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Holocaust survivors have a message for today

A new Holocaust learning centre in Yorkshire is playing a vital role as the far right in modern Britain gains strength. PETER LAZENBY reports

IT WAS 50 years before Auschwitz survivor Arek Hersh could talk about his horrific experiences.

For decades he had trouble sleeping at his home in Leeds, where he eventually arrived after he was liberated from Theresianstadt, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

It was only when in the 1990s he began talking and writing about his experiences that he began to find peace. The story is the same for many other Holocaust survivors.

Today a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors in Britain devote their time to giving talks in schools and colleges, passing on the horrors of the Holocaust — and what caused it, and its relevance today — to new generations of young people.

Arek is 90. One of his recent talks was at the new Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre at the University of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. It opened in September last year.

Arek’s meeting was a packed gathering. One theme that emerged was the increasing importance of ensuring that the lessons of the Holocaust are passed on in the face of the rise today of the far right across Europe, including in the UK — and taking action to confront and defeat the threat.

Fascist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, known as Tommy Robinson, was able to mobilise 10,000 supporters when he staged a rally in London in 2018. In February this year 3,000 of Robinson’s street thugs rallied outside the BBC’s studios in Salford in Greater Manchester to protest against a Panorama TV investigative documentary exposing Robinson’s racism, fascism, violence and criminality.

Arek was born in Poland and is Jewish. He was first arrested in 1940 at the age of 11, just for being Jewish. He was sent to a local labour camp where he witnessed beatings and hangings, and had to help bury the dead. The nazi extermination machine had not yet got into full swing.

He survived Otoschno death camp and the Lodz ghetto, then Auschwitz, all in Poland, then Buchenwald in Germany, where he arrived after a forced march which left the roadside littered with bodies. Any who collapsed from exhaustion or hunger on the way were shot in the back of the head by their SS guards. Three thousand began the march. Three hundred arrived at Buchenwald. Today Arek remembers all that.

The new centre in Huddersfield where Arek gave his recent talk is a joint project between the Leeds-based Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association (HSFA) and Huddersfield University. It was a long time in the planning, coming to fruition thanks to a £1.2 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

But why did it take until the 1990s before Arek and other Holocaust survivors in the UK began to speak about their experiences? Why did they remain silent for 50 years?

Lilian Black is chair of the survivors’ association in Leeds. She is second generation, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her father was a Hungarian Jew, Jeno Scwarcz, who changed his name to its English equivalent, Eugene Black. He survived Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dora-Mittlebau camp in Germany where as a 15-year-old slave labourer he dug tunnels for V2 rockets in the late stages of the war. He contracted pneumonia, but survived thanks to a sympathetic Luftwaffe (German air force) doctor who helped him, calling him “my little Jew.”

After the war Eugene came to Britain, married, made his home in Wharfedale in Yorkshire, and worked as a warehouseman for Marks and Spencer. He died in 2016, aged 88, but not before he spoke publicly and widely about his experiences.

Lilian said: “After the war nobody really wanted to know. There were not many Jewish survivors, and they were pretty marginalised. Their homes in their own countries had been taken over so they had nowhere to go back to. Some who tried to go back were murdered.

“My father came to England but people did not really believe the horrific stories and people wanted to get on with their lives. The survivors didn’t want to forget, but they didn’t know how to communicate such horrors. Then when they got married and had their own families they didn’t want to burden them with it.

“How could you tell your child that its grandparents were gassed?

“There were family parties but there was hardly anyone there. My father had scars, physical and mental.

“When my dad came out in regard to his own story, that was when Spielberg spent the profits from the 1995 Schindler’s List film to gather 58,000 testimonies world-wide — interviews. My father was one of them. That was the first time it came out. He sat for four hours of testimony. It was the first time I’d heard it.

“He joined the friendship association and I joined with him and he started talking in schools. He never shut up then.”

Emma King is director of the Huddersfield Holocaust centre. She said: “It started around 1995. One thing was the film Schindler’s List. Another was the 50th anniversary of the end of the second world war. Then in about 1996 the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association was founded.

Originally it was a social friendship society, bringing people together to share their experiences. Very quickly it became an educational organisation. Now we have a legacy, with second and third generation taking on the responsibility.”

The meeting at the Huddersfield centre watched a film, “Arek,” about a return visit he made to his home town of Sieradz in Poland a few years ago, to the Lodz ghetto, to the site of his first camp, and also to Auschwitz.

He told how his older brother, who had escaped the nazis’ clutches, offered to surrender himself to save Arek. But the nazis were going to take them all anyway.

Then there was his arrival at Auschwitz in 1944.

Arek’s wife Jean, who is English, spoke up at the meeting.

“As they got out of the wagons there was a senior SS officer. He was Dr Mengele. He was looking for twins to experiment on.”

Arek told how he instinctively saved his own life at Auschwitz by dashing from a line of old people, women and children selected for gassing, to a line of male adults and young men selected for work.

Soon after that he was tattooed with his new identity — B7603. He rolled up his sleeve and displayed it.

“After that you didn’t have a name. You were a number,” he said.

Arek finally ended up at Theresianstadt, a camp for Czechoslovakian Jews, which was liberated by Russia’s Red Army in 1945. On the tortuous rail journey there, travelling in open-topped trucks blasted by the weather, he tried to eat his shoes, with grass, such was his hunger.

The horror ended when the Red Army arrived.

“The Russians brought us rice pudding. We started to look a little bit better. They did everything they could, the Russian army. They offered to leave the SS guards with us, to do what we want. But we didn’t.”

Arek found out after the end of the war that 81 of his relatives, including his closest family — mother, father, sisters and brother — had been murdered by the nazis.

So what is the relevance of the Holocaust experiences of Arek, Eugene and the other survivors in the face of the rise of the far-right in Europe today, including the UK?

Jean Hersh is quick to answer.

“It’s no use being passive,” she said. “I abhor hatred of any kind towards any groups in society. We have to stand up to these people. This was the start of what happened in Germany, and I am quite sure that the German people did not realise what was happening, and then it was too late.”

Arek has a pretty straightforward philosophy towards opposing today’s neonazis.

“Wherever they are, we must be there but with double their numbers,” he told the Morning Star.

Arek has written his story in a book, A Detail of History. The title is a quote from fascist French Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1987. It was Le Pen’s dismissal of the nazis’ gas chambers and the Holocaust.

The book is ISBN 978-0-95362280-5-6. It costs £6, and is published by Quill Press in association with The Holocaust Centre, The Hub, Haskell House, 152 West End Lane, London NW6 1SD.

The Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre at the University of Huddersfield welcomes visitors, including school and college parties. Its website is www.holocaustlearning.org.uk and e-mail helchud.ac.uk. The centre is run by the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association, and hosted by the University of Huddersfield.

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