‘For those whose voices were silenced’
A survivor of Bergen Belsen concentration camp told her chilling testimony to pupils of nine local schools at a Holocaust Memorial evening at Hampton School says Andy Lawrence, History teacher.
Last Thursday more than three hundred and fifty people, including more than one hundred pupils from nine local schools, gathered at Hampton School to remember the Holocaust. The pupils were joined by Cabinet Minister Dr Vince Cable MP, Zac Goldsmith MP, the Mayor of the London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames, councillors and members of local Jewish, Muslim and other communities.
Before the main event the pupils took part in a workshop led by Paul Salmons, Programme Director of the Centre for Holocaust Education at UCL Institute of Education. Paul’s interactive workshop asked the pupils to be historians, to investigate an artefact from the time. The artefact was a toy, lovingly made by a father for his son…a little boy who was murdered along with his mother in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Paul then challenged the pupils to ask themselves wider, deeper questions about the nature of the Holocaust and those involved.
Prior to the day each pupil was made aware of a fragment of the story of a young Polish girl called Mala. Some of the pupils wrote a letter to Mala explaining why it was important to remember her story even today. No one in the audience knew how Mala’s story finished. No one knew if she had survived or was one of the one and a half million children who perished in the Holocaust. There was, however, one person present who knew how Mala’s tale ended: Mala herself. Mala, who we had been put in touch with by the Holocaust Educational Trust, rose from her chair in the audience and made her way to the stage to an ovation. For the next hour Mala Tribich, now 85 years old, survivor of Ravensbruck and Bergen-Belsen, recounted her story to an audience that was spellbound by her testimony.
She described how the Nazis invaded the Polish town where she lived and how, as a 9 year old girl, this was the moment when her life was turned upside down. Her family, along with 28,000 other Jews, was forced to live in the Piotrkow ghetto. Sanitary conditions were appalling, food was scarce and the overcrowding was terrible, with up to 10 people living in a room. Mala witnessed her mother, Sara, and sister Lusia being taken away to be shot leaving her alone with her father Moshe, her brother Ben and 5 year old cousin, Anne, who she would look after until the end of the war.
The Piotrkow ghetto was liquidated at the end of 1942 and the family was split up with Mala and Anne being sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.
“They took everything away from us.” Remembered Mala “We were stripped. They shaved our heads and we had to use communal showers. They gave us uniforms and when we emerged from the showers we could barely recognise each other. It was as if they had taken our very soul. We were not human any more. We were just numbers. It had a terrible effect on us as we started to lose hope and around us people were dying very quickly.”
The two young girls were then deported in cattle trucks to Bergen-Belsen where Mala said conditions defy belief, with hundreds if not thousands of people packed into each barrack. An estimated 50,000 people died at Bergen-Belsen including Anne Frank who died a month after Mala arrived.
The camp was liberated in April 1945. Miraculously Mala and her cousin Anne managed to survive although Mala believes she would have died if the troops had arrived any later because by that time she was suffering from typhus and could hardly move.
The girls were nursed back to health after many weeks of care and were sent to Sweden and then to the UK, where eventually Mala made contact with her brother Ben who had also survived. Her father had sadly died.
Mala married her husband Maurice in 1949. She also went on to gain a degree in sociology from the University of London and today has two children and three grandchildren.
Visibly moved by her account, the Hampton audience was invited to ask questions about her experience. In her answers, Mala described how she felt gratitude to a Nazi officer who took pity on her, allowing her to return to her family rather than board a train to a death camp. She also explained her reason for speaking at memorial events:
"I find it very emotionally draining remembering the events of the Second World War but I am not speaking for myself. I speak for all the people whose voices were silenced" she explained. " Whole families were wiped out, generations of people, and if we don't remember them at events like this - then who will?"
To help members of the audience to remember those who were killed and to literally take something away with them from the event we stuck a piece of paper with the name of a victim of the Holocaust under every seat in the hall. We asked everyone to take the name with them and to hold them in their thoughts on Holocaust Memorial Day which was on Tuesday 27 January. Each individual would have had hopes, dreams, fears…and a future which was cruelly taken from them.
This year sees the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazi work and death camp was the scene of the largest mass murder in human history where over a million people were killed. Yet these enormous numbers are hard to connect with; instead it is the personal testimonies of the individuals who endured such suffering that truly convey the horror of the Holocaust.