During my time with Act for Change I had the privilege to travel and work with some amazing people who I am very thankful for being role models and inspirations to me. Holocaust Survivors who I learned so much from just by being in their company and I can wholeheartedly say that through them openly talking about their suffering they had a positive impact on my own development. The Holocaust Survivors often said to me that when they speak to the students they become their witnesses and when they talk they are re-living what happened to them. How selfless is that. To commit to telling others what happened to you even though it causes a lot of emotional pain.
I was asked to work for Act for Change through a special lady called Judith Kramer - Judith attended a training course during my work for the Hillingdon Community Mediation Service. I was one of the trainers, after the course Judith asked if I would project manage and facilitate workshops for Act for Change. This began a journey for me that impacted on everything in my life. I will cherish the years that Judith was not only my friend but also my mentor. Judith was a Barrister but retrained as an Anthropologist. She spent a period of time travelling around remote villages in India teaching women empowerment techniques. She wrote a book about her experiences in India “The People of Jamkhead” and I loved nothing more than hearing stories from her time in India and her colourful past. She once travelled on a bus in Calcutta with Mother Theresa. She always introduced me as her friend but I always felt that she was my teacher. She had a gift for breaking down barriers and building relationships and I have been greatly influenced by her. Sadly, Judith died in 2014 and I will always miss not having her in my life. I was so grateful to Judith for giving me the opportunity to work with the survivors, some of which I have detailed below:
Steven Frank – Steven lived close to Anne Frank before war broke out. On our car trips he told me about Margot Frank and her strength of character. Steven told me about his lineage. His father who pioneered the legal aid system in Amsterdam by representing patients who had mental health issues. His two Grandfathers. One was a successful surgeon perfecting the appendix operation and the other was a sheet music publisher who brought “Happy Birthday” into the country onto sheet music. He told me that he felt he had the most amazing lineage and then there was him. I told him that I and many others thought he was amazing. He said he didn’t feel that he had made the same impact that his Father, Grandfather and Great-Grandfather had. I told Steven I was sure that amazing people don’t look in the mirror and call themselves amazing but in our eyes he was. Steven was sent to a workcamp with his Mother and Brothers. His Father was arrested, tortured and murdered in Auschwitz. Steven’s mother taught her son’s English. His Mother worked in the laundry department. For the prisoners who worked with the laundry they received extra food as it was so difficult and disease was rife. Steven’s mother gave her boys her extra rations which helped to keep them alive but Steven talked about the nightmares he has because of receiving those extra rations. Steven talks to the students about cherishing good friendships. He said that his Father’s friends wrote to Hitler to ask for clemency. During our car journeys Steven told me about being so hungry that he needed to suck his buttons to try and trick his mind to thinking that it had eaten food. He also told me that it was a Russian prisoner who asked him to translate the famous Winston Churchill speech and how they were lined up to destroy evidence that had been collected in the camp. Steven said every now and then you would hear the cries of a mother/father/son/daughter passing on the remains of their family member.
Anita Wallfisch – Anita’s father was a devoted German. The family did not leave their home as Anita’s father could not believe that the Germans would be so stupid 'This will pass, they can't be that mad.' And when he realised they were that mad, it was too late." When Anita arrived in Auschwitz she was encouraged to make it known that she played the cello. She says that it was her love of music that saved her life as she was sent to play in the women’s orchestra. She told me about playing for Joseph Mengele the Nazi doctor at the camp who became known as “the Angel of Death” and her thinking about what had he been doing prior to her playing for him. In October 1944, Auschwitz was evacuated. Anita was taken on a train with 3,000 others to Bergen-Belsen. She survived six months with almost nothing to eat. After the liberation by the British Army she was transferred to a nearby displaced persons camp. In 1946 she moved to England with her sister. She married, had a son and a daughter and co-founded the English Chamber Orchestra.
Zigi Shipper – Zigi was born in 1930 in Lodz, Poland. His orthodox parents divorced when he was 5 years old. He went to live with his father and grandparents. On the outbreak of war Zigi’s father woke him to say that he was moving to Russia. Zigi never saw his father again and doesn’t know what happened to him. Zigi and his grandparents were ordered to the ghetto. His grandfather didn’t survive for long in the ghetto, Zigi was left with his grandmother. He was 13 when he arrived in Auschwitz, in 1944. After years in the ghetto, he was so hungry that when he arrived and saw smoke rising from the chimneys, he instantly assumed fresh bread was being baked. It is a memory that will never leave him. A few weeks after arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau he was sent to a concentration camp near Danzig. With the Russians advancing, Zigi was sent on a Death March arriving in the German naval town of Newstaudt. They were told they were going to Denmark. However, before this could happen there was a British air attack, and during the chaos that followed Zigi realised that all of the Nazis had left. They were surrounded by British troops and liberated on 3rd May 1945. As soon as they were liberated, Zigi and his friends went looking for food. Three days after liberation Zigi ended up in hospital for three months due to the effects of overeating after a long period of malnutrition.
Freddie Knoller - Freddie was born into a cultured Viennese family. His father was quite strict and his mother very easy-going, always happy and very musical. She made sure that her three sons received musical tuition. His oldest brother, Otto, played the piano, Eric learned to play the violin, Freddie learned to play the cello at the age of 6. On the night of the 9th November 1938, when the Nazis burnt down all the Synagogues, his parents insisted that the children should emigrate. Eric moved to Florida. Freddie went illegally to Belgium and Otto went to Holland. His parents did not want to leave, saying that they were too old for anything to happen to them. His Father was 56 and mother 53. He found out after the war that his parents were murdered in Auschwitz. Freddie talked about his mindset towards his survival and the places that he escaped to and from. How he drove German soldiers to the Moulin Rogue using a false I.D. Once he was arrested by a Gestapo officer who claimed that he could accurately distinguish between the head of a Jew and that of a true Aryan. While he was saying that, he went behind Freddie, took his head between his hands. Freddie felt his fingers start to trace, then stop and trace again round the circumference of his skull. He told Freddie that his ancestors must have been of good German background. Freddie talked to the students about being deported to the east in a cattle wagon. There was not enough room for everyone to sit on the floor. The youngsters made room for the old people, women with their babies and the infirm. In the wagon there was one bucket with drinking water and one empty sanitary bucket. He travelled for three days and three nights. He said he will never forget the stench, the arguments, the screaming of the babies and the moans of those who were dying. He was squeezed against a middle-aged Frenchman called Robert, a gentle person who looked very much like his father. They became good friends. Robert was a doctor and Freddie did not realise then that it is because of him that Freddie is alive today. Once they had arrived in the camp Robert was sent to work in the hospital. After hard labour in the camp Freddie went to the hospital were Robert gave him extra food. It was 30 years before Freddie could talk about what he experienced and credits his wife, daughters and grandson for his happiness.
Alec Ward – Alec’s mother died in childbirth. He had an older beloved sister called Lea. His father remarried Sarah and had three brothers, Laib, Herszel and the baby. Alec’s stepmother was wonderful and brought him and Lea up as if they were her own children. On the outbreak of war Alec and his family were transported to the ghetto. Alec’s father helped him and Laib to escape. Alec and Laib lived for three months in the forests and fields. They slept in haystacks in the fields in their clothes and shoes. They lived like two wild, frightened animals. During the night Laib would say that he was frightened, cold and hungry. Alec would pacify him by telling him that in the morning he would make a camp fire to warm them and bake some potatoes to eat. He told me that it tore his heart and was almost unbearable for him when Laib said he wanted his Mummy and Daddy. Alec also craved to be with them. While they were walking in a field they came across a group of Jewish prisoners and they decided to join them. Early one morning the German SS men ordered them onto lorries which took them to their first slave labour camp. On the way to the camp they stopped in a town called Radom where Alec experienced the first selection, one of many during his incarceration. During the selection the German SS men picked out some elderly prisoners and his little brother Laib and shot them in front of Alec. The first time that I heard this from Alec I thought my heart was going to break. He was treated horrendously and told me about the 19 medical conditions most of which were due to the torture and hardship which he suffered during his incarceration. During the trauma of what he experienced he forgot his birth date. The Red Cross traced his records and they were able to identify the 1st March 1927 as his birth date. However, this may not be completely accurate as it is possible that he gave the Germans the wrong date in order to survive.
Hannah Lewis – Hannah’s father was in the partisan but come out of hiding to warn her and her mother that he had intelligence that there was going to be a round up. Hannah’s mum said Hannah was to sick and would not make it in the woods and that she would take her chances. The next day they heard the butt of the rifle on the door. Hannah’s mum pushed her into a corner and walked outside. Hannah witnessed her Mum being shot. Hannah spent her time in work camps. Eventually, Hannah was rescued by a Soviet soldier. She was found in a trench, dirty and very hungry. In 1949 Hannah and her father moved to Britain to live with his aunt and uncle. They were the only two survivors of their family. The rest were murdered at extermination camps or shot close to their homes. A teacher from a school in Buckinghamshire sent this through to us after Hannah’s talk.
In addition to the life lessons that I learned from Judith, Alec, Steven, Zigi, Freddie, Hannah, Anita and many other people involved in Act for Change what never ceased to amaze me was the message behind the survivors talk. None of them preached about hate, cultural differences, anger or resentment. Quite the opposite they said they do not hate the young Germans for what happened and encouraged the young people to build good friendships and find a way to accept differences. I was always humbled at how well received the survivors were by the young people and the feedback that they gave after the talk. I feel that by working on my own conflict, communication and change workshop and my work through mediation and conflict coaching is my way to honour the learning that they gave me.
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