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The Holocaust – the last survivors

2000 July 14
by Paul Vallely

It was on a quiet walk out in the countryside that Roman Halter’s eight-year-old grandson began to ask the difficult questions.

How long do elephants live?

“I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” the old man said.

What about giraffes?

“I’ll have to find that out, too.”

“You don’t know much, grandfather,” the child observed in a matter- of- fact way. He certainly did not know how to answer the little boy’s other question:

“Grandfather, when the Germans murdered the Jews, what had we Jews done to deserve to be punished like that?”

Roman Halter has the gentlest blue eyes. But they have seen terrible things. He remembers two of his classmates in the town of Chodecz in Poland. They were neighbours and every day used to walk to school together. But one was a German Pole and the other was a Jewish Pole and the time came, when the Nazi army “liberated” Poland, that the first boy joined the SS and was given a gun and taken for his first “target practice”. There in a forest was a group of local Jews rounded up by the Germans. Among the people the new recruit shot was the boy with whom he used to walk to school.

For Roman that was only the start. As we sat at his kitchen table in north London this week, the 72-year-old told a series of stories which were all the more chilling for his soft, understated delivery. Of his journey on the last transport to Auschwitz. Of the death march from which he escaped at 2am on the third night. Of rides on the roofs of trains. Of how those who sheltered him were killed.

Throughout it all he knew that as a Jew he was marked out for murder. Of the 800 members of the Jewish community in his home town when the war was over, just four had survived – three young girls, and him.

Roman Halter is what is now known as a Holocaust survivor. He escaped to Britain, became an architect, and in his retirement paints watercolours, makes stained-glass windows and bronze casts. One of his pieces, a cast of the royal coat of arms for the Foreign Office, is to be unveiled by the Queen next week at the new British embassy in – irony of ironies – Berlin.

Roman Halter will not be there himself, however. Instead he’ll be in Oxford, where he’ll be joining 700 other survivors and academics at a conference on the Holocaust being held by an organisation called Remembering for the Future. The survivors gather together every four years, but they are in their seventies, eighties and even nineties now, and are dying every month. For many this will be their last meeting.

But this time these last survivors will gather in a very different context. For next week also sees the publication of an iconoclastic book by a prominent Jewish historian, Norman Finkelstein, which has been explosively controversial in the United States.

Finkelstein’s book, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, contends that the main danger to the memory of Hitler’s victims comes not from Holocaust-deniers but from those who seek to make capital from it. Inflated figures, hypocrisy and double standards dog the subject – and with the connivance of the governments of Israel and America who use it as an ideological weapon to underpin US strategic interests in the Middle East and to disguise Israel’s poor human rights record by casting it as a victim state.

Finkelstein’s indictment does not end there. He goes on to put flesh on the sick joke about there being no business like Shoah business by cataloguing who has made money from the Holocaust, listing the fat salaries of the leaders of Holocaust charities and the big legal fees charged by their Jewish lawyers.

And yet the evidence of what one of the world’s most civilised nations did to the Jews of Europe continues to mount. Next week’s conference will be presented with a wealth of new material which has been uncovered in archives opened in Eastern Europe since the Cold War ended. “It provides documentation for things which were previously conjecture,” says John Roth, the American professor of philosophy who is vice-chairman of Remembering for the Future.

Yet something other than all this will be at the forefront of the minds of those last survivors next week. The titles of the workshops – for survivors only – are a revealing catalogue of their concerns: “How do we deal with our feelings as we get older?”; “Does talking help?”; “How do we deal with anger?” But most striking are those focusing on: “Dialogue between the generations”; “Parenting by Survivors”; “Parenting by the Second Generation.” These last survivors are asking how, before they die, they can pass on the memory of which they have been trustees.

In his book, Finkelstein wonders why it was not until the late 1960s that the Holocaust came to loom so large in the world’s consciousness. He concludes that it was a strategic response to Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. The last survivors have a different explanation.

For them deciding what their children should know has been an agonising process. Most waited a long time. “We didn’t tell them till they were in their teens,” says Roman Halter. “They were growing up so well and happy I didn’t want to block their conscious or unconscious with such horrendous stories. But at a certain point they began asking so I answered them truthfully, whatever they wanted to know, though with my eldest daughter, who has a thinner skin, I mitigated the answers.”

Others were even more cautious. One woman – who as a teenager spent four years with her mother living undercover in Berlin, until she escaped to Switzerland in 1943 – did not tell her children until four years ago, when they were well into their thirties. “All of those who survived have one kind of hang-up or other,” said Margot who did not, even now, want to reveal her surname for fear of “broken windows or animosity” from her neighbours in London.

“When I arrived in England I just wanted to be a normal person and live a normal life. I married a Polish Jew who went through even worse. But he would never talk about it to me or the children. `If I tell you, I will go mad,’ he used to say. So we didn’t speak aloud about it. We wanted to be normal. I wanted to recapture the youth I had never had. I did O- levels when my children did theirs, and my A- levels.”

But throughout, it was “bottled up inside, like a pressure cooker”. It finally exploded four years ago when Margot saw an ad in a newspaper from a researcher wanting information about the camps in wartime Switzerland. The researcher put her in touch with the Holocaust Survivors’ Centre, where she was asked to talk to some schoolchildren about her experience. “I took my daughter along. I had tried to tell her at home. I couldn’t get it out. So she heard about it there, in front of the students. She was in her thirties.”

Margot then sat down and wrote a long account of it all. But now her children will not read it. “At first I was hurt, but then I thought: `I have done my duty, I have written it, I have put on record the story.’ My son said he was too busy. My daughter said she was not far enough removed from it, whatever that meant. But it was right to ignore it for all those years. My children have no hang- ups.”

There are those, however, who feel that the children of survivors always bear the scars. Psychiatrists talk of how, often, at least one member of the second generation becomes a “memorial candle” – someone in whom the powerful sustained trauma of their parents lives on, albeit unconsciously. The experience is passed on, but in an internalised way. It manifests itself in relationship difficulties, rootlessness, in wanting to remain an outsider in any group.

Others in the second generation live with enormous gaps in their family history like pieces of a missing jigsaw. “It influences your sense of self,” one Jewish psychiatrist told me. “It gushes to the surface at times, like when a survivor dies and his son has the duty of saying the prayer of the dead – the Kaddish – and facing the fact that his father could not do the same for his father, who perished in an unknown place in unknown circumstances. “There is a deep sense of dislocation, of having been torn, literally, from your roots. Family values arise around who you can and can’t talk to, who you can trust, sticking to your own kind, getting an education to enable you to get a good job which you can take anywhere if the need arises…”

Such family histories are littered with dysfunction: survivors who were afraid to marry and absorbed themselves in their job completely to shut out life altogether; others who invested their children with the need to carry the lost potential of all those who were lost; children who drifted away from parents. This is the continuing legacy of the Holocaust.

At the conference the academics will no doubt vehemently discuss Finkelstein’s claims. Papers will debate whether Hitler’s “Final Solution” was something unique or just the worst in a century of attempted genocides in Armenia, Cambodia, Burundi, Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor. They will talk about whether Christianity has yet owned up to its role in the Holocaust. They will consider the thought by the Palestinian liberation theologian Niam Ateek that as long as the agenda for peace in Israel continues to begin with the Holocaust, there can be no movement forward: “We have to start in a different place.” But, above all, they will listen, while they can, to the voices of the last survivors.

“We translate into words an experience which lasted for years and transmit it in seconds,” says Roman Halter. “Even the most powerful of words cannot convey it. The constant concentration camp thought – will I live out the hour? – is not something which can be comprehended by historians who deal in facts. A lot of what has been published is sensationalised. There’s always fantasy and heroism creeping in. But there were no heroes; everybody was a victim.”

He tells the story of how that last train arrived at Auschwitz. “We looked through the chinks between the boards in the cattle- trucks and saw the barracks and barbed wire. People started sweating and the smell of fear welled up in the train. People hugged and prayed and sobbed – a murmur like a sea reaching the beach.”

And then he recalls the last words his grandfather said as he laying dying in the Lodz ghetto, etched on his memory ever since:

“When you survive, speak all you have witnessed. Speak it the best way you can. Do not philosophise about it, for murder is murder and we are being murdered today on the orders of evil leaders. Do not make yourself into a saint or martyr, for this is not your crowning. Live fully, but do not allow yourself to forget these times. Neither must you go around forgiving evil-doers – this is God’s job.

“Do not give up because few are willing to listen to you. Those that are concerned about decency, humanity and our history will listen – for these are the people who will also work for the future, so that tomorrow may be saner and safer not only for us Jews, but for all mankind.”

Words which speak to us no less today.


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