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HMDT Blog: How can life go on? My father’s story

This blog was written for HMDT by Sue Bermange, a member of the '45 Aid Society and the second generation, as both of her parents were survivors of the Holocaust.

HMDT Blog: How can life go on? My father’s story

The Second Generation are the children of Holocaust Survivors and actively participate in remembering the past and teaching its lessons, so that such a terrible event can never be repeated. We celebrate our lives and the lives of our families as a constant memory to the 6 million who died. We celebrate the achievements of the survivors in building strong families and communities, and their triumph of hope over adversity.

Our parents have deputed to us the responsibility of guarding their testimony, of bearing vicarious witness to their life stories and of remembering the lives that were destroyed. To keep alive the memories of events from the Holocaust, people must be reminded of the facts. The best way to send this message is through the people who survived and have told their story. For this reason, I am proud as a Second Generation to keep sharing my dad’s story.

I have read many articles on visits to Auschwitz and I’d like to share my experience. I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Marie and Bob Obuchowski. When my mother’s parents were deported from Rivesaltes Camp in France to Auschwitz, she was hidden in a convent and doesn’t remember too much about her experiences. But it is my father, who dedicated the last 30 years of his life to Holocaust education, who I would like to focus on. My father survived the Lodz Ghetto, death marches, several concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and was liberated in Theresienstadt. He subsequently came to the UK, aged 17, as one of ‘The Boys’ and his life began again in Windermere. In his words, he went ‘from hell to paradise’. He was rehabilitated, learnt English, studied Judaism (after all he went through, he never lost his faith) and trained as a master upholsterer. He moved to London, where he met my mum and raised a family. He died in June 2014, a husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather. He always said his family was his biggest achievement in life.

In 2005 he decided to take us back to Poland where his life began in 1928. Three generations flew into Krakow. This in itself shows that life does, indeed go on. We visited my dad’s school, in his home town, Ozorkow, where the first selection that was to change his life forever took place. His parents, sister, uncles, aunts and cousins were all taken away and perished. Our journey then took us to Lodz, where Dad lived in terrible conditions in the Ghetto for three and a half years with his sister, Gittel.

My children and I were most apprehensive about the visit to Auschwitz. As soon as we saw the train tracks Dad told us about the terrible conditions on the cattle trucks that brought him to this horrific place during the war. On arrival, he was separated from his sister, the last remaining member of his family, and he never saw her again. We walked through the barracks and he explained about the inhumane sleeping conditions, standing for more than two hours each morning for roll call in the freezing cold, starving, unable to help anyone that fainted because this would inevitably result in being shot dead. Gradually, a crowd of visitors joined us, in awe of an actual survivor describing the hell he had been through and the depravity he had witnessed. We walked through a gas chamber, the most sombre and sad part of the day and we all thought of his sister Gittel, knowing that this was where she drew her last breath. Finally, Dad said Kaddish for his family

After we left Auschwitz, Dad continued to tell us of his experiences, but as soon as we arrived back in Krakow he asked ‘who wants pizza for lunch?’. We all sat in a lovely restaurant in the square and had a family meal like the other tourists. In such stark contrast to a couple of hours earlier, I couldn’t believe that we were behaving so normally and I asked Dad how he was feeling. He certainly seemed happy. He told me that he had returned in triumph with his family, that the Nazis didn’t win, he did, because life goes on and here we all were to prove it.

My dad was an extremely warm and affectionate man. At my son’s graduation ceremony, he told me ‘if someone had said I’d be here today watching my grandson graduate from university, I’d never have believed it’. When my daughter got married, after her Jewish wedding ceremony he said, ‘I now feel like I’ve achieved everything in life’. When Dad was 80, his first great grandchild, Amelie was born, the next generation in a family that was nearly lost forever. Dad was a perfect example of how one should live their life. I have so much respect for him, for the way he managed to pick himself up and get on with his life, despite going through the most horrific experience imaginable and losing his entire family at such a young age. He was kind, generous and didn’t hate anyone. He came to the UK as a refugee and really made a positive contribution to society.

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The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in Holocaust and genocide education and commemoration. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced state-sponsored persecution and genocide. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.