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The International Tracing Service and the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association – Learning from History in Partnership and Friendship

Lilian Black is daughter of Holocaust Survivor Eugene Black and Chair of the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association, Leeds, England.

By Lilian Black

In August 2008 after a number of unsuccessful attempts in previous years to secure access to information at the ITS Eugene Black and his eldest daughter Lilian arranged to visit the archives in Bad Arolsen. Eugene was born Jeno Schwarcz on the 9thFebruary 1928 into a Jewish family in Munkacs, formerly Hungary. He was the youngest of five children and had three sisters Blanka, Jolan and Paula and an older brother Alexander. His mother was called Leni and his father Bela. They lived prosperous and happy lives. Eugene’s father was not very religious although his mother was and they kept a kosher house and had the Friday Sabbath meal, often with wider members of the family. Eugene was a bright student but his greatest love was football. He played in the school team and his mother frequently told him off for coming home with dirty boots! On 19thMarch 1944, everything changed as the Germans occupied Hungary and their already well rehearsed plans for the Final Solution were implemented. The ghetto was formed and families from outside Munkacs were forced in from the surrounding areas. On May 14thEugene was coming home from school when he saw his family being pushed into the back of a lorry. He approached them and was himself made to get in. They were taken to the brick factory and immediately loaded into cattle wagons. Thus began his journey into hell. After three days they arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau where Eugene was selected for slave labour, and he never saw his family again. 

Eugene was then sent on to Buchenwald, Mittelbau-Dora, Harzungen and Ellrich. In March 1945 he was sent by train to Bergen-Belsen. He was liberated there on 15thApril 1945 by the British forces. He was 17 years of age, weighed less than 50 kilos, was an orphan, and in the country of his enemies. He had experienced and witnessed the worst in humanity. After liberation once he recovered some of his health, he became attached to the British Forces as an interpreter and in 1948, he met my mother who was with the British Army. They fell in love and he came to Britain in 1949 where he married, had four children, two grand children and a successful career with Marks and Spencer.                                                                            

Growing up we were never allowed to speak about the camps. We knew father had been in the concentration camps and his family had been gassed but there was a long silence about something which was too horrible for words. We were not allowed to watch TV programmes about the camps, anything German was ‘verboten’ and we were to be protected at all costs. There were no photographs, no impression of how they had looked or lived and no possibility of father ever revisiting the former camps or returning to his home town. It was just all too painful and too difficult. I remember as a child wondering why there were no members of father’s family at our family parties and how sad this was. 

Then in 2005, we decided to attend the 60th liberation commemoration event at Bergen Belsen and also to visit Mittelbau Dora and Buchenwald. By this time father had retired and started to speak about his experiences in schools and to community groups. He joined the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association (HSFA) in Leeds as a member, along with me and this is how our journey of discovery began. We were welcomed in Germany by some truly wonderful Germans, people like Sabine Stein, Jens Christian Wagner, Bernd Horstman, Diana Gring, Thomas Rahe, who were giving their lives to working in the Memorial sites, day in day out, facing the past and the actions of their forefathers, taking responsibility even though they had not themselves perpetrated the crimes. I remember the occasion on the evening after the liberation event when we entered a restaurant in Celle to have dinner after an emotional day. We must have looked like a survivor family, dressed in dark formal clothes and then something amazing happened. Everyone stood up and bowed towards us in contrition and respect. We just nodded and tried to smile in acknowledgement. This journey, where father saw a new Germany, not one which was destroyed and bombed, but one which had been rebuilt and where he was made welcome and it was acknowledged that he was a victim of the Holocaust, was a truly cathartic moment for us all, but especially for father. He had faced his demons and so had I.

From this point on, we never looked back and returned frequently to the annual commemoration events at Bergen-Belsen, Mittelbau-Dora and Buchenwald keeping up our friendships with the memorial staff who always welcomed us so wonderfully. 

In 2006 father decided he wanted to return to Birkenau to pay his respects to his family who had perished there. This was the most difficult of journeys. For the first time father could walk around the camp and see the bureaucracy, scale and organisation of death as it had been. This time he said however, that there was no smell of burning. He recounted step by step his arrival and separation at the ramp and his subsequent entry into the camp including the sheer terror and total confusion as to what was happening. He described to us how he was stripped and had all his hair removed, from every part of his body and the issue of his ‘striped pyjamas’ and underwear. He told us about later that night when he saw the chimneys blazing and there was a terrible smell of burning and how his friend’s father Mr Kornreich who survived selection told him that this was the bodies of their families burning. This was the first time he told us this. It was a very sad visit, but born with great fortitude by father.

In 2008 I again wrote to the ITS in Bad Arolsen and said we would like to come and see what records there were for father. I was immediately contacted by Gabriele Wilke of the ITS who said she would look into the matter and be ready to meet us on the agreed date in August 2008. We arrived there by car and were greeted by Gabriele and an interpreter, although we both spoke and read German. We were taken to a room and there we saw several files which had been extracted containing all of my father’s prisoner records. It was quite astonishing to see his Auschwitz card, one from Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora, the transport lists, movement from block to block in Mittelbau-Dora, his sick records when he was ‘excused from tunnelling’, a liberation list from Bergen-Belsen, a photograph from his International Refugee documentation post liberation. The bureaucracy of death was just astonishing to us.

Then Gabriele asked us if we were ready to hear about the fate of his two sisters Paula and Jolan. At this point we were quite without words and in some shock. She then produced the prisoner cards for father’s two sisters who had been selected for slave labour like him. They were sent with 1000 Hungarian Jewish women to the Gelsenlager in Gelsenkirchen to perform slave labour in the oil refinery and clear up after the bombing raids. 

Also contained in the records was a death certificate. They had both been killed in an RAF bombing raid in September 1944. For 64 years my father and the whole family believed all his family were gassed in Birkenau. The shock was enormous. The ITS then telephoned Stefan Goch, the historian at Gelsenkirchen and we arranged to go there the next day. We took our leave of the ITS staff and drove to Gelsenkirchen where we were shown the railway line they came in on from Auschwitz, the oil refinery which still exists and the cemetery where there is a memorial stone for the 151 Hungarian Jewish women killed in that fateful bombing raid. Sadly there is no memorial and indeed no memory of the incident at the present day oil refinery if you look at their website. Their broken bodies lie there still. After the war ended, seen in correspondence, the company denied any involvement in the use of slave labour as ‘they came under the Nazis.’ This continues to be unresolved and for me an unfinished story. 

In 2010 I was elected as Chair of the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association and the membership of survivors determined that we should collect our survivor´s testimonies, continue to speak in schools and to wider community groups and undertake Holocaust education. In addition there were many precious letters, photographs and some artefacts, quite ordinary but of great emotional value which were brought out through the Kindertransporte or had been recovered post war. I was asked by many of the members whether there could be any records of their families’ fate, like my father had found. Thus began a long relationship with the International Tracing Service. What we found was that by combining documentary evidence of persecution with a survivor’s story, we could make an evidence based approach to our education work. When we started receiving information from Bad Arolsen, so much was revealed to our survivor members. One person received the date and time of her step father’s death in Sachsenhausen and the date of her biological father’s death from the Auschwitz Death Book, another discovered that her mother had been previously married and had had a child who had died and was now buried in Belgium. People received their own records of persecution which they had never seen before and it often filled in time gaps of not knowing for sure how long they were in a particular camp. We have to date received hundreds of copies of documents relating to our membership through the International Tracing Service. Our friendship with the ITS is based on human contact with people who care about our legacy and how we need to use this to alert the world to what may happen when people are persecuted for whatever reason. This is the dearest wish of our survivor community, to make sure no-one ever suffers how they did, simply because they were Jews.

It is to this end that in 2016 we decided to create a permanent Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre at the University of Huddersfield. There is no similar resource in the North of England, yet Holocaust education is part of our national curriculum. We came to Germany to discuss this with our German partners including the International Tracing Service and sought advice about our interpretative approach and plans. We then raised the funds through the Heritage Lottery Funds, a number of philanthropic trusts, family trusts and individual donations. The Centre will open in September 2018! Our Holocaust Exhibition and Learning centre will create an immersive experience combining visual testimony with narrative, artefacts and our evidence base provided by the International Tracing Service. 

In 2017 I was part of a UK delegation to Bosnia. This is a more recent genocide perpetrated against the Muslim community, much smaller in actual numbers but with many parallels to the Holocaust in terms of processes used. In Bosnia however, there is no acceptance of responsibility. Male survivors and the Mothers of Srebrenica told us how they had returned to their villages to live amongst the perpetrators who walked freely. There were no records and some mass graves remain hidden. They have no place to go to grieve and nowhere to get information. There is a high level of denial from ‘authorities’. This is in stark contrast to our experience in Germany. 

Perhaps we need the passage of time to help heal wounds, or maybe the scars are there forever. I know that we as a family and an association never forget our families and mourn their loss everyday. But we believe that by working together we can secure our legacy for future generations to learn what happens when stereotyping and persecution become the norm. 

In September 2017 Eugene Black died peacefully in his home, his most precious place. He is missed by so many people. A man of great humour and humanity, he would wish us all to go on and never give up. He always said, “Life is for living.” His legacy forms part of the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre.                                                                        

We are grateful to our many friends in Germany who helped us on our journey and especially to the ITS for their professionalism and humanity. We value our partnership going forward.

 

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