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.
I’m writing this at the end of a long and emotional week. Last Saturday my youngest daughter Aimee celebrated her batmitzvah. It was all very wonderful and I was delighted that my uncle, aged 87, and seven of my cousins were able to come from New York. After the batmitzvah weekend my sister and I travelled to France with our American family to explore some of our history. As the only remaining member of his generation in our family it was especially important that my uncle was there to show us around and tell us what life had been like for our family members before and during World War II.
First we visited Metz, a city in the north-east of France in the region of Lorraine and the birthplace of my mother in 1938, her parents having travelled from their native Poland to France after World War I to escape persecution against Jews.
Our first stop directly from the train station was the old Jewish cemetery where my great-grandfather was buried in 1936. After World War II a memorial plaque was added to the headstone with the names of the four family members who perished at Auschwitz: my grandfather Traitel, my grandmother Cecile, my mother’s brother Nathan and her twin sister Annette.
As we recited Kaddish, the Jewish mourners prayer, and placed pebbles on the grave as is the Jewish custom, most of our group of ten were shaking with cold as the morning was thick with freezing fog and few of us were dressed warmly enough having travelled from the relatively mild weather of London.
Behind the cemetery was some sort of kennels and the sound of vicious dogs barking was terrifying and reminded me of the Nazi guard dogs I’ve seen in films. Neither did the irony of the refugee camp which has been created directly opposite the old Jewish cemetery escape us, with a sign on the gate informing that that over 6,000 homeless refugees are currently living there.
We had requested that our taxis wait for us as the old Jewish cemetery is 3 kilometres outside the town centre. Our next stop was the synagogue where my uncle used to go to Hebrew classes (or Cheder) and where my great-grandfather had died in 1936 while praying.
On the wall of the synagogue is a memorial plaque to all the Jewish families from Metz who perished during the Holocaust and we found ‘Madame Sklarz et enfants’ for my grandmother and her children who were taken to Auschwitz. My grandfather Traitel also met the same fate but his name was missing, similarly we found the name of my great-uncle Aron Rychner but not that of his wife Chaya or their children. One of my cousins said he would write to the synagogue to ask them to add the missing names – it’s so important that we remember every victim.
We found my great-grandfather’s death inscribed in the synagogue record book and also that of my mother’s cousin Rivka Leizorek who my uncle remembered dying of septicaemia after ignoring a scratched lip caused by her young child during an embrace, when the scratch wouldn’t heal Rivka covered it with lipstick rather than go to the doctor and eventually it turned septic and killed her.
As we prepared to leave the synagogue we were surprised to see four armed soldiers enter the building and as we walked through the gates there were another four armed soldiers positioned outside. The synagogue still houses a Jewish school and I realised this is now normal security measures for Jewish buildings in France. This was one of the few times I have been grateful that my mother is not alive to see what is going on and how little things have changed in the past 70 years ….with the important difference that in 2016 the French army are protecting the Jews rather than rounding them up on behalf of the Nazis.
So yesterday my faith in humanity was restored as I helped with a Holocaust Memorial Day event at my synagogue. 180 children from a local secondary school came to hear Holocaust survivor Mala Tribich speak and then to take part in a workshop designed to help them think about the theme for this year’s HMD ‘Don’t Stand By’ and to learn about a young non-Jewish girl who helped save the lives of 2,500 Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto. For almost all of these children, many of whom are Muslim, it was their first time in a synagogue.
During the workshop the children, aged 12 and 13, had to imagine a child during World War Two and give them an identity by choosing them a name, a home life and their hopes and dreams. I facilitated a group of 10 boys during the workshop and was delighted to chat with them and learn more about their lives through their answers. The boys at my table were mainly Asian along with one Romanian and one white English. What a lovely bunch of kids! One wanted to be an inventor, another a writer “in the fantasy genre” – and he had wonderful vocabulary so I have no doubt he would be able to achieve his hopes and dreams. All of them loved art, some loved English. All were interested by what they had learnt.
At the end of the afternoon each child was given a postcard to write a message to Mala Tribich after hearing her stories about life in the ghetto, Ravensbrück and Bergen Belsen. All of the messages were touching and sweet. I came out of the session with a spring in my step and a smile on my face.
As part of the session I was asked to write and deliver an introduction to this year’s theme which appeared to go down well and so I have reproduced it below. Holocaust Memorial Day is on 27 January and I would urge anyone who has the opportunity to help at an event like this one to do so, it is really important for the children but it’s also good for the soul!
Holocaust Memorial Day 2016 – Introduction
The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘Don’t Stand By’.
Have you seen any of those videos on YouTube showing innocent people being racially attacked on the bus or the tube? At first these type of videos used to go viral as people watched and shared them – they made horrifying and yet compelling viewing. Nowadays there are so many videos of this type that it almost seems people are not that interested any more. Maybe one would only catch your attention if the attack happened near to home or perhaps you know someone who knows someone who was there. Maybe some of you have witnessed a racial attack or even been the victim of one?
Let’s think about this. If you were on the bus and someone was being racially abused – what would you do? Would you try to help – or would you turn up the volume on your earphones and pretend that you didn’t know what was going on? Nobody is suggesting that you put yourselves in danger but you could alert the bus driver or call the police or do something….. but not just stand by.
‘Don’t Stand By’. The Holocaust and other genocides were able to happen because the local people stood by silently as they took place, whether it was because they were afraid to speak out and do something – or perhaps they just didn’t care.
My mother was six years old toward the end of the World War Two and forced to live in an orphanage in a small village just outside Paris. Her parents had both been murdered at Auschwitz and she was left with her twin sister and brother. The French villagers knew about the orphanage and that all of the children were being held there as Nazi prisoners. Some of the local people even worked at the orphanage as monitors and kitchen staff but no-one tried to help the children leave.
At six o’clock in the morning on 22nd July 1944 German soldiers came to the orphanage and arrested all of the children. They took them to an internment camp at Drancy in Paris from where the trains left directly for Auschwitz. Nine days later convoy no. 77 left Drancy – it was just weeks before the allied soldiers liberated France from the Germans. On board the convoy were 327 children all of whom had just been arrested from the Jewish orphanages in and around Paris. Among those children were my mother’s brother Nathan, aged 12, and her twin sister Annette, aged 6. My mother was not with them. She had measles and was in the hospital. The Nazis went to the hospital to arrest her but the doctors hid her and she survived. Those doctors didn’t just stand by and they saved my mother’s life. All of the other children on convoy 77 were sent to their deaths in the gas chambers as soon as they got off the train at Auschwitz.
Many of the people of France just stood by and did nothing to help the Jewish people during World War 2 and that is how over 75,000 French Jewish men, women and children came to be murdered in the Holocaust. And then there were the other French people who did help, like the doctors who saved my mother’s life.
I hope this helps to show you what a difference it can make if you DON’T STAND BY. Thank you.
Today is 16 July. 73 years ago on 16 July, 1942 that the French Police came in the middle of the night to my grandparents house in Virolet, near Poitiers, to arrest my grandfather Traitel Szklarz. Traitel was born in Poland but had left to escape the persecution of the Jewish population around 1910. When World War II broke out Traitel was called back to Poland to serve in the army. Naturally he refused, he had a wife and family now in France and no desire to return to the country which had treated him so badly. Consequently his Polish citizenship was revoked and he had been refused French citizenship.
When the police came to arrest him they said it was because he had no nationality. His eldest son Jacques, then aged 17 years old, remembered the night.
“They told him ‘be sure to take along warm clothes because where you are going it is very cold in the winter.’ They said this to give people a bit of hope, not to make them too nervous. So my father packed warm clothes and said goodbye to us. That was the last time we saw him.”
His middle son, who had just turned 13 said
“When they arrested Father the truck came up the dirt road and right to the front of the house. A German officer came upstairs with two French policemen holding rifles.”
Traitel was taken to the Angers and put on convoy no.8 which arrived in Auschwitz on 23 July. The 411 men in that convoy were tattooed with numbers between 51015 and 51425. It is thought that only 14 of those 411 survived the camp. My grandfather was not one of the survivors. There were also 390 women in the convoy, none of whom survived.
On the same day that my grandfather was arrested there were always massive round-ups taking place all over France and particularly in Paris where 13,152 Jews were arrested and sent to Auschwitz. 53 years later in 1995 President Chirac apologized for the complicit role that French policemen and civil servants played in the raids.