This week, on 6 June, the western world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings which marked the beginning of the end of World War Two. The Allied troops entered France via sea at Normandy, to begin the liberation of France from the hands of the Nazis.
But what happened in the rest of France on the days following D-Day, while the Allied troops started to make their way south?
The German battalions of the 2nd SS-Panzer Division, Das Reich, were ordered to head north to Normandy to try to stop the Allied invasion. They had arrived in Southern France from Russia in January, so they’d had time to familiarise themselves with the terrain. They were unable to travel by train as the railway tracks have been sabotaged by freedom fighters and so they had to travel by road. The Resistance set to ambush the Germans at every possible opportunity on the roads, felling trees or building blockades to hinder their progress.
Frustrated by the freedom fighters slowing their advancement the Germans carried out a number of savage attacks on French civilians along the way, including massacres at two villages: Tulle and Oradour-sur-Glane. It is the latter which I refer to in my book:
“The SS. Yesterday. They came, rounded up every single person in the town. Said it was to check our papers. Said they were looking for guns and ammunition. The men were taken away. The women and children all locked in the church. They… they killed everyone. They shot the men. They burnt down the church with the women and little ones inside. Sick old women. Mothers with babes in arms. Young children – they emptied the four schools in the town and murdered all the innocent children. Most of the people you see here are parents of the schoolchildren who live outside the town. They have come to look for their sons and daughters… but there is no one. They are all dead. That smell? It is the smell of their death. Go, look inside the burnt ruins of the church here. The bodies of the angels are there. Some don’t even look like bodies.”
642 villagers from Oradour-sur-Glane were murdered by the Nazis on 10 June – only six people from the entire village survived. The village has remained untouched for the past 75 years.
I was shocked. The goal-keeper of a premier league football club was not charged for making a Nazi salute because of his ‘lamentable ignorance’ of Hitler and the Holocaust. Whether having his arm in the air was a tribute to Nazism or him attracting the attention of a waiter, and having his hand over his mouth was to imitate Hitler’s moustache or an attempt to make his voice carry through the busy restaurant, is not what shocked me. But the fact that he did not know what a Nazi salute is, or of Hitler’s murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust, that is what I find unbelievable. This guy is 32 years old. How could he have possibly gone through life without knowing about Hitler and what a Nazi salute is? And yet the Football Association believe him, and sadly it could be true. There are plenty of stories around of young people who have never heard of the Holocaust.
As someone who works ‘in the business’ (I work for The Association of Jewish Refugees which cares for victims of Nazi persecution), and has spent much of the past five years researching and writing my own family Holocaust story, it would be easy for me to think that everyone knows about the subject, but this is unfortunately not true. However, you don’t have to be an expert. It’s enough just to be aware that six million were killed during World War II by the Nazis for the crime of being Jewish. People of all ages, from babes in arms to the very old. Men and women alike; religious or secular And that the victims came from Europe, with the heaviest losses from Poland and the Soviet Union. And to realise that entire families were wiped out and that is why it is so important for everyone to help remember the victims, because there is no-one else to remember them. It’s heart-breaking. And also, to remember that this happened just over 70 years ago which yes, was a long time ago, but no, it’s not time to ‘get over it’. That time will never come.
1 May is Yom HaShoah when we remember the six million victims of the Holocaust. Yom HaShoah is Hebrew and literally translates to The Day (Yom) of (Ha) The Holocaust (Shoah), also known as Holocaust Memorial Day. Over 30 years ago a project was started in the United States to distribute yellow candles on Yom HaShoah, to be lit in remembrance of the six million. The Yellow Candle project is now in its third year in the UK and 25,000 candles have been distributed, each with a small card with the name of someone who perished in the Shoah, usually a child. On 1 May 2019 we will light our candle and share a photograph on social media with the hashtag #yellowcandle. If you see a candle photo on social media please share it, in the hope that it will help raise awareness and so that the ignorant people of the world (like the premiership goal keeper) can educate themselves; they probably don’t read many books but you can be sure they look at Instagram and Twitter.
“The ultimate act of kindness.” This is how the United Synagogue describes the burial of six unknown Holocaust victims, which will take place this Sunday at Bushey cemetery, just outside London.
When I first read about the burial, I admit I was confused. What was the point?
Speaking to others didn’t help. None of us seemed to ‘get it’. A container of ash and bone fragments, originating from Auschwitz-Birkenau, apparently discovered within a clod of earth brought back by a visiting survivor years ago, has been handed over to the United Synagogue by the Imperial War Museum (IWM).
The piece of earth had been tested by pathologists who identified the remains of six people, including one child. And then it went into the archives of the IWM, who were unsure of what to do with it. I suspect it may have been rediscovered recently as the museum prepares for its new Holocaust galleries, due to open in 2021.
So that’s the background – but why the burial? Reading the letter from HRH Prince Charles written to the Chief Rabbi ahead of the ceremony this weekend, helped me understand:
My mother, Paulette, was a hidden child. Born in France in 1938, she was sent to a Jewish children’s home outside of Paris and ended up hidden by Catholic nuns until she was found by a surviving brother after the war ended. Her parents, brother Nathan and her twin sister Annette were all murdered at Auschwitz. Annette was only six years old.
Mum died in 2010 and is buried at Bushey cemetery. Now I ‘get it’…. There is a chance that those remains might belong to her mother, father, brother or twin sister. Or perhaps one of her many aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbours or friends who also died at Auschwitz. And that they will be buried in the same cemetery. Now wouldn’t that be the ultimate act of kindness?
When I go to visit my mother’s grave, I also visit my paternal grandparents’ grave. And now I will be able to visit the grave of the six Holocaust survivors too in memory of my maternal grandparents, uncle and aunt.
April 23, 2017. Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is also the day that I have finished the second draft of my book and I feel it is in good enough shape to send to a few friends for their comments. We even discovered that I can send it to their Kindles. Of course I had to send it to my own first to test it, well that was quite a thrill, reading my own book on my Kindle! Also good to know that according to Amazon it has a reading time of 3 hours and 48 minutes, which seems pretty insignificant compared to the nearly four years it took me to write! I keep checking my phone to see if anyone has started reading it yet….. the nerves are beginning to get the better of me!
This book has been a labour of love, first started in July 2013 and with many pauses. The most recent pause was from January to April this year, my first three months working for The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) on a wonderful project called ‘My Story’, where we are producing individual life story books for Jewish Refugees and Holocaust Survivors. But then came the Passover / Easter break and I was able to spend some time on my own book and finally it is in a readable state. That doesn’t mean it is finished! Oh no, I still have some more bits to add, plus the photos and documents, the prologue needs writing and some notes at the end bringing the reader up to the present day. But it seems fitting to have reached this point on Yom HaShoah and allow myself a few minutes to write a blog post to celebrate!
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. On this day I remember my mother’s twin sister Annette, killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in July 1944 aged six.
This year I again helped at the HMD event for my synagogue where we host 150 school children, giving them the opportunity to hear a Holocaust survivor tell their story and to take part in an activity to help them understand what life must have been like for the children in the Holocaust.
Below is an adapted version of the short introduction I made regarding the theme for this year’s HMD.
Every year the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust chooses a theme as a way of helping people to think about the effects of genocide. This year the theme is a question… How Can Life Go On?
Everyone is different and handles things in their own way although there are a number of typical reactions from Holocaust survivors, almost all of whom would have lost close family members during the war – very likely their parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins….. so I think it’s natural that someone who survived the Holocaust when others from their family did not would feel guilt. Survivor guilt. They would probably ask themselves ‘Why did I survive, when the rest of my family didn’t?’ How difficult do you think it would be to live your life after surviving something like that.
Most of you will have brothers or sisters. Some of you might even be a twin. My mother was a twin – she had a twin sister – but she was murdered at Auschwitz when they were only six years old ….and my mother survived. Up until a few days before her sister was sent to Auschwitz the two twin girls had never been apart. How could life go on for my mother after that happened?
My mother and her twin were born in France in 1938, so just before the beginning of the Second World War. Her parents – my grandparents – had been Polish immigrants who escaped persecution in their homeland and went to France after the First World War.
In July 1942, when my mother was four years old, French police and German soldiers came in the middle of the night and arrested her father. Two months later the police and soldiers came back, again in the middle of the night, and arrested her mother. It was later discovered that both parents were sent directly to Auschwitz and murdered there. My mother, her twin sister and two of their brothers were sent to Paris to a children’s home where they stayed until just before the war ended. I call it a children’s home but really it was an orphanage because all of the children‘s parents had been arrested and taken to the gas chambers at Auschwitz but no-one realised that yet …… In July 1944 the Germans knew that they were defeated and that the war was quickly coming to an end. The French police had collaborated with the Germans and helped them arrest and deport Jews from France, and they were all keen to get rid of as much evidence as possible. This ‘evidence’ included the orphaned children of the Jews who had been sent to the gas chambers. Orphaned children like my mother and her brothers and her twin sister.
The Germans went to the children’s home at six o’clock in the morning when the neighbours were still sleeping and wouldn’t see what was happening. They took all the children away and sent them to Auschwitz on the last convoy out of Paris. The war ended just weeks after. What difference would the lives of those young innocent children have made to anyone?
So how did my mother survive? Well…A couple of days before the children were arrested my mother got ill with measles and was sent to a hospital to recover and to make sure none of the other children caught it. And that saved her life. Actually the Germans had a list of all the children in the orphanage and they knew that my mother was in the hospital but they were scared of infectious diseases so they waited a day or two then went to get her but by that time the doctors had found out what was happening and had sent my mother to live with nuns in a convent where she lived hidden for one year. Eventually she sent to England to be adopted by a cousin. She was by then seven years old and didn’t speak a word of English when she was sent here.
So… ‘How Could Life Go On’ for my mother…. knowing that her twin sister and also her brother and parents had died but she had survived. Her gut reaction…. her way of surviving…. was to not talk about it. When I was growing up we never spoke about the Holocaust in our house. The subject was avoided so as not to upset my mother. That was her way of dealing with it. In fairness my mother was very young when this all happened and she said that she didn’t remember anything at all….. the one thing she did remember was taking holy communion with the nuns while she was living with them hidden in the convent. She remembered eating the wafer and drinking the wine (well, it was probably grape juice) and that it was a real treat after so many years of not having had much food to eat.
My mother was never religious. She said that she lost faith in God after everything she lived through. This is not unusual in Holocaust survivors and I can understand why she felt that way.
The final effect that being a Holocaust survivor had on my mother was at the end of her life. She had lived a good life since leaving France but I am sure that she never lost the guilt of having survived when her twin sister had not lived past six years old. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer I think that she at last saw a way of escaping the guilt. The doctors said that she should have been able to live for years yet but I think she was ready to be reunited with her twin sister, brother and parents and to stop living with the burden of guilt.
So, in conclusion, from my personal experience as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, yes, Life goes on, at least on the outside but who knows what is going on in the inside?
Aside from Metz, Paris was the other destination during our recent family fact-finding trip to France. Metz was where all of the Szklarz children were born between 1925 and 1938 (my mother Paulette and her twin Annette being the last born in April 1938), but Paris was where all of the Szklarz children were sent in summer 1943 after their parents had been deported. Only the eldest son was not summoned to Paris as he was nearly 18 years old at this time and no longer considered a child.
A letter had arrived from the Union of French Jews (L’Union générale des israélites de France UGIF) stating that all Jewish children must go to Paris. The UGIF was established by the Vichy government’s Office of Jewish Affairs on November 29, 1941 as demanded by the Germans. The Jews of France were assured that the purpose of the UGIF was to set up orphanages for the Jewish children whose parents had been deported and to provide social aid. However it was frequently forced to give in to German and French demands for money, cooperation with mass arrests, and names of Jewish resistance activists. Those UGIF leaders who refused to cooperate were arrested themselves and deported.
At the time there was no reason to think that it would be dangerous for the children to go to the UGIF as dictated in the letter and it was arranged for them to travel to Paris on the train. When they arrived in Paris all four Szklarz children were taken to the large UGIF children’s home on Rue Lamarck in Montmartre.
What I had not realised when I visited Paris last year was that I had been seconds away from Rue Larmarck as I wandered around the artist’s quarter, enjoying the views over Paris from the steps of the Sacré–Cœur and browsing the gift shops. This year we headed specifically to Rue Larmarck and there, on the corner at the top of the hill, stood the building where my mother, her twin sister (aged 5), brother Nathan (aged 11) and uncle (aged 14) had been sent on June 8, 1943.
At least the four siblings were still together although that was not to be the case for long. On June 24 my uncle was sent to the Ecole de Travail on Rue de Rosiers in the Jewish quarter of Paris (Le Marais) as he was too old to be in the children’s home and needed to learn a trade. That was the last time that he saw his brother Nathan and sister Annette and it would be two years before he was reunited with my mother, Paulette. On July 1, 1943 the three younger children were sent to an orphanage in Louveciennes, a suburb of Paris.
Some of our family group standing outside the trade show on Rue de Roisiers
Plaque inside the trade show on Rue de Roisiers, Paris. Uncle Jean recognised some of the names.
Meanwhile my uncle had not been at the trade school for long before he realised that he needed to escape for his own safety. When we went to visit the Ecole de Travail he showed us the workshops where he had studied (it is still a Jewish trade school and in use today), pointed out where he had slept and also where he had been forced into a fight when he first arrived and which he quickly won, putting the other boy to shame! He showed us the hatch by the front door which he had escaped through when the laundry was being collected.
When he ran away from the trade school my uncle had arranged to meet his elder brother at the nearest metro station, Saint-Paul, and he showed us the exact spot inside the station where he had been stopped that evening by a German soldier who asked him what he had in his package and then let him go without checking his papers when he realised it was only a book.
So many stories, so many examples of when good … and bad… luck decided the fate of these young children and that only two of the four would survive the war.
The principal objective of our trip to France was to visit Metz – the first time for my sister and I – where our mother was born in 1938 and where the family lived until they were moved away from the German border at the beginning of World War II. Ironic that they were told to leave for their own safety, only to fall victims a couple of years later to the ‘final solution’ of the Nazis and their French collaborators.
The hospital where my mother was born no longer exists, and the family home has been replaced by a new block of apartments but still my uncle was able to describe life in Metz vividly and bring it back to life for us. He showed us ‘la lavoir’ where my grandmother would scrub the washing on the bank of the River Moselle, the fountain by which the children would play and the grand theatre where his mother took him and his brother Nathan to see ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ probably before my mother was born. That would have been Nathan’s only ever visit to the theatre as he was murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz aged just 12 in 1944.
We stopped for lunch in the plaza by the Cathedral (the outside of which is black from grime) choosing the local speciality of ‘quiche Loraine’ and my uncle told us how he had begged his mother to buy him a quiche when he accompanied her to the market as a child but she always refused because they were not kosher. We passed a grand old church which the Jewish leaders had planned to purchase to use as a synagogue as the Jewish community had outgrown their existing places of worship… but then the war started and it never happened.
Walking up Rue de Jardins by the Cathedral Plaza my uncle pointed out where the kosher butcher and other Jewish shops had been. We passed his Uncle Aron’s house, at least where it used to be, and crossed the river on the same bridge that he used to run over to get home before the antisemitic boys from school managed to catch him and give him a beating.
It was important that I was able to visit Metz under the guidance of my uncle. Without him and his knowledge and memories the trip would have been pointless. I am so grateful to him for coming from New York at 87 years old and I am in awe of the way he walked around the city all day long in the freezing cold (did I mention how absolutely freezing it was?) – 15,949 steps according to my iPhone which was probably the cause of him being unwell for the next few days. Thankfully he has recovered now …. and I have fulfilled my obligation of seeing Metz.