27 January 2009
Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust
I found myself recently standing on the platform at City Thameslink in London, watching hordes of passengers coming off an overcrowded train, wondering which of them would have survived were this train terminating at Auschwitz in WWII.
Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust was launched on ASR on 20th January, and I had been pouring over interviews to find appropriate examples for the press release. Having just celebrated my 31st birthday, I was particularly haunted by Edith Birkin’s account of arriving at Auschwitz. On arrival, the young fit ones were separated out for work parties, small children and older prisoners and sent to the gas chambers.
Birkin says: “I made myself big and tall and strong, soon realised you know it was probably wise to do… I think anybody over twenty had it, you know, because they didn't need that many for work. So, from what I remember, nobody was over thirty; I never met anybody over thirty after that."
And so here I was on the platform in central London in 2009, watching the city workers in their pinstripe suits or pencil skirts heading off to their offices, counting perhaps 1 in 30 who might have been selected for a work group. Over 25, overweight, underweight, limping: all for the gas chambers.
There are also stories of hope, generosity and bravery to be found in the collection, such as Trude Levi description of sabotaging German munitions in a forced labour camp, or Eugene Heimler’s testimony to the Danish policemen sent to the camp after refusing to hand over Jewish prisoners to the Gestapo. Accounts such as these show the inmates as far more than just victims and prove that humanity can be retained in the most extreme circumstances.
Most interviewees had not spoken of their experiences since liberation, and recounting their experiences was a traumatic experience for many - and a counsellor was on hand throughout such interviews. However, they volunteered their stories in the hope that leaving testimonies to educate future generations, they can help prevent such horrors happening again.
The resource is accompanied by a learning package from the British Library’s Learning team, Voices of the Holocaust. The testimonies now available are drawn from a major oral history programme The Living Memory of the Jewish Community which between 1987 and 2000 gathered 186 audio life story interviews with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their children. It was initiated by National Life Stories based in the British Library’s oral history section and funded by a number of organisations including the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, the John S Cohen Foundation and the Porjes Charitable Trust.
Ginevra House, ASR Engagement Officer