Never Forget.... HMD 2017
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.
Paris 1943. Front row right to left: my mother Paulette (shaved head), her brother Nathan, her twin Annette.
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?