‘If we forget, they will have gotten away with it’.
Mala Tribech MBE at Holocaust Educational Trust Conference 2015.
On Monday 6th of July this year, we approached the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings; the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide; and we remembered the recent passing of the valiant Sir Nicholas Winton on the 1st of July. He saved 669 children, mostly Jewish, from almost certain death by transporting them from occupied Prague to Britain on the operation Czech Kindertransport during the Holocaust.
So fittingly, on Monday 6th of July this year, I was one of hundreds of Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) Ambassadors and A-level / 6th year students from across the UK who made the journey to London to attend the 2015 Ambassador Conference. The Conference is a way of learning more about the Holocaust and the contemporary lessons we can learn from it. Throughout the day we heard from fascinating keynote speakers (biographies are available here), participated in workshops of our choice and were honoured to hear from some first-hand witnesses of the Holocaust. I hope this blog post will tell you a little more about the day and I will share some ‘golden nuggets’ of information or messages in the form of quotes from the speakers which inspired me. I hope they inspire you too.
I’ll mix up the order of the day and describe the first-hand witnesses’ testimonies first, as these are, in my opinion, the most important ones for you to read, especially if you’re short of time! The way I see it, in this transitory life, we should seize the chances we get to hear Holocaust witnesses’ stories since our lives coincide with theirs. This way they directly communicate their stories to us and we are more likely to share them. Otherwise, their stories are left untold and history is more likely to repeat itself. I didn’t take many notes during the testimonies as I was so engrossed, and have definitely missed details and paraphrased the quotes, but I hope I can summarise some of their stories for you here, do them justice and at least virtually introduce them to you.
First, we heard from Mala Tribich MBE. She was born in 1930 in Piotrków Trybunalski in Poland. She told us about her life as a slave labourer working with glass and plywood in the Piotrków ghetto and then as a prisoner in Ravensbruck and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. She was liberated from Bergen-Belsen by the British forces in April 1945.
Mala’s mother and sister were taken from the ghetto one day, shot in the woods and buried in mass graves. While her father and brother remained in the ghetto, the men were separated from the women, so Mala wasn’t with them. However, she was with her cousin at the time. I can’t imagine losing half of my close family and then being separated from the rest, at such a young age. The grief must have been insurmountable. Mala then described having to travel for 4 ½ days while being deported to Ravensbruck. When telling us about the dehumanising process on arrival (being stripped, tattooed, having their hair shaved off), she said: ‘We felt as if they had taken our souls’. However, she said she managed to somehow maintain a glimmer of hope while working there, as: ‘Without hope there is no chance of survival’.
On arrival to Bergen-Belsen she said: ‘What we saw defies description’. The camp was so overcrowded. When asked about the accuracy of some documentaries depicting the camp she agreed that they portray it well, but admitted that: ‘One thing film cannot portray is the smell. It was the first thing that hit us’. The smell was a mixture of the smoke billowing from the gas ovens where the Nazis were burning bodies, and the terrible living conditions of the camp through which many people contracted diseases, especially typhoid. She described the people interned in the camp as ‘skeletons shuffling around’.
Mala expressed how grateful she was to the British soldiers who liberated her from Bergen-Belsen. She said repeatedly that they really went: ‘Over and above the call of duty’ in helping them. After two years of recuperation in Sweden, Mala came to England and was reunited with her brother Ben, who we were also honoured to have attend the HET Conference this year. He was the only surviving member of her close family. Mala described the rest of her life as really happy; she got married in 1950 and had two children and three grandchildren. We were so lucky that she came to the Conference to tell us her story, which she also tells in schools and colleges across the UK as part of the HET’s Outreach Programme.
I’d describe Mala as having a heart of gold. Despite all she has experienced she has a really positive outlook on life and her gratitude towards those who liberated her was overwhelming. I’m so glad that she has had a good life after the horrors she was subjected to, and that she has a lovely new family too. She is a beautiful lady, inside and out.
We then heard Bernard Levy’s account of his experience as a liberator of Bergen-Belsen during the Holocaust. Bernard Levy was only 19 when he arrived at the camp in April 1945 as a corporal in the British Army. His main job was to spray everyone entering and leaving the camp with disinfectant, given the typhoid epidemic there. Also, because of the terrible conditions of the camp at that time, it was near impossible to distinguish the living bodies from the corpses. However, this was Bernard’s job. This must have been an unimaginably harrowing task. I personally can’t imagine being able to do that at just 19 years of age.
Indeed, it took a while for Bernard to feel ready to tell his story as the scenes he witnessed at Bergen-Belsen horrified him so much; ‘it’s strangled me for all these years’. He described the 68 years following liberation as ‘years of silence’. We were really honoured that he was able to tell us his story in July 2015, his first public testimony, and hope to relay what he experienced and his messages to us to everyone we speak to on the HET journey.
Bernard described himself as being ‘war weary’ on arrival at Bergen-Belsen, after ‘touch and go’ situations during the war. He said he owed a lot to the aid work of refugee organisations when the camp was liberated. In this respect, Bernard commended Germany on how much it has come on as a democratic country since the war, especially in welcoming refugees. Germany currently takes in the most asylum seekers in the EU, where 53% of refugees worldwide come from Syria, given the civil war there. It struck me how passionate Bernard was about what he thinks we must do now: ‘We have to do everything we can to spread peace and love’.
Bernard is an inspiring, insightful man and I am also really pleased he lived a happy life after the war and had children and grandchildren of his own. It took great courage to speak out about his experience and I am so thankful to him for doing so.
There was a ‘question and answer’ session with Mala and Bernard after they gave their testimonies and it was amazing to see a liberator and a survivor on the same stage 70 years later, bound by the common purpose of telling their stories to remember those who perished and educate others. When asked why they do this, Mala replied:
‘Our stories are difficult to tell but I do it for those who didn’t survive. It is our duty to remember them. This is down to us, as if we do not, it is as if they never existed. If we forget, they will have gotten away with it’.
Mhiara McKenzie, another Regional Ambassador for the HET for Scotland thanked Mala and Bernard for sharing their stories with us on behalf of everyone there.Another Holocaust survivor, the amazing Zigi Shipper, also attended the event. I met him at the Conference last year and he also gave his testimony to me in Glasgow in 2009 when I did the Lessons From Auschwitz project. I was honoured to be tasked with asking him why we should remember the Holocaust, and this was his answer…
‘It is so important that young people know and there are few of us left. I am so proud of all the young ambassadors who work and travel to tell others. At least I know somebody is doing something. I am so proud of them and they give me hope that our stories are never forgotten’.
To read and hear voice clips of Zigi’s story, please see this link.
Now I’ve described the Holocaust witnesses’ accounts, I’ll summarise the rest of the Conference in order.
To begin, Karen Pollock MBE introduced the Conference and told us more about Sir Nicholas Winton’s story. Then we heard from Sir Peter Bazalgette, the Chair of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, who told us about the interesting new development of a memorial and learning centre in London. He spoke to us about how we, the younger generation, are tasked with making society more ‘liberal and humane’. He also spoke about the digital age we live in which has, at times, facilitated the radicalisation of teenagers and how it has created an ‘empathy deficit’. I supported his conclusion that ‘we need a society of empathetic citizens’ as I think that while we now benefit from having access to so much information at the tap of a touch screen, we can, at times, be too distracted to filter out the wrong from the right, the hate speech from the empathetic speech. Being mindful of what and how we communicate and accountable for what we say is key.
We then heard from the captivating historian and former Creative Director of History Programmes for the BBC Laurence Rees. He spoke about a documentary he made called ‘Talking to Nazis’ and showed us clips of some interviews with Nazis he had filmed, explaining how they portrayed the moral position of the film-makers through the form of questioning. The clips explored five themes: scapegoats, conspiracy, renunciation, hate and racism; which helped us understand the culture and traits which existed at the time of the Holocaust, and still exist today. It was clear from the description of scapegoating which existed then as a ‘simple shorthand conflation fallacy’ (ie. Jews = communism), it still exists in many forms today (e.g. Immigrants = economic crisis). Political parties and politicians are especially guilty of this and can often be very ill-informed on sensitive issues.
Rees emphasised that we should ‘focus on the culture around us which shapes us’ and our society, as opposed to being too individualistic, and in recognition of the fact that the culture at the time shaped many Germans’ minds and guided their actions. Indeed, I believe that to this day our culture heavily influences our actions and we should try to make sure it is as empathetic, compassionate and humane as possible. Rees was one of my favourite speakers and I would really recommend watching his documentary.
There were many workshops to choose from which dealt with different issues, but I will only describe the ones I attended. As I enjoyed studying the French resistance at University, I chose a great workshop called ‘Defiance: Jewish resistance and rescue during the Holocaust’ led by HET Educational Officer Martin Winstone. He told us about the obstacles to resistance during the Holocaust, such as ‘power imbalances, living conditions, lack of advanced knowledge and fear of reprisals etc.’. However, we learnt about Jewish resistance (the peak of which was in 1943), armed resistance ghetto uprisings, partisan/guerrilla resistance, rescue and spiritual resistance. These were all ways of fighting back and asserting dignity and humanity. Creating acts of culture was a creative form of defiance and ultimately immortalised the culture and spirits of the victims of the Holocaust. For more on this and to get involved in the #donthatecreate campaign the Scottish Regional Ambassadors for HET have created, please follow this link.
After lunch I went to an eye-opening workshop by Professor David Cesarani from Royal Holloway College at the University of London called ‘Saints or Sinners? How should we remember the (in)actions, of Britain in the Holocaust?’. He spoke about how the liberation of the concentration camps by the Brits is often described as a ‘success story’ but then explained the conflicted history of the Jews in Britain and the Brits’ ambivalence towards the Jews during the Holocaust.
There was then a panel discussion on ‘Representing the Holocaust’ about how we talk and think about the Holocaust with journalist Hugo Rifkind; Professor Robert Eaglestone at Royal Holloway; documentary filmmaker Rex Bloomstein; Dr Caroline Sturdy Cools from the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University; and Karen Pollock MBE, Chief Executive of the HET. This involved discussions of social media, film, literature, physical evidence of the Holocaust. With regards to social media we emphasised how important it is to combat hate speech and misinformation where we see it, to make sure it remains a safe and open space to exchange information and tackle myths. On this note, I’d recommend getting involved in the #NoHateSpeech youth campaign by the Council of Europe, with more information available on this link.
Nick Robinson, BBC political editor, wrapped up the Conference by talking about ‘What you do counts: The role of young people in remembering the Holocaust’. He spoke about the importance of the work of the Ambassadors and the HET as well as his grandparents who fled from Germany during the war.
It was a pleasure to meet the other Regional Ambassadors from across the UK at the Conference and to hear about their ideas and work plans for this year. The Conference definitely challenged and inspired me. The Twitter coverage of the event is summarised here on Storify. It includes photos of participants holding boards explaining why they think it’s important to remember the Holocaust.
I will continue talking in schools and want to create combined Holocaust and Human Rights Education workshops for schools in the Glasgow and East Renfrewshire area. I would also love to arrange a Survivor Visit. If you’re interested, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will continue blogging, sharing HET educational materials and memorial activities to schools, universities and through the online community we have at www.facebook.com/hetrascotland.
Thanks for reading and thanks to the HET and all the speakers for an unforgettable Conference! 🙂
PS. Photo credits go to the tweeters on the Storify link above, no copyright infringement intended. Please let me know if you would like any specific credits to be added or photos to be removed. Thank you for your understanding.