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THREAD: Holocaust Memorial Day. Today, much of the world remembers the unspeakable. The unimaginable. The unthinkable. The mechanisation of death by the most evil, sadistic regime the world has ever known. Which killed 6 million of my fellow Jews - and many many others besides.
I have briefly told my grandmother's story before, in this article here: opendemocracy.net/uk/shaun-lawso… I have never told it in public in the detail I am about to now.
Along with her two sisters Lia and Isabel (Belush), and her parents, Irma and Geza, my grandmother Erica grew up in the small Hungarian village of Papa. Geza initially worked for a timber merchant before founding his own lingerie company. As a result, the family were well-to-do.
My grandmother's childhood was normal enough. She was plump, and had some issues around her self-esteem as a result. She worshipped her father like nobody else she'd ever know. Her father, she always told me, "never raised his voice to anyone".
In 1939, when war broke out, Geza was in London. His wife pleaded with him to return to Hungary and be with the family. My grandmother never forgave her mother for this: for it would prove a fatal, however entirely understandable demand.
On his return, Geza was beaten up by officers demanding to know why he'd been in London. Hungary only joined the Axis powers the following year; but it was already a deeply troubled place. Yet until 1944, it remained safer than much of the rest of Central and Eastern Europe.
Now, things deteriorated. Dramatically. My grandmother's family had been sent two small children by relatives in Slovakia. They hoped the children would be safe. As Nazi forces occupied Hungary in March, my great-grandfather received a knock on the door.
The children were taken away. Outside, scores of people CHEERED and celebrated. Later, the local general wanted to talk to Geza. He was invited in for tea. There, the general told him that his girfriend had been Jewish. Geza was relieved; perhaps the family would be alright?
The general continued: "So she had the honour of being shot by me". Geza went up to the bathroom. He was muttering away to himself, chattering, chuntering. My grandmother said this was the only time in her whole life when she ever saw her father scared.
Along with all other Jews in Papa - some 4000 - first the family were taken to a ghetto in Budapest. There, the Nazis made Geza dig a trench, while beating him up in ways I cannot even describe. Kicking and punching him from pillar to post, in front of the rest of his family.
My great-grandfather did not survive his injuries. He didn't make it as far as Auschwitz. The rest of my grandmother's family did. On the train, various things happened. When someone tried to escape through an impossibly tiny metal grille, he was discovered. And shot.
Also on the train, in impossibly airless conditions which reeked of urine and faeces, was a sex worker... who'd been discovered hiding Jews in her home. Suddenly, she fell down in front of my grandmother. A bullet had somehow got through the grille.
From that day onwards, my grandmother would never hear a bad word said about sex workers. On arrival at Auschwitz, her mother was met by a drunk Mengele, who gestured some to the left, others to the right. She asked him where she and her daughters should go.
For some reason, Mengele didn't think Irma was the girls' mother. He slapped her, called her a "filthy Jewish whore", but incomprehensibly, gestured rightwards. Had that not happened, I wouldn't be sat here typing this now.
Somehow, the four women stuck together and survived Auschwitz. Their journey took them to Frankfurt am Main: where they were charged with helping construct a runway. They stood in freezing conditions and almost no clothing being beaten by Nazis just for the hell of it.
Yet their next stop proved crucial, for reasons I'm sure will surprise you. Zillertal, Austria. Where there was a camp: but the factory owner had done some sort of deal with local Nazis. As a result, the workers had clean running water and real food.
Over Christmas, the family were therefore able to rebuild their reserves of strength. A picture of Zillertal hung in my grandmother's corridor. She would point to it and say "that place saved my life". The picture is now one of my proudest, most cherished possessions.
Now, though, things declined once more: very dramatically. The family were taken on death marches: first to Ravensbruck, then Mauthausen. On these marches, in impossibly cold temperatures, if anyone stopped to catch their breath, they were instantly shot.
Ravensbruck, my grandmother told me, was far and away the worst of all of it. The whole camp was riven with lice and disease. On her arrival, she saw something she'd never forget. A woman so frail, so bereft, so desolate, she'd been reduced to eating human excrement.
At Mauthausen, meanwhile, Jews were thrown to their deaths by laughing Germans: and everyone around the area could see it. That is why, when locals pretended they knew nothing of what had gone on, they were lying.
Also at Mauthausen, an SS officer kicked my grandmother's best friend to death in front of her. Just 2 days later, with the Allies nearing the camp, the same officer demanded Erica go with him to Germany: to tell everyone how well she'd been treated.
"No", she replied. "I'm staying here". He pointed a revolver at her. "I'm staying here, and you will pay for your crimes". Had the officer pulled the trigger, again, I would not be sitting here now. That was my grandmother: courageous beyond imagination right to the very last.
During these last 13 months, her weight had fallen to just 20kg. And she experienced things no human could possibly even begin to comprehend. Horrors which would traumatise anyone for the rest of their lives.
She'd seen a Nazi officer smash a newborn baby's head against the wall in front of its mother. She'd wept as a group of 10-year-old boys, upon told they would be gassed the next day, prayed that this would reunite them with their already murdered parents.
She herself had been in a line going to the gas chambers. Whereupon an old woman, in terribly poorly condition, SWAPPED with her. "You are young; you have your whole life ahead of her". Imagine the guilt my grandmother carried with her about that extraordinary sacrifice.
Meanwhile, a member of her extended family had been given the responsibility of clearing up the shoes and clothes of those who were gassed daily. One day, he recognised the shoes and clothes... of his wife and children. Who could possibly ever get over something like that?
How, then, did my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and my two great-aunts, survive all this? They stuck together and lived on their wits. Erica spoke fluent German. This was crucial - because it meant she could eavesdrop on the Nazi officers' plans.
As a result, she had an uncanny instinct for knowing who'd be targeted next - and in the hours beforehand, carefully ushered herself and her family away. She always did her very best for everyone though.
She stopped someone trying to escape through barbed wire to their inevitable death: mercifully, the Nazis did not discover this. And when someone in the family discovered a potato, she demanded that everyone take turns in just licking it. Making it last as long as possible.
Then, at last, came liberation. Whereupon many survivors died - they were given too much food, and their stomachs exploded. Yet remarkably, her liberators didn't have new clothes for the survivors. Instead - get this - she had to wear an SS uniform on the train back to Hungary.
And her and her family's liberation wasn't the end. It was nothing like the end. In so many ways, it was more like the beginning. Back in Papa, their house had been ransacked by the locals and taken over by a Russian general. He offered the family just one room in their own home.
It is a measure of how much my grandmother's self-esteem had been destroyed that she always spoke of this man with reverence, with gratitude. Extraordinary. But she was able to access the cellar. And there, a miracle happened.
I've already mentioned that the place had been ransacked. But in the cellar, she leaned against a panel in the wall. Suddenly, all this jewellery fell out! Her father must have hidden it there. She was able to pawn the valuables, and use the money to emigrate to England.
But not before, very shortly after her return from the camps, she was accosted by a neighbour. Remember: my grandmother weighed just 20kg upon liberation. The neighbour remarked: "I see you finally learnt how to work, then".
Quickly, she made a success of herself in the UK. Basing herself in London, she had a clothes store on Baker Street, and lived in Wembley Park, then Preston Road, then Kenton. She also had two children: my father and my late aunt.
Yet she was totally, utterly traumatised by her experiences. She never spoke about them to anyone until 1990: fully 45 years later. Until then, if anyone so much as mentioned "Germany" or a German company like Bosch in conversation, she would shut down for the rest of the evening
Not only that, but my grandfather, who she loved dearly, was not a good man. He proposed to her as follows: "I know I can trust you because nobody else would want you". He forbid her to tell their children anything about her experiences. She agreed, thinking it would protect them
Remember: back then, there was no counselling. No understanding of what trauma did to people. Her believing that never telling her children about the camps was completely understandable - but also a tragic mistake. Because her emotions had been crushed out of her, quite literally
So the children grew up in this incredibly empty environment emotionally. They knew something was horribly wrong - but nobody explained anything to them. My grandmother did everything she could; but now her husband was poorly too. He died prematurely of asthma.
Worse: my aunt developed what, at the time, was thought to be schizophrenia, but we now know was bipolar disorder. Very little was known about either. At one point, some idiot doctor even suggested a lobotomy! Ultimately, the right medication was found: a huge daily dosage.
At her most of out control worst, my aunt would scream and hit her mother and blame her for her father's death. Nanny Erica would blame herself for her daughter's condition, because she'd been experimented on with chemicals in the camps. Angela had been born only 3 years later.
Symptoms of malaria would persist in my grandmother until 1982, when they were literally pumped out of her in surgery. I have no idea if there was a link - but I've always sworn never to have kids for the same reason. My grandmother agreed: "Shaun, someone has to break the cycle"
A cycle, please note, which wasn't just physiological. It was emotional too. My father and aunt grew up with a mother who had the worst case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder it's possible to imagine - and nobody would tell them anything about why.
Angela's condition meant her care dominated my grandmother's life. Meaning my father, with his own very real problems, found himself ignored and had to grow up far, far too fast.
Then the pattern repeated itself with his kids. He never sought counselling; he never talked about his emotions. So all four of us ALSO grew up in an environment of complete emotional emptiness. All of us felt abandoned, and I had to grow up very early, just as he had.
People often notice how analytical I am. The reason is I had to be: I was just a child, but I knew something was very, very wrong in the environment, and nobody would explain anything. So I had to gradually figure it out for myself - and empathise with my father's immense pain.
Mental health problems, sadly, would continue: affecting all four of me and my siblings. There are so many complex reasons behind them, both nature and nurture - but there's no question, Hitler and the Nazis had more than a bit to do with it. scienceandnonduality.com/an-excerpt-fro…
My grandmother, meanwhile, never showered again after her liberation. She cut her own hair, made her own clothes, repaired her shoes constantly... and despite becoming extremely wealthy through property, only ever shopped at 99p stores.
She found it almost impossibly difficult to hug anyone. Her kitchen had enough food to last at least 2 years, enough drink to last at least 5 years. There was no point telling her this was unnecessary. It had happened to her. She'd experienced it. Why couldn't it happen again?
Heroically, she'd also arranged to smuggle the rest of her family over the Hungarian-Austrian border just before the uprising was crushed in 1956. At the British Embassy in Vienna, they were given tickets to London - and she had all of them in jobs by the following week.
My great-aunt Belush went on to make a special name for herself. She discovered that the hormone-based drug, Primodos, caused similar birth defects to thalidomide. She published her research in the journal, Nature, and suddenly found herself frozen out of the medical profession.
This was Belush with her husband Endre (Bondi) here in 2014. Both have since tragically died. You can read Belush's obituary in The Guardian here. theguardian.com/science/2018/m…
But for my grandmother, tragedy was never far away. She'd arranged round-the-clock care for her daughter Angela in Haifa, Israel. She regularly visited her. Then, in 2006, Angela contracted severe pneumonia, and died from complications in surgery.
The worst thing that can happen to any parent is their child dying before them. Erica doted on Angela; she was her pride and joy. I had never heard her so low, so completely bereft. Her relationship with my father would also collapse, for hugely complex reasons.
By now, she lived in Brighton: where she moved in 1984. She had a fabulous flat, full of books and artwork. And she was very well known around the place, making friends with all sorts: neighbours, policemen, you name it. They took care of her.
She continued working until age 90. My conversations with her would last for hours on end. We always had a very unique relationship. It was me she first opened up to about her experiences; it was me who had the immense privilege of knowing her as well as I did.
This is a photo of me and my whole family at my Bar Mitzvah. I had never seen her so happy as she was that day. She even danced with me! A very special memory. I'm the one with the shy awkward look and the rapidly expanding belly; Nanny Erica is second from left at the back.
Finally, into her 90s, her critical faculties gradually failed, and she died in March 2017. If you click the arrow and scroll rightwards, you can read her obituary in the Jewish Chronicle here: pressreader.com/uk/the-jewish-…
I spoke about my grandmother at length at both her funeral, and a prayers service a few days later. The Rabbi present at the latter invited me to speak at his synagogue - and tell her story whenever I could. Which, of course, I've done here.
But something else needs to be remembered about the Holocaust. It wasn't only Jews who were murdered in their many millions. It was also the Romany, incredible numbers of Poles, Russians and other Slavic peoples, the mentally ill, the disabled. They must be remembered too.
This is 14-year-old Czeslawa Kwoka, a little Polish Catholic girl, who was murdered at Auschwitz on 12 March 1943. So many children like Czeslawa, beaten around the face by a guard right before these pictures were taken, were taken from this world abominably early by pure evil.
Prisoners of war, political prisoners, and so many ordinary civilians were murdered too. My grandmother always mentioned this; she always wanted their suffering, their slaughter remembered in the same way as that of the Jewish people so rightly is.
Something else too. For what should be obvious reasons, my gran was a passionate, implacable supporter of Israel. As she explained to me: "Shaun, we'd always been weak. The lesson of the Holocaust was that we had to be strong".
Believe me, I know how many feel so angry about the Palestinians' injustice. I do too. But what's so often forgotten is that Europe had done NOTHING to prevent the Holocaust: witness the attitudes of my gran's Hungarian neighbour even after she returned.
In fact, Europe had done nothing to prevent - and often, been right at the centre of - 2000 years of persecution of the Jewish people. Which occurred above all because they had no home, so were depicted, despicably, as 'polluting' other nations and races.
Between the wars, and during World War II, hundreds of thousands of Jews immigrated into Palestine. Which wasn't an independent state; it was a British mandate. The UN oversaw partition... and the rest is tragic history, a tragedy in which Arab states have also played their part.
It doesn't make someone an opponent of Palestinian rights, Palestinian justice (I'm a passionate supporter of both) if they also recognise what history has taught us. There MUST be a Jewish state. There must be a safe haven, a home, for the Jewish people.
And the reason I support the Palestinians too is, above all, because everyone needs a place called home. That's why I support the Kurds' cause. That's why I believe in self-determination. Why is moving house so stressful for anyone? Because we all need a place we can call home.
Sadly, in Israel, I think a great deal of the government and military's behaviour for so long now has owed to trauma, and to fear. The trauma I referred to above, which has impacted heavily on even my own family. The fear of it one day happening again.
And the very real, very justifiable fear, too, of being surrounded by states, many of which don't even recognise Israel, many of which still want to destroy it. That would generate fear, suspicion, even paranoia, among any people.
That is not to excuse frequently disproportionate, often outrageous, completely illegal Israeli action in any way. But it does, at least in part, explain it. And for there ever to be peace, far more people need to understand things from and empathise with Israel's point of view.
Nothing better teaches us the levels which humanity is capable of sinking to than the Holocaust. If it happened in Germany - civilised, cultured, educated Germany - it could happen anywhere. Which is why we must always remember; never forget.
And it's also why whenever racism or bigotry is encouraged by any leader against any group anywhere, we must always call it out. Always fight it. So many of us take our freedoms for granted. We musn't. My grandmother knew that better than anyone I've ever known. /ENDS
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