Bread rolls are abundant and thin soup is never on the menu. Just some of the things you need to think about when you run a centre for Holocaust survivors. Jonathan Freedland pays a visit
Harry Fox: ‚If you survive, it’s luck.‘
The Guardian, Sat 14 May 2011 00.03 BST
It’s a building you would never notice, on a busy traffic intersection in Hendon, a stubbornly unfashionable part of north London. Inside, there is nothing that would catch the eye: the meeting rooms are filled with basic, functional furniture. A quick glance at the people who have come to visit would suggest nothing more than a regular drop-in centre for the elderly.
But linger more than a moment and you’ll realise this is no ordinary place. I have barely taken off my coat when Sam Pivnick, strong-voiced and vigorous at 85, urges me to sit down with him as he finishes off a bowl of thick, steaming soup. We have not been speaking long when he rolls up his sleeve to show me the bluey line of digits that still stains the skin of his left arm: the tattoo that marks former inmates of Auschwitz.
For this is the Holocaust Survivors Centre, the only place of its kind in Britain and the first of its kind anywhere. Its clients, numbering 550 – including 300 regulars – are now deep into their 70s, 80s and 90s. What they have in common is direct experience of the event widely regarded as the greatest crime in human history.
Here, one regular tells me, „If people ask, ‚Where are you from?‘ they mean, ‚What did you go through?'“ Here, memories of tragedy, despair and the most appalling suffering are not the exception; they are the rule.
It manifests itself in the most unexpected ways. Take that soup. Thick, hot and nourishing, it is served all year round, even in the height of summer. Thin soup is never on the menu, says Rachelle Lazarus, one of the centre’s full-time staff: thin soup is too associated with the camps.
Similarly, I notice that a basket carrying big, solid chunks of bread is out all the time, even after lunch has been cleared away. That’s a legacy of the time someone took away someone else’s bread. „All hell broke loose,“ Lazarus says. The injured party had saved that bread for later, a habit developed seven decades ago and never shaken off. To this day, many of those who endured enforced hunger – whether in a concentration camp or ghetto – need to know there is food available, just in case. So the bread rolls stay out.
I’m also struck by the appearance of those who have come on this midweek day. Many, especially those in their 70s, rather than 90s, are short. That’s how most of the world’s remaining Holocaust survivors look – short because starvation stunted their growth as children or teenagers.
Whatever preconceptions you might have about a day centre for the elderly should be checked at the door. The men are smartly dressed, most in jackets and ties; the women are elegantly turned out. Judith Hassan, the centre’s founder and director, tells me that, too, is the product of a survival strategy. „If you looked unwell, you were going to be exterminated,“ she says. Survivors have told her that, back in the camps, they would sometimes prick their fingers, rubbing the blood on their cheeks so they would not look too pale to work. Because if you didn’t work, you didn’t live.
There are clashes of personality and squabbles, as there would be in any similar centre for the elderly (or youth club, for that matter). But here they have a different quality.
Before I visited, I had been warned that there was a „strong sense of hierarchy“ among the survivors, according to who had endured the worst fate under the Nazis, with those who had been through the death camps ranked above those who were, for example, child refugees from Germany.
Sure enough, Sam Pivnick and I had been talking for only a few minutes when another man wanted to join our conversation, standing over us, interjecting with observations of his own. It turned out he was one of those who had escaped Germany as a child, a baby in fact. Soon Sam’s patience snapped. „Who wants to hear about you?“ he shouted. „What did you survive? You were in your mother’s womb!“
Most I speak to don’t share that sentiment. „We’re a diminishing flock,“ says Harry Fox, 81, born Chaim Fuchs and a survivor of several camps, includingBuchenwald. „If we didn’t let others in, we’d be very small.“ He endorses the centre’s inclusion of those who came to the UK as refugees after November 1938 – the month of Germany’s Kristallnachtpogrom against the Jews – including many on the Kindertransport, the prewar evacuation route that saw Jewish parents in Germany and beyond send some 10,000 children to Britain for safety. Besides, Harry adds, „I feel sorry for those Kindertransport children. Eight or nine, and they were taken away from their parents. I was with my mother till 1942 and my father till 1945. I’m lucky.“
The Holocaust Survivors Centre began with a gap. Judith Hassan, then a newly trained psychotherapist with the Jewish Welfare Board – predecessor of today’sJewish Care – was working in late-1970s Swiss Cottage. It was an area of north London she knew had become home to many who had either escaped or survived the Nazis‘ war against the Jews. Yet they were not coming forward. „They didn’t want to seek help,“ Hassan says now. „These were people who had survived by keeping a low profile; they had learned not to appear frail or vulnerable.“
They were especially wary of a formal organisation, even a Jewish charity anxious to help. In the war years, being on a list held by a bureaucracy could spell death. Hassan recalls the attitude: „It’s an institution, it’s an organisation – it’s dangerous.“
But it was clear there were people who needed specific help. She remembers one woman suffering terribly as she went through the process of moving house. The woman didn’t spell it out, but Hassan soon realised the experience was evoking memories of a forced eviction back in Germany.
Slowly, contact with a single survivor led to the creation of a small, informal social group, meeting at first in people’s houses. Hassan did not lead, but listened and offered help. It’s an approach she still follows today, ensuring that every decision – from the type of cake served for tea to new fabric for the sofas – is taken in consultation with the survivors themselves. Why? „I can’t be the leader, because then I’ll be seen as the Nazi.“ Instead, the centre aims to give a measure of control and autonomy to people who were robbed of every shred of it.
In the same building, deliberately distinct from the centre, is Shalvata, a therapy service offering counselling. This, too, needed careful handling: in the Nazi period, a label of mental illness meant certain death. Survivors had to overcome great fear just to walk through the door.
But what Hassan and her colleagues discovered has proved a revelation. „I had to chuck out the whole psychological model I had learned,“ she says.
Conventional psychology assumed her clients would be too damaged to function. In those early days, compensation payments were conditional on an assessment by a psychiatrist – with a diagnosis of „Survivor Syndrome“ common. „But as I worked with this group, I realised there’s not a pathology there,“ Hassan recalls. „What I saw was their strength, their resilience.“ Hassan understood it was the horrific circumstances survivors had been through that were abnormal: their reaction to that „extreme and indescribable suffering“ was, in fact, entirely normal.
Those informal meetings moved into the current premises in 1992, thereby establishing a model that has since been emulated in France, Israel and beyond. Now other communities, including those who lived through the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, are creating similar places. The animating principle is powerful and simple: that people who have experienced trauma benefit from being together.
All this might suggest that the Holocaust Survivors Centre is a place of horror, drenched in melancholy. But that’s wrong. On the walls are paintings from the art group. They depict beaches and woodland, scenes of bucolic beauty from the English countryside. They once had a session dedicated to a shared passion for chocolate. There is plenty of laughter – an emphasis on life rather than death.
Part of the explanation lies in the fact that when the survivors look back, many are keen to focus less on the agonies that were visited upon them by Hitler and his executioners and more on the lives they lived before. Harry Fox remembers being Chaim Fuchs, growing up in a shtetl, a village 12 miles from Lodz in the Polish countryside. He can still hear the sound the pigs made when the Polish farmers killed them, not in a slaughterhouse, but by whacking them with a plank of wood.
On one of the days I visit, there’s a session in Yiddish, five men and seven women sitting around a boardroom-style table – laden with pastries – exchanging banter in the language of their childhood.
Instantly, the room fills with the gestures, shrugged exclamations and resigned humour that is Yiddish’s signature. Azoi vi a doktor vershtayte de krenk. „Like a doctor understands a sickness,“ one says, to laughter. Harry tells a joke, moving between Yiddish and English. The teacher asks what they think of the upheavals in the Arab world. Someone responds that Israel should send a message to Egypt, reminding them it was the enslaved children of Israel who built the pyramids – and telling the Egyptians that, if they knock them over, „the Israelites won’t build them up again“.
Then Bella Kerridge – born Bella Zuckerman 89 years ago – a woman with eyes that sparkle, sings a Yiddish song, acting out the story, delivering a genuine performance. Her voice is sweet and clear as she sings of a now-vanished world – of shabbos, of the rebbe and rebbitzen – a gentle melody of oy’s and bim-bom-bom’s that ripples through the room like faint signals sent from a once-bright star, snuffed out long ago.
In conversation after conversation, a common theme emerges. They are approaching the end of their lives; in 15 years, they assume, they will all be gone. What if, they worry, the memory of the Holocaust dies with them? Aware that there are deniers of the Shoah all around,starting with the president of Iran, their concern is intense.
The result of that anguish is an urgent, even desperate desire to tell their story, to ensure it is passed on to the next generation. Freddie Knoller, 90 years old and a tall, charismatic figure who chairs the centre’s Camp and Ghetto Survivors Committee, tells me proudly that he spoke at 54 schools last year – more than one a week. „To me it’s a mission that I have to tell the young people what happened – so that the Holocaust is not forgotten. That is the fear of us survivors. After we’re gone, will the Holocaust be forgotten?“ Several have published, or self-published, memoirs. They want to testify.
And so it is that, within minutes of meeting people and at next to no prompting, I hear their stories. Sam Pivnick tells me that as a teenager his job in Auschwitz had been to empty the trains as they arrived bringing Jews to the gas chambers. He had to sweep out „shit, piss and bodies – old people and children“ who had not survived the journey. He witnessed the notorious selections, when Dr Josef Mengele – known as the angel of death – assessed the Jews standing before him, deciding who would live and who would die.
Joseph Kiersz, in shirt, tie and a hearing aid in each ear, tells me that he, too, had been a prisoner in Auschwitz, a slave labourer there for 18 months, before he was dispatched to another camp atNordhausen. They went by train, travelling for six or seven days without food. They survived by constructing a box, attaching it to their belts and lowering it outside to scoop up the snow below. Sometimes it would be covered with oil from the train, but if it came up clean they would push the snow into their mouths, sucking out its moisture.
„We’d have to take off the dead people,“ he says. „You’d have to pick up the dead people and lay them like you lay herrings, one this way, one that way. I was carrying them. They weighed nothing, they were like skeletons. I carried them under my arm.“ His breaths are coming faster and heavier as he speaks. Eventually, when he recalls the wife he lost four years ago – „She was a lady, everybody adored her“ – he starts to cry. But only then.
Janine Webber, born in Lvov in 1932, tells me she survived by posing as a Catholic and working as a maid. „I lived with two families: one betrayed me and killed my brother. After that, we lived in a hole, 13 adults and me, hidden by a young Pole. His name was Edek. He hid 14 Jews for nothing, for no money. For a year, in a bunker. We took it in turns to lie down or to sit. For a year, I didn’t see daylight. I was 10.“
And Irka Reichmann, warm and engaging at 78, tells me her story – one I cannot shake. She was in the Warsaw ghetto. „I was six and my parents hid me in a cupboard.“ Minutes later, just as her parents had feared, the Germans came. Irka knew they were Germans because, from her vantage point in the cupboard, she recognised their boots. „They took my father and mother and sister, and left me in the cupboard. I saw it through the keyhole.“ That was the last time she saw her family.
They didn’t always speak this way. In the immediate decades after the war, many survivors were reluctant to talk about their experiences. „When you’re young, you’re busy, you’re trying to build up a life,“ Irka says. „You have children, you’re trying to make money.“ Some feared passing a burden of heartbreak on to their children, not wanting to „bring them up with hatred“.
But if they were reluctant to speak, there was also a deep reluctance to listen. Some say their children never asked them about their experiences: „I think my son thought it would hurt me to talk about it,“ says one. Others say it was the wider society that didn’t want to know, even Britain’s Jewish community. „People here were not interested, they couldn’t understand,“ says another.
„Our so-called brothers and sisters have so little knowledge,“ Irka says, remembering the British Jew who once told her, „We had it bad here, too; we had bombing.“ „People know nothing. They have no insight whatsoever.“ That will sound harsh to those in the Jewish community who believe they value survivors enormously; they will point to the support they give and the donations they make to Jewish Care, the centre’s main funder.
But for Irka the sentiment is real. She felt a barrier, one that separates her even from her own family – one that exists everywhere but here. Which only makes the Holocaust Survivors Centre all the more valuable to her. „It’s been my salvation,“ she says, a „second home“, a place where she feels truly understood. „If I’m upset, if I’m hurt, I can come here, have a bowl of soup and talk. There are people here who went through what I did.“
And the need is greater now than ever, now that many are alone, without the daily distractions of raising children and earning a living. „This is the worst time in a survivor’s life,“ she says. „I think of my parents more now than when I was younger.“ Now a great-grandmother, Irka longs for just one photograph of the woman she last glimpsed through that keyhole. „I would like to know what my mother looked like.“
What, besides a tragic past, do these people have in common? „We don’t give up easily,“ says Janine Webber. „Resilience, that’s the common thread.“
Freddie Knoller agrees: „All those who survived were optimists. The pessimists gave up, but we are optimists. I love life. Most of the people here love life and love people.“
But Harry Fox is having none of it. He knows the part chance, random acts of kindness or savagery, played in deciding who died, including his parents, and who lived, including him. „I can’t stick my chest out. If you survive, it’s luck. There are no heroes.“ He pauses. „The heroes are all dead.“