Jan 2012 Journal

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Courage and soul-searching in reliving the past (review)

For most members of the AJR, the terrible events of 1938-45 affected them or their families and are still a vivid memory. For their children and grandchildren, there is fortunately no direct experience, although many will know something of what happened to their families. Those survivors who still give talks in schools are always received with great courtesy and interest but they know that for the great majority of pupils, and even for their teachers, the events of those years are now a part of history.

Inevitably, within a few years there will no longer be any witnesses to tell of their experiences and, for that reason, this excellent compilation of personal testimonies is to be greatly welcomed. The book, published by the Child Survivors’ Association of Great Britain - AJR, which was formed about 20 years ago, has as one of its aims to provide a memorial for members who have died. It was decided that this should take the form of a book which was first published in 2005, mainly for members and their families. The importance of the project led to this new and enlarged publication, which includes the moving introductions to the original edition.

The 30 stories related in the book were collected by the Association and reflect the numerous ways in which children managed to survive in almost unbelievable conditions. In some cases, the survivors are able to rely on their own memories, while in the case of the youngest children the stories are based on what they learned from surviving relations and friends and on documentation. In all cases, it must have taken a great deal of courage and soul-searching to relive the past.

Although the basic theme of each account is survival, each account is unique in how this was achieved and the traumas experienced. The testimonies are varied in length and style, but each relates experiences such as no child should ever have suffered. These include existence in concentration camps, survival in hiding or with false papers, and life in the ghettoes - but all have the common factor of daily fear of death. In spite of this, the authors mostly manage to write in a factual and objective manner and are eager to pay tribute to those who helped them. Many of the writers cover not only the traumatic period of the Shoah, but also put this in perspective by describing their earlier childhood and also their postwar recovery. In a review it is not possible even to attempt to discuss all the individual stories, and it would be invidious to give the names of some writers while ignoring equally important others.

While the dominant theme is the unbelievable brutality of the Germans, it is sad to see that some people in the occupied countries could be equally vicious and only too happy to denounce escaped Jews to the Nazis. This was particularly evident in France, where the authorities often proved to be as dangerous to the Jews as were the Nazis. The behaviour of the Swiss authorities towards those who had managed to reach their borders does little credit to them. On the other hand, there were Germans who risked their lives to help and there were numerous acts of bravery in all the occupied countries.

A disturbing feature in some recollections relates to the time after liberation. Not all authorities were as helpful and generous to survivors as should have been expected, and there were cases, fortunately a minority, of sheer bureaucracy even in Jewish organisations.

The book shows the depths to which humans can sink in their behaviour but it also has a more encouraging side in bringing out the courage and goodness in many people even when suffering themselves. It is this latter aspect which is an important and uplifting part of the stories.

The book concludes with ZACHOR – REMEMBER, a section in which the authors remember and name the relatives who were victims of the Shoah.

Hopefully this book will help to keep alive the memories of individuals who suffered so much and contribute to ensuring that nothing similar could ever happen again to any group of people simply because they are ‘different’ in some way. It is not a book which can be read lightly, or at one sitting, but it is really worthwhile to do so and to pass it on to children and adult grandchildren. Tragically, the stories of one and a half million other Jewish children will never be known.

George Vulkan

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