Early in January of this year, I spotted an item in a local publication where I live in Solihull, in the West Midlands region of the UK, which gave notice of an event held in the town to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th. It is seventy-one years since Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by the Russian army on 27th January 1945, an event that is commemorated in various places around the world every year on this date. It turns out that my town of Solihull has arranged such an event for the past eight years: I decided to attend the event for the first time last month.
If you have read my first novel Visions of Whereafter, you might remember that I referred to a visit that I made to Auschwitz a few years ago during my fictional meetings with Anne Frank and Primo Levi, a victim and a survivor of Auschwitz. Despite completing the novel over three years ago, my interest in reading about the Frank family continues and there are still a number of Primo Levi’s books that remain unread on my bookshelf. My interest in the Holocaust drew me to the event in Solihull.
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial service in Solihull was ‘Don’t Stand By’. I am unsure whether this was the chosen motif for all such events or if it was selected only by my town. In any event, Holocaust Memorial Day was accompanied by a number of excellent television programmes: I will refer to one of these later.
To begin with, though, I would like to mention how two of the speakers at the event I attended in Solihull addressed the theme. Firstly, Dr. Martin Stern – ‘billed’ as a Holocaust survivor. He was just a little boy, a Jewish boy, under protection in occupied Amsterdam. One day, while he was at school, secret police barged into his classroom and told the teacher to point him out. The teacher told the police that Martin wasn’t in school that day. Upon hearing this, Martin raised his hand: “I am here miss.” Dr. Stern told us that he still remembers the stricken expression on his teacher’s face as he was led from the classroom. He didn’t tell us what happened to his teacher but her bravery in attempting to protect him as a child showed us that there were individuals who didn’t stand by during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam.
Secondly, Rabbi Yehuda Pink (what a wonderful name) of the Solihull Hebrew Congregation – he is not a Holocaust survivor – told us about someone he knew of who had been a young pregnant woman in the womens’ camp at Auschwitz II (also known as Berkenau). Her fellow prisoners told her that on no account could she keep the baby. The Nazis would carry out two murders: the mother and the baby. The mother was soon put into contact with a prisoner who would ‘take care of her predicament’. Rabbi Pink gave expression to the obvious agony of the young mother. However, she had to make a momentous decision in order to save herself: her unborn baby was ‘taken care of’ and the mother survived Berkenau. The woman who carried out abortions under the noses of the Nazis was, in fact, an obstetrician. Her agony in putting babies to death in the camp rather than giving life to them must have been painful beyond belief.
Rabbi Pink went on to tell us that a few years after the end of World War II, our by now older survivor was pregnant again and was looking for an obstetrician. Purely by chance, she recognised the name of one on a plaque on the wall of the building that housed a suitable clinic: it was the same name as that of the woman in Auschwitz who had ‘helped’ her.
The re-union of the two women must have been a hugely emotional meeting, with a much different outcome on that occasion: birth not termination. Apparently, as Rabbi Pink told us as he approached the end of his wonderful story, the obstetrician always shouts “another life” every time she attends a birth. During her time in Auschwitz, she was forced to make agonizing decisions in order to save pregnant women from certain death. In this, stark sense she didn’t stand by. Then, after the war, she was able to atone for what she felt she had to do during it by shouting a celebration of each life that she brought into the world during her post-war professional career.
Amongst the TV programmes that accompanied Holocaust Memorial Day last month was a drama documentary about Sir Nicholas Winton (1909 to 2015). This programme despite being a drama documentary – which can sometimes be off-putting – told the remarkable story of a young man who undertook to rescue children from the clutches of the Nazis in Prague in the late 1930s. Nicholas Winton was on holiday in Czechoslovakia just before the outbreak of the Second World War and for some reason decided to organise train transport out of Czechoslovakia for as many children as he could. The documentary did not explore his motive for getting involved in the project, which became to be known as the Kindertransport. He was a young man, with a successful career in banking; he wasn’t a parent at the time as far as I recall. He simply took it into his head that he had to do something to save the children who would have been sent to the concentration camps. We really do not know why he didn’t stand by.
Winton badgered the Foreign Office for papers for the children. Train transport from Prague involved crossing into Germany, so documentation would be crucial to satisfy the German authorities. He also found families in the UK who were prepared to take a child. This involved a huge amount of administration from his helpers in the UK.
By the time the project had come to its conclusion, he found homes for 669 children in the UK and provided papers for them to leave Prague by train: his final train didn’t leave due to the commencement of hostilities at the outbreak of the war. It turned out, as might be expected, that most of the children didn’t see their parents again: most of them perished in Auschwitz.
Sir Nicholas Winton kept his pre-war actions a secret for forty years! It wasn’t until his wife found a suitcase full of documents, s scrapbook and other material in the loft of their house in 1988, that his involvement in the Kindertransport became known.
The documentary included, towards the end, a clip from the BBC programme ‘That’s Life’ where the host, Esther Rantzen … well, would you dear reader, see for yourself and tell me if there isn’t something in your eye at the end of the clip – clip or tap here.
What we see, in my humble opinion, is a true hero … a great man who made a difference to so many lives by not standing by.
In 2014, at the age of 105, Sir Nicholas Winton was awarded the highest honour of the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion; he passed away last year.
Try as I might – I’ve turned the Internet upside down looking for it – I am unable to find a particular quote from Sir Nicholas Winton. I read somewhere that he said, in effect, that he was not in favour of looking back and commemorating the Holocaust, but that we should look forward to the future. Perhaps this explains why he kept his work secret for decades. I’m not so sure. I daresay there are those who are tired of the annual Holocaust Day Memorial. However Holocaust deniers are legion: one such individual was the political leader of Iran a few years ago!
In 2014, Sir Nicholas Winton is quoted as saying: “I don’t think that we’ve learned anything … the world today is in a more dangerous state than it has every been.” I firmly believe that present and future generations should be educated and informed about the events surrounding the Holocaust and the story of individuals such as Sir Nicholas Winton can be told to inspire others not to stand by in the face of adversity or oppression.
Anne Frank wrote, in a book separate from her diary: “ … everyone is born with a great deal of good in him.” She will have written this in hiding with her family and a number of friends, living under oppression and fear, and yet she was able to pen this profound statement.
People such as Anne Frank and Sir Nicholas Winton show us that human values can shine through and overcome the shadow of war and conflict. There are countless others who have not stood by in past and present conflicts: they are people who can inspire us.
In this blog post, I have referred to the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day to focus on individual acts of selfless bravery. I wonder what you or I would do if faced with making similar decisions. I haven’t been tested yet: I wonder if any of my readers have?