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75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Jewish students reflect on their ancestors’ experiences

“To not know Auschwitz is to not know the Holocaust”


2020 marks 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. In this momentous year, the lessons learned from the Holocaust seem to be more important than ever; a report this week revealed that anti-semitic incidents at universities rose by 60 per cent in 2019. As the number of living survivors continues to dwindle, it is becoming increasingly pressing to recognise and commemorate their suffering.

The Tab Cambridge spoke to five students about their families' experiences in the Holocaust and how they feel its legacy has shaped their time at university.

Hannah Arnaud, a third-year English student at Pembroke College, Cambridge, perfectly encapsulated the contemporary problems surrounding remembrance and reflection as she concluded; "I suppose the question that we have to come to terms with now is how do we memorialise the Holocaust when there are not any more survivors? Whose responsibility is it to take on that role?" Though Hannah has committed herself to commemorating her family's experiences and celebrating their stoicism, sometimes, she admits, she "feel[s] uncomfortable talking about it because it is not my story". She comments that it can feel like "a tricky thing to negotiate".

Before the war, Hannah's family lived in Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis seized control, they were deported to Theresienstadt Ghetto, a concentration camp used by the Nazis for propaganda – in February 1944 there was even a Red Cross visit used to convince the outside world that the camps were not as bad as reports suggested. Despite the Nazis' "beautification" of the camp, the conditions remained dire, with between 60 and 80 people having to share a single room. Subsequently, several members of Hannah's family were deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, where they were killed.

Hannah's grandfather, George Tyrell (originally Jiří Tramer) and his mother survived. His father had already fled to England, where the family were reunited after the war. However, when the family members tried to go back to their original home in Czechoslovakia, it had been taken over, and the inhabitants refused to give it back to them, making a relocation to England necessary.

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Hannah's grandfather, George Tyrell (right)

Orli Forman, a midwifery student at the University of Hertfordshire, is the great-granddaughter of Lily Ebert, a survivor of Auschwitz. Lily was transported from Bonyhád, Hungary at the age of fourteen, along with her mother, brother and three sisters. Lily’s mother Nina, brother Bela and sister Berta were all sent to the gas chambers upon arrival in the camp. Lily’s mother had managed to smuggle a gold pendant into the heel of her shoe, and she managed to swap her shoes with Lily before they were separated. Remarkably, Lily was able to hide the gold pendant for the remainder of the war, and she has worn it every day since in memory of her murdered family. Orli says that her great-grandmother's story has made her very conscious of the impact of anti-semitism today.

Avital Menahem, who studied English Literature at Queen Mary, University of London, described how her family suffered similarly traumatic experiences. Like Hannah and Orli, Avital's family also found themselves transported to Auschwitz. There, her Hungarian grandfather, Yisrael Abelesz, survived three selections.

Yisrael was born in Kapuvár, Hungary. He was moved, along with the rest of his immediate family, to a ghetto in the summer of 1944. In July 1944, just after his 14th Birthday, he was taken to Auschwitz with his sister, two of his brothers, and his parents. It was on this day, one that should have been filled with celebration, that the young boy was first separated from his parents; they were immediately sent to the gas chambers upon arrival along with his younger brother, Aron. Yisrael's sister Libby was sent to the women's camp; meanwhile, his two older brothers were working in the labour division.

Avital's grandfather stayed in Auschwitz with his brother until its liberation in January 1945, with the Russian troops apparently asking prisoners if they had any spare food, something which the now elderly man to this day finds funny due to its infinite absurdity.

Avital commented that her grandfather could not work out why he was being kept alive. He was selected for the gas chambers several times but always made a run for it, displaying an admirable resilience. She records that on one particularly memorable occasion, he was saved by a Jewish kapo who commanded him to run in Yiddish. Russian Prisoners of War also proved to be reliable allies, hiding him in their barracks until the guards had disappeared. As Avital notes, the selections were always planned to coincide with Jewish festivals, something her grandfather considers to be a cruel Nazi attempt to further humiliate the Jewish people.

After the war, Avital's grandfather and his brothers went back to Kapuvár, where he was reunited with his sister and three of his brothers, all whom survived the war.

Eventually, Yisrael moved to London, met Avital's grandmother in Israel, and together they had four children, 17 grandchildren, and 26 great-grandchildren. His brother also survived and had a happy life with his wife and many grandchildren. Avital says that her grandfather did, however, always observe how reticent his brother and those at Yeshiva were to recall their experiences.

Avital's grandfather explains that many Holocaust survivors were reluctant to speak about their experiences after the war, partly due to the fear that no one would believe them, given the extremity and scale of what had happened.

Avital's grandfather, Yisrael Abelesz (Photo Credit: Leivi Saltman)

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Avital and her grandfather (Photo Credit: Leivi Saltman)

The residual trauma of the Holocaust has prevented many other survivors from being vocal about their war-time experiences. This is something Hannah is also acutely able to empathise with, noting that her grandfather "has never ever wanted to talk about it… he never wanted us to know the details of what happened."

Hannah's grandfather did record his experiences with the BBC, but he has never spoken directly to his family about the details of his ordeal. This taciturnity can be difficult for younger generations who wish to understand the true extent of their families' histories. Hannah commented that the Holocaust "feels very undefined" in her family, and that, when her mother was growing up, it was never discussed. She said that, for her, the Holocaust is "a very raw thing that was never dealt with", punctuated with "a lot of unknowns".

Jischai Wyler, a first-year mathematician at Queen's College, Cambridge, similarly touched upon this sense of 'unknowing' when he discussed with us the complications regarding the tracing of lives lost in the Holocaust. He continues to wonder whether he has cousins, noting ruefully that since his great-grandmother was unwilling to discuss her experiences "it did not make it any easier." Jischai's family had a slightly different experience in the Holocaust from that of Avital, Hannah, and Orli. His paternal grandmother came to Switzerland as a child in 1938 on the Kindertransport. She was one of 300 children who came to Switzerland, and she arrived only with her sister – the rest of her family stayed in Germany, where many perished.

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Jischai's great-grandfather is on the left of the podium, in this pre-war photo taken in 1937. Photo Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Robert Bahr

Jischai's great-grandmother grew up in a Swiss family following her evacuation. When this family moved to the U.S., she was forced to move to an orphanage until the end of the war. Jischai explained that, in the beginning, she still received letters from her family, and they could see each other at the border in Basel. At some point, however, she did not receive letters any more and "it was quite clear what was happening". He says with a sad resignation that "it is not entirely clear [which ghetto they were sent to]; probably my great grandfather died before they arrived at the ghetto. I think my great-uncle was at a ghetto in Łódź; I do not know which ghetto my great-grandmother was [in]." However, Jischai recognises the importance of preserving his family's account for posterity, disclosing that after his grandmother turned seventy, there were renewed and increased efforts to record details of her experiences for Yad Vashem.

As students, and in their childhoods, each of the contributors feels that their families' experiences have acutely shaped their identity and sense of self. Hannah recalls that "when I was eight or nine, I remember suddenly realising that we were outside in the world and my grandfather was not wearing his kippah, which to me was unreal because he always wore it. I was struck at that moment with a sudden understanding that he is still terrified, and there is something in him that cannot bear to be recognised as Jewish in non-Jewish space. You can definitely see in his nervousness in going about the world in general, but there is definitely, I think, a feeling very deeply in him of that there is something not quite safe about the world and that is something which can be transferred down the generations and passed on." Such anxieties she feels have most certainly been hereditary, noting that she herself often is "quite nervous in the world and I do often have a feeling of not feeling safe in situations that should be safe."

Avital was able to empathise with Hannah's predicament, saying that she was very aware that she "was Jewish on [her] course and was perceived as Jewish before anything else." She recalls how, throughout her life, she has always felt a profound pressure to perform and achieve, noting that her grandfather "was not supposed to survive and it seems to be purpose since by all accounts I should not really be here either."

Avital goes on in her account to recall telling someone in her first year of university that her grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, and was shocked to find out that the girl had no idea what Auschwitz was. She notes that "not to know Auschwitz is to not know the Holocaust".

Avital's grandfather with his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren (Photo Credit: Leivi Saltman)

Hannah, too, has encountered a distinct lack of understanding about the Holocaust in Cambridge. She mentions various comments that people have made that have touched on anti-semitic tropes, which "probably come out of a place of ignorance". When she initially arrived in Cambridge, for example, she encountered another student bemoaning the living conditions, saying "what is this? Auschwitz?" Hannah says she "did not know what to say or how to react." She also remembers feeling uncomfortable at a Pembroke pub quiz, at which one of the questions was: "what links McDonald's and Auschwitz?" The answer, it transpired, was that they opened in the same year, but for Hannah, the experience proved to be "very upsetting" and notably for her "no one else really felt it."

Hannah remarks that a general feeling of being unsafe affects her as a student. She also commented that "Cambridge does not do enough to commemorate the Holocaust". Last year in Michaelmas term Hannah requested permission to organise a commiseration at Pembroke for holocaust Memorial Day. While the event did go ahead, Hannah could not help but feel that "it should not have taken me going to him and saying that I do not understand why we do not do this normally."

This sense of disconnect is compounded by the account of Emma, a student at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. Emma highlights the insufficient attention paid to the experiences of northern African Jews in the Holocaust. She believes that, although there were less northern African victims than in Europe, "it is still important to commemorate their lives." Elaborating, she explains: "the Italian Empire conquered Libya in 1911. A couple of decades later, as Mussolini aligned closer to the Nazi Party, Italy joined the war on the German side. Following which the already hostile situation for Jews in Northern Africa worsened considerably; Jews from Cyrenaica were sent to a concentration camp in Tripolitania.

"My grandfather was born in Tripoli, Libya, in 1934. When he was eight years old, his father was about to leave the house for work, and my grandfather cried and begged him not to leave, realising the increasingly hostile conditions towards the Jewish community. Nonetheless, as expected, his father left for work that day. He never returned home. Nobody was ever found and no explanation was ever given. My grandfather lives with this memory every day." The continually Eurocentric view that takes precedent in accounts of the Holocaust thus fails to properly acknowledge or pay appropriate respect to other marginalised Jewish sects.

It is essential to realise that while we say "never again", there are continuing campaigns to eradicate groups based on their ethnic and cultural identity. Avital remarked that, as a society, we still "create divisions". Although she loves living in England, Avital still fears anti-semitism. Her brother was recently out with his young family when a man shoved his nephew's pram and shouted anti-semitic abuse at the group. Avital feels that pervasive stereotypes about Jewish control of the media remain influential in shaping popular perceptions of the community, which in actuality numbers fewer than 300,000 in the U.K.

While it is 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, this year also marks 25 years since the Bosnian Genocide. There have also been recent attempts to eradicate Chinese Muslims in Uighurs in the XinJiang province; there have also been several genocides in recent years, including Cambodia in 1975, Guatemala in 1981, and Rwanda in 1994.

Clearly, the legacy and memory of the Holocaust is something we must continually recognise and commemorate. The theme for this year's Holocaust Memorial Day was "Stand Together", a pertinent topic in these fractious times.

Featured image credit: Leivi Saltman.

Credit for other photos: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Robert Bahr, Leivi Saltman.