The story of the Holocaust is a much told tale. Awareness of the plight of millions of Jews, Muslims, gypsies and many other people throughout Europe is indeed reassuringly high, in Great Britain at least. However, this often-formulaic imparting of knowledge by teachers to pupils, authors to readers, or lecturers to students can sometimes lose the horrific personal aspect of genocide, in its desire to explain and emphasise the scale and depth of the tragedy. It is for this reason that organisations such as ‘The Holocaust Education Trust’ and ‘The Shoah Foundation’ place such emphasis on the importance of personal testimony, something Durham students were able to benefit from this week with the visit of Eva Clarke.
By telling the story of her and her family, Eva showed the tragedies of the holocaust on both a micro and macro level. The inclusion of seemingly small details, such as her mother taking donuts to the transit camp, her aunt writing a postcard to her friend and the description of the everyday discrimination her family endured prior to being sent to the death camps, poignantly reminded the audience that the figure of 10 million victims of the Holocaust is made up of 10 million individuals – each with their own families, stories and little details. Suddenly, the idea of 10 million lives has an entirely new perspective.
One of the most affecting elements of Eva’s talk was the images used as part of her presentation. From pictures of Eva’s parents as a young couple, to a photo taken immediately before the war of Eva’s extended family, the ability to look at images of people later to be killed by the Nazis, and hearing the stories about their everyday lives served a powerful function. They re-enforced the fact that these were real, tangible people who led lives no different to our own. The point has been made numerous times, but to have a relation of the victims telling the audience about her family and her experience amplifies the reality of the genocide.
Another aspect which came through strongly in Eva’s presentation was that of the enormous luck (if such a word can be used in the circumstances) her mother Anna had in surviving her ordeal. Even before being sent to the camps, Eva told the story of how her mother had gone to the cinema, thus flouting one of the notorious Nuremburg laws. During the film, the Gestapo entered the cinema and began to systematically demand the citizenship papers of the audience, row by row. One cannot imagine the terror of Anna’s situation, nor the relief when this search was concluded one row short of where she was sitting.
Whilst interred at Theresienstadt, Anna became pregnant. Unsurprisingly, this was an incredibly dangerous development and, once the Nazis discovered the pregnancy, she was ordered to sign a document stipulating that the child would be euthanized. In fact, the child died of pneumonia soon after he was born. It was his natural death which saved Anna and Eva’s lives; had she arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau with a small child, she would immediately have been sent to the gas chambers. In the event, still able to work and her pregnancy (this time with Eva) well hidden, she was spared and sent to produce armaments at a munitions factory.
After having spent six months working in this factory, Anna, by now heavily pregnant, was sent on a horrific three-week train journey without any food and exposed to the elements en route to the notorious Mauthausen death camp. During this journey, Eva tells the story of how, whilst the train was stopped, a German farmer approached Anna with a glass of milk. Under normal circumstances, to have drunk this milk would have led to a vicious, and quite possibly fatal, beating from the guards. However, with the soviet army on the tail of the fleeing Nazis, Anna was allowed to drink. This, she insists, saved her life and that of Eva.
What is clear then is that Eva’s mother survived in no small part through luck, a point emphasised by Eva. After giving this talk, Eva fielded questions from the audience, and was asked how her and her mother treated Germans in light of their experience. Eva pointed out that her mother would dearly wish to see those responsible brought to justice. In their elderly state, she would not insist on their imprisonment, merely the acknowledgment of their guilt. However, as regards the generations after her, Eva told the audience how irresponsible and futile recriminations were, after all, the German youth of today played no role in these atrocities.
This, then, is the message which Eva sought to impart. That it is individuals who make up a mass, be it a mass of Holocaust victims or Nazi perpetrators, German youth or British youth. What remains true then remains true now; intolerance of the individual leads to hatred of the mass. With the rise of far-right parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece and Front National in France, this is a lesson the world is sadly still yet to learn.
Image: By Logaritmo (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons