.

"I am lucky, to have been old enough to remember my parents. I remember sitting on my father’s lap, holding his bow as he played the cello. We went on long walks as a family on a Sunday, through the countryside. I remember the Nazis marching through towns, I remember the chaos of Kristallnacht, and I remember how frightened I was.

"My aunt had been living in England and in spite of the fact that her husband died nine days before I arrived in London, she took me in. I was evacuated with my three cousins during the war. I can still recall, even now, how frightened I felt. I can still feel it.

"The people I was evacuated to, Mr and Mrs Barnes, were very good, simple people who were good to me but they could never understand what was going on inside my head. One day, and I can picture it just so, she was standing just to the side of me, and she said to me, ‘do you want to call us Mum and Dad?’

"She couldn’t have meant any better, but I thought ‘how can she ask this of me?’ I was shocked, but I didn’t want to hurt her. But I started to rationalise it, I called my parents Mutti and Vati. So I thought, 'ok, well I want to please her, I will call them Mum and Dad, but when I say it I will think of those words as being like ‘Mary and John’.

"Even now, I rarely speak about anything that happened to me. The only times I have spoken about it in public was to the people in my little town in West Germany. I’ve had therapy now, many of us had. I think, for most of my life, I have appeared to be happy. But whatever I was feeling inside, nobody ever knew. I always felt as if I was in a bubble. I could be jolly, people thought I was a happy-go-lucky person. But I wasn’t.

"Even now I get that feeling, I look down at the plate on the table and feel detached. At one point, I worked at a housing association with people from all over the world, and I loved talking to tenants who weren’t born here. I could relate to them, I think.

"It is only really in the last few years of my life that I feel I can start to be myself. All the time, at school, at work, I have never liked to belong to anything, I never felt at ease in groups. I felt like I couldn’t be me. As a child, I never felt like I was ever relaxed. I remember speaking to other ‘Kinder’ about their strong desire to be English. I don’t remember feeling that at all, what I really, really wanted was to be able to be myself. I didn’t want to be a new person.

"I think I could have given more to the world. I don’t have children. I haven’t spoken out much. Even now I feel, that I haven’t always been in touch with my emotions."


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