This piece was written for the print pathway of my MA International Journalism at City University London. We had to write a feature based on the theme ‘calendar’.
With time running out until the remaining Holocaust survivors and rescuers will die, passing on their stories and commemorating those who perished is as important as ever.
Victims are remembered annually on 27 January for Holocaust Memorial Day; the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. London-based historian and author of Nazi and Jewish literature, Helen Fry, explains the importance of celebrating on this particular date.
“The day the Russian troops liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp came to symbolise the totality of the Holocaust and Hitler’s attempt to annihilate the Jewish people. The liberation confirmed the sheer horror of what was going on in Nazi concentration camps with details emerging throughout the war, that no-one believed could be true,” Fry said.
As thousands of events are held across London to mark the day, Olivia Marks-Woldman, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, speaks of the importance of hearing survivor’s stories while these individuals are still alive.
“Survivors are the living witnesses to what took place and they won’t be with us much longer. We need to learn from them while they’re still able to tell us,” she said.
Fry added: “It’s necessary for each generation to become the guardians of these memories because lasting legacies to remember the Holocaust is a stark warning to humanity.”
Many members in the London Jewish community have been personally affected by the genocide including London-born Rabbi Mendy Korer who runs Chabad-Lubavitch of Islington. From his Islington home/office he talks about several members on both sides of his family who were victims of the Holocaust. He is also involved in the Highbury Grove School memorial event.
“My father’s mother left Germany for the UK in 1939 but the rest of her family except one brother perished. My grandfather’s brother was an RAF pilot. He was shot down in France,” Korer recalls.
“On my mother’s side, her father escaped to America from Poland but had a brother who was in the Polish army. He was killed on the second day of war,” he continued.
The following day, sitting in a café in Shoreditch, Iris Cohen, a Dutch-born London-based health blogger, reminisces about her grandparents experiences of the Holocaust and stresses the importance of keeping their memories alive.
Her grandfather Anton Cohen and his siblings managed to escape being sent to the concentration camps because their mother was Catholic.
“His mother kept all her children hidden. She used her religion to create stories to keep them all alive,’ Iris said. “In the war they [the Germans] would take anyone with a Jewish name no matter whether they were Jewish or not,” she added.
On the other hand, Anton’s father, Israel Cohen, kept himself alive by working with the Germans as a security guard until he was sent to a camp toward the end of the war. Iris explains he didn’t have much choice because the soldiers [mostly young Dutch people] would go from village to village to recruit men by telling the parents if they didn’t let their sons go they would take them instead.
At the time of the war Iris’ ancestors were living in Nijmegen, Netherlands, a town 6.2 miles (10km) from the Netherlands/German border and had some close calls that nearly cost them their lives.
The first occurred one day when Anton told his mother he didn’t want to go to school. “I’m not going, I’m not going,” he repeatedly told her. He sensed something bad was going to happen and his predictions were right; the school was bombed that day. He later rushed to the school to go through the rubble to find his brother. Fortunately Anton found him alive.
The second incident occurred during an invasion between the Americans coming from one side and the English from the other. Due to being so close to the border and the same size as two German cities, Nijmegen was bombed and the narrow streets were flattened to make for easier access.
Both Rabbi Korer and Iris emphasise that the memories of Holocaust survivors and those who died should live on whether by education or through telling stories.
“Commemorating means a lot to me, every year since I was little I remember honouring them in May. We celebrate with festivals [in the Netherlands] on the Waalbrug [bridge] that was a vital access point to our town during the war. I grew up with my grandparents. My grandfather [Anton] and his wife are still alive and he gets really passionate talking about it,” Cohen said.
“Out of respect for the past and for the future, education is the best way to tackle it,” Korer said.
Helen Fry agrees with both. “It is vital to keep the memory of the Holocaust and testimonies of surviving Jews because the world must not forget. To forget is to repeat the past.”