Monday, 29 September, 2014

In a powerful speech at our resources launch for HMD 2015, Joan Salter, a child survivor of the Holocaust, explores why she chooses to share her story in support of Holocaust Memorial Day; to raise awarenesss of the Holocaust and its significance to us all as human beings.

My name now is Joan Salter but when I was born in February 1940 in Brussels, I was Fanny Zimetbaum. My parents were Polish Jews who had lived in Western Europe for most of their adult lives.  After the occupation in May 1940, my father was rounded up and put into a prison awaiting deportation. My mother was able to make her way to Paris where many of her family lived. The means of our survival is a complicated one but basically when the main rounding up of women and children occurred in Paris in July 1942, a policeman helped us to escape and we were smuggled down into Vichy.

In the winter months of 1942, as Vichy capitulated, my mother escaped over the Pyrenees into Spain together with my sister and myself.  We were captured at the border by the Spanish police but were not turned back to what would have been certain death.

There were about a hundred Jewish children in Spain and Portugal and after much bureaucratic wrangling, the US government agreed that those aged 15 and under were to be evacuated. They refused to take any adults. So in June 1943 my sister and I sailed to the USA. We were separated and I was fostered; my name, language and customs wiped out and I became Joan Farell.

In 1947, my sister and I came to the UK to be reunited with our traumatised parents. Believe me it was no fairy tale ending. My mother and I no longer even had a common language. My grandparents, nine out of ten of my aunts and uncles and all of my cousins had been murdered in the Holocaust. Being part of this dysfunctional family, coping with all the emotional and financial consequences of our experiences was not where I wanted to be.

So why would I want to re-live this horrendous time in my life by giving talks about it. Surely it would be better just to lock it away somewhere deep inside, forget it, move on. Why not?

Because I believe, in all sincerity, that the murder of six million human beings is not down to a handful of psychopaths and one rogue nation. It was perpetuated by all the people who looked away, by all the nations and political leaders who shut their eyes and their doors. By those who turned back the S.S. St Louis, by those who spread prejudice and by those who turned against their neighbours and by those who so readily accepted the demonization of men, women and children they did not even know. By those who locked their fellow human beings in sealed box cars and never questioned ‘why?’. By those who built the gas chambers and then went home to their wives and children. By those who pushed the able-bodied in one direction and the children and disabled in another and knew full well why - but didn’t care.

The Holocaust and all genocides are evidence of how thin the veneer of civilisation is, how easily stereotypes are accepted and how easily prejudice is spread once fanned by propaganda and lies. How vile human beings can be to one another.

I, like every other victim and survivor of a genocide here today, do not need an official date in the calendar to remember. The importance of Holocaust Memorial Day is as a focus of remembrance beyond the victim communities. It gives a voice and a face to the victims. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, by its organisation and distribution of resources on the Holocaust and genocide ensures that these voices are heard throughout the land; in places of education, in civic and religious centres, in libraries, by politicians and by ordinary mums and dad. Our voices reach out and say, ‘do not look away, are we not human beings, just like you?’

Why is this important?  I quote the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu

‘We learn about the Holocaust so that we can become more human, more gentle, more caring, more compassionate, valuing every person as being of infinite worth, so precious that we know such atrocities will never happen again and the world will be a more humane place.’

This is why I speak. This is the importance of the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the reason to remember. 

This year Joan features in our series Moving Portraits, subtly moving images that evoke the memories of survivors. Read more about Joan Salter's life story and explore our resources for Holocaust Memorial Day 2015