At first when I saw the title of our theme this year: Communities together: Build a Bridge, I was unsure whether my own story could really help to illustrate the point – so extreme were the circumstances.
So let me start there and see where it leads us.
In 1939 my town Bielsko was very close to the German and Czechoslovakian frontiers. I had a wonderful childhood – in winter there was skiing and ice skating. In summer everyone went hiking and climbing in the nearby mountains. Bielsko had a mixed population, comprising of German, Polish, Czechs and Jewish citizens who were all well integrated into the community. But, when the German armies invaded, the ethnic Germans turned against their Polish neighbours and the Jews. As old resentments re-surfaced, the Polish citizens also turned against the Jewish population.
We fled to Lublin. Soon we were herded into the Ghetto which was horrendously overcrowded, living conditions were unbearable, there were round-ups, deportations, starvation and then came an epidemic of typhus and cholera.
My mother, made contact with a Catholic priest in the city, and risked her life to teach English in the church in return for food.
We attempted five escapes and eventually we succeeded, and for some months we sheltered in Zabia Wola, a tiny Jewish rural community south of Lublin. In 1942 deportation was imminent and we fled into the forest. We lived in the wild for weeks, and eventually made our way back to Lublin – to the vicarage of the Catholic priest, F. Krasowski. He saved our lives. He obtained non-Jewish identity documents for us and worked out a survival plan: mother and I were to join Polish workers who were rounded up for forced labour in Germany. But we had to part from my Father who was later betrayed and was executed.
My mother and I went to a collection point where the SS were holding non-Jewish Poles. Our new documents were accepted and we were sent to an ammunition plant I.G Farben in Germany. I believe we would have survived the war there, but we were betrayed by a fellow-worker who became suspicious of our Polish accents. We were charged with entering Germany illegally, having documents that did not belong to us and being Jewish. Each offence carried the death penalty. We were lined up to be executed by firing squad.
At the last moment our death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in Auschwitz and we were delivered to the gates of hell. There we were still to be interrogated. On arrival we were stripped, whipped, shaved and tattooed. From then on, we had no names. I was now number 39934 and my mother was number 39933.
For many months I was assigned to dozens of hard labour work groups, my mother was given a job in the camp sick bay. In spring 1944 I was transferred to work near the gas chambers – the centre of extermination in Auschwitz-Birkenau. For eight months I worked in the doomed ‘Kanada Kommando’, sorting the clothes and belongings stripped from the Jews murdered in the nearby the gas chambers.
During this period I witnessed more than half a million people – half a million people- sent to their deaths. We knew roughly how many were murdered because we could count the trains that arrived daily and knew how many the SS could cram into the cattle trucks.
On 11 November 1944 my mother and I along with 100 other women were evacuated to a camp in south-eastern Germany. There was almost no food but I had a saviour. A German civilian woman working next to me placed herself in grave danger in order to bring me food. She saved us from certain starvation.
By this time the Russian Army was advancing fast; liberation seemed close. But on 18 February 1945 we were driven out on foot into the wilderness, without food and barefoot into the snow. Our column was joined by thousands of women from neighbouring camps but every day we were fewer as women collapsed from lack of food, exhaustions, froze to death or were shot. We covered over 100 miles on foot over a mountain range and reached Trautenau, a camp in Czechoslovakia. There we were loaded into open coal trucks and began a nightmare journey of six days and seven nights, until we reached Porta Westfalica in north-west Germany. We, few who survived worked in a cave 11 shafts underground in an electronic factory.
A few weeks later we were evacuated again. At the siding in Belsen we were driven into almost airtight container wagons, soon we were gasping for air and many had suffocated. Of the 100 women evacuated from Auschwitz only 12 of us were still alive when we were liberated on the 14 April 1945 by the Americans who saved us from certain death.
Immediately my mother and I began to work as interpreters first to the US Forces, then to the British Military Government and later for the Quaker Relief Teams. Following a year and a half in the Displaced Persons camps we were given permits to come to the UK.
In September 1946, Britain was still recovering from the war. It was a time of harsh austerity. People who thought they knew what suffering meant were unwilling to listen to survivors. I had no practical help, no financial support, no welfare. Nothing. Even Jewish people told us not to speak of our experiences in case we upset others. Decades passed before the community recognised the need for lessons to be learnt from the Holocaust.
So let me come back to our theme. What does it mean to Build a Bridge?
I experienced the best and the worst of what this theme is about. I saw the Jewish community of Zabia Wola annihilated. I was sent to Auschwitz because I was betrayed by a fellow-worker. But we would not have survived if the Catholic priest had not supplied us with non Jewish documents. We probably would have starved to death without the German woman who risked her life providing a few morsels of food in the factory. I would certainly not have survived the Death March if I had not been carried by friends after sustaining a head injury from a rifle butt.
In Auschwitz-Birkenau the inmates were segregated and categorised. The SS deliberately set inmates against one another. However, it was almost impossible to survive on your own and strong bonds were common – mutual support always saved lives.
Never again shall there be such a crime! Brave words indeed. The future can only be secured if communities are prepared to set aside all political, cultural and religious differences and work together. Communities need to build bridges and stand together. That is the best way to prevent a repetition in future.
Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity to build bridges between communities – to unite, to remember, reflect and to learn. Building bridges, finding common ground and embracing differences must be the answer.