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Holocaust Memorial Day: My Encounters with Survivors.

holocaustmemorildayPaul Oppenheimer was a survivor of Belsen and I had the privilege of meeting him in 1994 when we did our first Holocaust Day at Robert May’s School in Hampshire where I taught from 1992/99.

There is much debate about how we deal with this tragedy on an industrial scale, this but I passionately believe the only way we can make kids aware of what went on is by getting them to hear it first hand.

I could rattle on endlessly (and frequently did) about all these issues but to hear it first hand is unbeatable and I’m still so proud of what we did. It was at the height of the Yugoslav Civil War and John Major’s craven stand off approach, which allowed the genocide in Bosnia and the siege Of Sarajevo. This was a medieval and disgraceful period in European History and it does them credit that Blair and Clinton were prepared to come to the rescue of Kosovo when they had nothing to gain. They did it because it was right. Period.

This makes our intervention in the Iraq Was even more confusing when you put in this context.

But the slaughter in Bosnia was result of the same processes that produced the unbelievable thing that was the cold blooded industrial murder of 6 million Jews and 2 million others such as disabled, gays, gypsies, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other vulnerable groups in Society.

Paul was a Trade Unionist and in 1990 he was awarded the OBE for services to his local community through his Union work. The local press did an interview and within five questions had told them he was a Holocaust Survivor.

One problem, his wife and kids had no idea so that night he told his story for the first time and it all went from there as he felt ready to go public and relate what happened so that no one could use the excuse that they didn’t know.

As it happens this coincided with the release Of Schindler’s List (“not as good as Mrs. Doubtfire”, overheard at a screening in Hull, I kid you not) and the growth of what some cynics call the Holocaust “Industry”.

There is a school of (stupid) thought that says this interest in the Holocaust is encouraged by Jews in order to excuse the excesses of the Israeli Government in their brutal and inhumane treatment of the Palestinians.

We have to disentangle attitudes to Israel from what happened in Europe and not allow this distraction to diminish from the suffering of the Palestinians.

Personally I think the foundation of a Jewish State in Palestine was handled in the worst possible manner and resulted in some regarding it as a Euro/American Colony in the Middle East with all the baggage that comes with that. The fact is that Israel exists and ain’t going away so we have to deal with that reality, BUT something MUST be done to stop the Israeli’s disgusting and humiliating treatment of the Arab people’s which is facilitated by the rich Arab League nations refusal to offer their compatriots any meaningful financial help to build a viable economy.

 It goes without saying that terror and suicide bombings are equally evil acts and are in fact counter productive as they provoke greater repression and plays into the hands of the hardliners like Sharon. (Why did he never stand trial for the massacre in 1982 in Lebanon?)

The Palestinians have seen their country occupied by percived rich Euro/American people who have stripped them of nationhood and made them poor. And the State of Israel is in receipt of huge US subsidies and has armed itself to the teeth including Nuclear Weapons. So it’s no wonder that Israel is seen as a Bad Thing in the region.

I believe that the Jews are suffering from a collective dose of Abused becomes Abuser.

Now I bet people like Nick Cohen would want to see me strung up as a Nazi sympathiser for saying this. In SOME Jewish people’s view you are automatically a Holocaust Denier if you air such views.

It is well recorded that kids from marriage splits are four times more likely to have a failed marriage, twice as likely to suffer domestic violence as adults (low self esteem being the main reason), have poorer educational outcomes, are more likely to “suffer” from dyslexia and AHDD and are three times more vulnerable to drug addiction.

Sad but true. Now take that and extrapolate it to the Jewish Experience. (Just go with me here). Such trauma has to affect the Collective Psyche of any group of people so the evil vested on them is now channelled towards the Palestinians and behind it all is “we were victims. It’s not fair”. So they lose the ability to empathise with the Palestinian people.

So the chain has to be broken somehow.

The Israelis have to stop seeing themselves as victims and reach out to the Palestinians from a position of self-confidence.

Rabin started this process by saying “We have nothing to fear or feel ashamed about” and he and Arafat brokered a way out. Until he was assassinated by a fellow Jew who said he had “sold out”. Then retreat back into “everyone hates us” territory by Sharon. Cue Intifada Two and the depressing cycle of violence.

Overall the region is the crisis of capitalism in microcosm, and only a workers led Government, weaned from economic reliance on outside powers, can unite Arab and Israeli in the pursuit of a better Society for all. If this means in the interim, a two state solution, then so be it.

Paul Oppenheimer told us of his experiences that saw him lose both his parents and all four of his grand parents. He was born in Germany in 1926 but fled to Holland when the Nazis came to power and ended up in the same class as Anne Frank.

His life followed hers in parallel until she died in Belsen and he survived.

What I found amazing was that a small old guy with a weedy Brummie accent could hold 240 16 year olds rapt attention for two hours. It was incredible and powerful. He broke down when describing his mother’s last hours in Belsen but they went with him. But not in a mawkish way. You often find with teenage girls that they faintly seem to almost enjoy it if something like a car crash happens and they spend ages crying even if the had no connection with the person. Hormones I suppose. Or just immaturity.

There wasn’t any of that and when I encouraged them to write about it, the analysis was spot on. Paul is an old fashioned Socialist and he described in class as well as racial terms. And he made direct parallels with Rwanda and Bosnia so it wasn’t seen in isolation.

Joe Perl. What a guy. I met him at a book launch by Terry Waite for the new Anne Frank Diary in 1995. I asked him if he knew Paul. “Lightweight! He was only in Westerbork and Belsen. Holiday Camps!”

I discovered there is a distinct hierarchy of Holocaust seniority and if you weren’t in an Extermination Camp such as Auschwitz then you had an easy war. He meant it as well.

Joe came to RMS in 1996 and his talk was the most harrowing thing I’ve ever heard…all told in a matter of fact cockney way.

He was with his family and forced to dig a trench in a forest. The Germans went along the line. A bullet in the back of the head and into the trench. He watched this happen to his three sisters and his Mum. Just as they got to his brother all hell broke loose, as there was an air raid. He legged it into the forest with his brother. They went to a farmhouse but heard the guy alerting the authorities so had to run off again.

They were lucky to meet up with the Resistance who tried to help them but in the end they walked at night across Europe and eventually ended up being caught and put into the Camp run by Goethe of Schindler’s List infamy (Ralph Fiennes played him).

Joe has a scar on his face as he was slashed across the face by the Commandant for not throwing himself on the floor in supplication. He would have been shot but the gun jammed.

Then Auschwitz. Hideous. I can’t get my head around how people can behave in such a depraved way. Just the casual nature of the violence. Doing it for kicks.

Joe escaped when Auschwitz was evacuated by the Germans in December 1944 and lived rough until they made contact with the Americans in Austria.

He discovered his eldest brother had survived and was living in Russia in 1990.

What I find unreal is how he could switch off from this and lead a normal life and raise successful kids. It was the same for the Nazis. Eichmann (if you do spell check it comes up with henchmen weird eh?) lived a normal life as an office clerk and his colleagues were absolutely flabbergasted when Mossad caught up with him and his past as the architect of the Final Solution came out. They simply couldn’t believe it. He was deferential to the bosses, mild mannered, didn’t dominate in social events so how could he be one of the most powerful Nazis, part of the inner circle?

This is the sociopath behaviour demonstrated in the Sopranos and in the real world by the Sinn Fein/IRA.

You dehumanise your opponents so you can’t empathise with their suffering. As we were saying about Israel…


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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