As Holocaust education becomes mandatory in Australian schools, we hear from the dwindling ranks of Australian survivors. It has been almost 70 years since the end of the Holocaust, in which the German Nazis, under Adolf Hitler, killed millions of Jews.
The move comes as the already small number of Australian survivors of the Holocaust dwindles. At the Jewish Holocaust Centre In Melbourne, a few are still devoting their time to sharing their stories with younger Australians.
In this report compiled by Naomi Selvaratnam and Santilla Chingaipe, we hear some of those tales. The voices in this special report are of Irma Hanner, Willy Lermer, George Ginzburg, Abe “Abie” Goldberg, Charlie Goldberg and Daniel Goldberg.
“The school was closed in 1940. I was all by myself. I used to go on the street with the Star of David. People were very cruel. They used to hit me and spit at me, call me a ‘bloody Jew’. It was awful.”
“My uncle and my family in Brussels, my little cousin, they took us in the car. We went to France. The German army was already a hundred kilometres from Brussels. And in the car, we had to wait on the border of France — women, children, mothers feeding their babies. And then the heroes of the Luftwaffe came down. The Luftwaffe was the German air force. They came down, machine-gunned the whole column of cars. And blood was flying out. They died with their babies on their breasts. And I took my little cousin and ran zigzag in the forest, saved her. Eventually, they went back, they couldn’t go any further, and I went right up to the Pyrenees. That’s where I went, on the Spanish border.”
“They locked us up, boom-boom, in the dark, black, about 80 people in one train, one wagon. We rode for about three, four days. We arrived in Poland, in Auschwitz. Then everybody out, the luggage on trucks, we never saw that again. A lot of people on trucks — ‘Right, left, left, right.’ Young girls on the left, young boys on the left. They left old people on the right, mothers with children on the right. The ones on the right, they went on trucks to the gas chambers. We could see the chimneys smoking and fire come out of the chimneys, burning them, killing and burning them, gassing them.”
“In Theresienstadt, the day I arrived, I will never forget as long as I live. They had tables in this big place — Theresienstadt was an old fortress, and there they used to train armies, and this they used as a ghetto. Later on, it became a transit camp, because people were sent there and, if they couldn’t work, you were sent to Auschwitz. If you had no use for the Germans, you were useless, you were sent to Auschwitz. Apparently, I was useless in the beginning, (but) later on, they changed their mind, I don’t know.”
“I arrived on the 29th of August, 1944. On arrival, after days of being transported in those cattle cars, so on arrival, when those doors were flung open, the scream of the SS* and the barking dogs, “Everybody out,’ and then we were separated. Men one side, women and children on the other side. And those few precious moments when I was still together with my mother, my mother was able to whisper in my ear. She said, ‘Abraham, you should do everything humanly possible to survive. And when you will survive, wherever you will find yourself, you should tell people what actually happened.’ This, I kept the promise, not only to my mother, to my extended family, but to the six million who actually were murdered.”
“There were tables with camp clerks — which were prisoners, of course — and, as it happened, I came to a desk, to a camp clerk, who knew me as a little boy from before the war. And he said to me … he picks up the card, you know, the list, and he said, ‘You know, you shouldn’t go out, because you’re sick.’ I actually didn’t know at that time what that means. And he said quietly to me, ‘Don’t worry, I will fix you up.’ And then he opened his mouth and said (loudly), ‘I said, “You go over there, right here now. Move!”‘ So, off I went. And that’s how I went to Camp D, to the labour camp. Now we were separated from the gypsy compound just by barbed wire, (which was) loaded with high-voltage electricity. And there were about 12 people who went to the infirmary for treatment. Within two days, they were sent to the gas chambers. Now if I would have gone to another one who didn’t know me, he (would have) said, ‘Okay, you go over there,’ you know. I would have stayed there, and they would have sent me to the gas. He saved my life. And, you know, a funny thing is I haven’t seen him anymore.”
“I was standing there, thousands of us in queues, and I had to go to the toilet urgently, and the girl behind me said, ‘I have to go, too’. So, of course, I spoke German, and I asked somebody where to go. So, they directed us to a place, a latrine. It’s two pieces of wood and a big ditch. One piece of wood to sit on, and the other just a bar above your shoulder, and the rest is a ditch. That girl who went in with me, she fell into that (ditch). She never got out alive. Never. That was the first day when I arrived. I will never forget it as long as I live, and I’m an old woman now.”
“I saw the chimneys belching the smoke out. We could smell the burning flesh of the people burned not in the crematoria but burned in the pits. Because, those crematoria did break down from time to time because of the immense heat. So, well, I knew that my mother went this way. Well, but we have to brace ourselves, we have to actually numb ourselves. Otherwise, we could become insane, knowing what’s going on, where your loved ones were murdered and killed. And then again, I saw people being clubbed to death. While it’s unbelievable, I saw people throw themselves on the electrified barbed wires.”
“You were surrounded by barbed wire highly loaded (electric), watchtowers with machine-guns. And then they took us to tents, and then, at the end, they marched us out of the tents. The Russians were already on the right-hand side, and we could hear the artillery fire of the Russian army. The Germans ran in the night-time, everything dark, and (yelling), ‘Out, out, out.’ They gave us blankets, they gave us everything. They gave us food to carry, as much as we could carry. And we walked through the snow in the middle of the night. In columns of thousands, thousands, thousands, thousands. And I carried as much as I could. And whoever couldn’t march anymore, there was a liquidation squad on the end of the column. Boom-boom-boom. Killed you. When the truck was filled with bodies, the truck went in the forest, they put petrol over (them), they burned the bodies, and the truck came back again — empty.”
“You know, to see such a little child murdered. Why? The child didn’t even have a chance to commit any crime or to sin or whatever. You see, they had the idea that they had to kill the children because, if any of them survived, they would take revenge. That was the talk, you know? They gave instructions that they had to kill the children with the mothers, together, not to let them live. So that they can’t take revenge.”
“I decided to escape. I wrapped myself in these tobacco butts, my body, so that I’d lose the human scent. I’d lose it, because dogs couldn’t smell me anymore. And then one night, when the column stopped, I let myself fall down the cliff. I fell and crawled in the snow, the dogs couldn’t find me, and then they walked away, and I marched. And I went about two days in the forest, and, after a few days, I heard noises of tanks. I looked, they were Americans, they saved me. I came out with my hands up. And I was interviewed, I was fed, they gave me a vitamin injection. And I had a panel of officers. And there was one colonel there, he happened to be Jewish. His name was Colonel Friedman. And he interviewed me — he interrogated me. I was more or less interrogated, because a lot of our captors, the SS officers, they took on the identity of the Jews. Yep. They shaved their hair, and they put a number on their left arms. And we registered then for Australia. And I found my mother alive — she was passed on from one family to another family in Berlin. And I came to Australia, on the Johan de Witt, around 1948. Best thing I ever did in my life. It’s a beautiful country. It’s got a future. Doesn’t matter what happens here. I have lived happily ever after. And I got children, I got grandchildren, and that’s it.”
“What I tell the children when I talk to them is, ‘Australia’s the best country in the world, and you have to make sure that it stays that way.’ I’m frightened to say, history is repeating itself. Hate is worse than a cancer. A cancer, you can get some medication for it, but hate, it’s only (cured by) education. And for us survivors — there are not many left — it is the most important thing. It shouldn’t make a difference … colour, creed, religion. It shouldn’t. See, Hitler classified us as a race. We’re not a race. We’re a religion. And we should be tolerant to each other. And Australia is the best country, and, I’m frightened to say it, history is repeating itself, very much so. And it’s terrible what’s going on. There are people today that say it never happened. Well, it did happen.”
“For only one reason, I speak to the students — and I’ve been doing that for nearly the past 20 years — it’s to convince them against hatred, that we can live in peace. Because, we have a beautiful country here. We’ve got so many ethnic groups, and we get along fine. I meet people — students, university students, grown-ups from different countries, some countries I’ve never heard of, you know? And I speak to them, and it’s very nice. They speak to me, and I honestly enjoy that, because I see that they are good … they are people, they are human beings. Why should I hate them?”
“One of the questions I asked Dad was, ‘Do you hate the Germans for what they did?’ And he just looked at me and said, ‘Don’t use that word ‘hate’. If you do, you become that that you hate. It’s too powerful an emotion to … to use.'”
“I’ve been to Auschwitz. I led a group (from) here, you know. Everything was open. They were selling frankfurts and hotdogs. When I was there, there were no hotdogs there. (laughs …) Yeah. The gate was open, not closed. And hundreds of people were marching through and singing, and there were Jewish flags, and, you know, it’s, it’s … it’s like a showgrounds.”
“I went back to Theresienstadt after 50 years. It was the anniversary, I went back. It nearly killed me, physically and emotionally, but I did. Because I lost a lot of, a lot of … a lot of people died there. Because I lost a lot of people there who helped me. They didn’t make it. I mean, they ended up in Auschwitz. But they helped me when I was inside. I felt I wanted to do it. My husband was already dead.”
“The last three, four years, I was thinking I should go to Poland, should go back to Cracow, have a look around there … go back to Birkenau and see the camp in Plashov where I spent time, you know. And I would go to Germany, to Dachau, and I spent some time in Sachsenhausen, which is near Berlin and Oranienburg — (went) there to see those camps. But, look, I have seen a lot of pictures on it, so it’s no big deal.”
“For me, when I enter there, it’s so visually in front of me. And it’s even … any time I describe about what happened there, when I describe something, it’s visually in front of my eyes. Even now, my eyes are getting a bit wet. I can’t help it. I remember seeing it, how it was then. Of course, I dress different, I’m not hungry, but I feel it.”
“We went as a family in 1996. We arrived at Auschwitz, and here we are, it’s a bright summer’s European day, beautiful sunlight. We get to this place, and you see the gates. And having grown up with the Holocaust, it was still a shock. I mean, hearing about Auschwitz and being there, just the size of the place … It was as far as the eye could see one way, the other way. It was just a camp, with the remnants of the electrified wire and the barracks and the ruins of the crematoria. I opened a bottle of whisky, and we all had a shot to steel the nerves, and we walk in. And we got to a spot, and Mum, Dad and myself and my sister just hugged. And I turned … I said to them, ‘Here’s your victory. Here you are standing here with your … with your children.'”
“Being probably the last generation that’s going to hear the survivors’ stories, it makes it special, in a way. My generation needs to find out as much as they can now while we still have that firsthand reference. And it’s amazing just having that connection that no-one else probably will ever have with the Holocaust and the stories behind it.”