THE HOLOCAUST, RWANDA, CAMBODIA … SURVIVORS’ STORIES
To mark the liberation of Auschwitz 66 years ago, five people who survived either the Holocaust or subsequent genocide talk about their mementos from that time….
January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day, which marks the date, 66 years ago, when the largest Nazi extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated. Decades later, survivors’ stories are still emerging. “For every story we know, there are others we will never know, from communities that were wiped out during the Holocaust but also subsequent genocides, particularly in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur,” says Carly Whyborn, chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. “We must use that as inspiration to tell our stories today. The Holocaust and subsequent genocides are still relevant to us – they didn’t happen overnight, it was a gradual process that built hatred and if we don’t stamp out hatred today, we truly haven’t learned the lessons from the past.” This year, one of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s projects was to encourage survivors to tell their story through an object.
Iby Knill, 87, lived in Bratislava, then in the former Czechoslovakia. She escaped to Hungary when the Nazis invaded, working for the resistance. She was arrested in 1942 and spent two years as a political prisoner, then on her release was rearrested and taken to Auschwitz.
“We were in the last wagon taken to Auschwitz. I was taken on the day that was supposed to be my wedding day, 17 June. The wagons were opened, we were told to leave the sick, the old and the children. Five of us decided to stick together; we linked arms and sang the Hungarian anthem and walked up to Dr Mengele. He waved us in through the gate. We were stripped, shaved and registered.
“There were 500 people in each hut and when you were lying down, you had to lie like spoons – there was no way of moving. The smell from the chimneys was all-pervading. Once a week you were taken to be showered and you never knew if it would be water or gas. We would line up to be counted and if someone shook or fell over, they were taken away. You didn’t think about yesterday, and tomorrow may not happen, it was only today that you had to cope with and you got through it as best you could.
“I volunteered to go to a slave labour camp. When the Allies were approaching, the Nazis closed this camp and forced us to march to Bergen-Belsen. Those who couldn’t walk or fell behind were shot. We were liberated on the way by American soldiers.
“In 1946, I went back to Bratislava and found out that my mother and brother had survived. My brother had watched my father being marched off to the wagons that would take him to Auschwitz. He had said to my brother, ‘Go away and hide!’. My brother had been crying and my father threw him a handkerchief. When my brother opened it up, my father had hidden his gold watch chain in it. My brother gave it to me and I had it made into a bracelet. I have worn it every day since 1947. It’s a contact with the past, with my father and it is a part of me now.”
Denise Affonco, 67, was forced to work in what became known as the Killing Fields in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. Up to two million people died during their rule – those who weren’t executed died from starvation, disease and overwork.
“My husband was arrested and I never saw him again. I took my son and daughter, and we left our house and everything we owned in the city and we had to start a new life in the countryside, being forced to work in the rice fields. We got less and less to eat, and after several months my daughter had become very weak. We had only two meals a day – just one bowl of rice soup. After nine months, they moved us to the northwest of the country to another camp. There were a lot of mosquitoes and we started to get sick. My son was taken to another camp and he had to work. Even when I was ill, I would go to work so that I could look for vegetables or insects in the forest for my daughter to eat. She was so weak and before she died, she asked me for a bowl of rice, but I had nothing to give her. When you lost someone you loved, nobody would help you, we had to bury them ourselves.
“When the Vietnamese arrived, they took us to the nearest city. They asked me to be a witness for the trial and asked me to write my testimony about daily life in the camps. I still have the copy typed by the Vietnamese authorities. It was very hard to write it but I hoped that it would be my part in bringing justice. During the trial Pol Pot was condemned to death, but the international community said it was a show trial. Now there is an ongoing trial at the UN and I hope there will be justice. Sometimes I look at the document and I go straight back to that time and place. It is my testimony and I have to keep it preciously. It is important for me, and my daughter, and the future generation. We have to try to understand what happened and not forget.”
Jean Louis Mazimpaka
Jean Louis Mazimpaka, 34, was 17 when the genocide in Rwanda started in April 1994. He escaped to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“We heard on the radio that the killings had started in the capital, but nobody expected it would come to us. Then a friend near us was killed. Another family was killed and a friend of mine warned me that our family was next. We went to stay with a Hutu friend who was married to a Tutsi woman. The next morning, when we went back to our house everything had been stolen. Refugees started arriving at our church every day, and some of them had machete wounds, they were crying, hungry, desperate. The killing started about a week later. We were outside the church and we fought with stones for a few days, and we lost a lot of people.
“Twelve of us decided to swim across Lake Kivu, a huge lake, that night to escape. I swam for two nights and two days and one by one each of my friends became too tired and drowned. There was no way to help each other, we were all exhausted. I was the only one who survived.
“A year later, I went back to Rwanda. A friend had saved my brother’s photograph album, and there was a photo inside which had been taken at a party about four months before the genocide. My older and younger brothers are in it, my friends, my brother’s friends. Of everyone in the photograph, I am the only survivor. It’s difficult to explain how that feels because you have a kind of remose that I am here but so many people are not. Sometimes I think why did I survive?”
Martha Blend, 81, was born in Austria. An only child, she escaped to England in 1939, aged nine, on the Kindertransport.
“I was given this book on my eighth birthday, just before the Nazis came to Austria. A cousin sent it and I decided to badger people to write in it. They wrote improving things, about being good and clever, and there were some funny messages from friends. My father wrote about doing my best to study if I wanted to achieve anything. I cherished this book as a child, and it was one of the few possessions I brought to England, along with some clothes, my doll and pictures of my parents. I had never been away from my parents before. My father had been arrested and I had to visit him in a police prison to say goodbye to him.
“The first morning I found myself in a strange room in a strange bed, I burst into tears. After that, I adapted as best I could. After the war, my foster parents contacted the Red Cross to get a list of the survivors and my parents were not among them. I didn’t find out what happened until many years later when I was in my 30s when I was able to come to terms with what had happened; my father had died at Buchenwald in 1939, shortly after I left. My mother was put into a ghetto in Vienna in 1941 or 1942, and then sent to Poland – I imagine to Auschwitz. I look at my autograph book from time to time. It is very painful because it is the only sample of my father’s writing and a tenuous link to my Austrian past. I don’t know what happened to the other people who wrote in the book.”
Lily Ebert, 80, was born in Hungary. In July 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz with her mother and siblings. She was transferred to an ammunitions factory about four months later.
“I was about four or five when my mother gave me a gold pendant. I loved it and wore it for special occasions. When the Germans invaded, we were moved to a ghetto, whole families living in one room. We had to give up our possessions, which included jewellery. My brother hid my pendant in the heel of my mother’s shoe. One day, in July 1944, they put us on wagons. There were about 70 or 80 people in each wagon. It was a very hot summer, but you can’t imagine what it was like in there. They put in two buckets – one for water, the other for human waste. Quite a few people died. We didn’t know where we were going; they told us we were being taken to work. My mother gave me her shoes to wear – with my pendant hidden inside. Our transport was the last out of Hungary.
“We arrived at Auschwitz on a beautiful summer’s day. We were made to stand in rows of five, and a man – later I found out he was Josef Mengele – with one movement of his hand told people to go either right or left. Old people, children, ill people were taken left; young people were taken right. Me and [two of] my sisters were sent right; my mother, younger brother and [younger] sister were sent left, and we never saw them again. We were always hungry and thirsty, nothing was clean, but the worst thing was the selections. I was with my sisters and I knew that as we got weaker we would be selected to be killed. The heel [concealing the pendant] was worn out over time. I would hide the pendant in bits of bread and, like that, it survived.
“Since the end of the war, I’ve worn my pendant all the time. I think it’s the only gold to go into Auschwitz and come out with its original owner. They wanted to destroy us, and they tried everything, but I still have this object that is left from my childhood. It is a link to my mother and to the happy time before.”