Whenever things became unbearable Holocaust survivor and renowned sculptor Naomi Blake remembered a tiny star she glimpsed during her darkest days.
Her memories and experiences were recalled – and in some cases recorded – by her daughter Anita Peleg who spoke movingly about her mother to students attending the Holocaust Learning UK event at Mosaic Reform on February 5.
Naomi, the youngest of ten children, was born in Czechoslovakia. Her family were moved to a ghetto, then marched to a local brick factory to later board a cattle truck to Auschwitz.
Anita said: “Every day they would hear the cries for help from the cattle trucks. There was no food or water. My mother said the cries from the children were so terrible she wanted it to end. Then out of nowhere she saw a star; a glimmer of hope so whenever things got really bad later she would conjure up that image. She told me how good that star was in helping her get through in Auschwitz.”
She explained how Naomi and her sister were stripped and had their heads shaven, panicking when they thought they had been separated. She said: “They didn’t recognise each other because of their bald heads.”
But in spite of the appalling conditions, lack of food and freezing weather Anita said her mother always remained positive even commenting about the bunk beds, with no blanket or mattress, that ‘it was OK because we can squash together to keep warm.’
Naomi and her sister were later sent to work in a munitions factory in Brahnau where they were taught how to sabotage the bombs. She said: “She was very proud that she was hurting the Germans.”
Even in their darkest moments there was some humour. When Anita asked her mother what they used to talk about it was always food. She said: “They would argue about whose cheesecake or chicken soup recipe was the best. They promised each other when they were free they would always keep a loaf of bread in their bag. While maybe not a loaf, there was always food in mum’s bag.”
It was during a death march to the Baltic Sea, when Anita was sure the plan was to drown them, that Naomi with ten other women made a run for it. They found a house with lights on and food on the table ‘like a miracle’ where they stayed until Russian soldiers arrived and told them the war was over and to go to a refugee camp.
But Naomi had always dreamed of going home, which she did to discover her home in ruins. She eventually went to the then Palestine and in 1952 came to England where she became a famous sculptor. Anita said: “she didn’t speak the language so it was a means of expression. She wanted her work not just to be a memorial to her family, but to be a positive message about the future, not to let this happen again.”
Out of 32 members of her family, by 1945 only eight members remained, the rest being murdered during the Holocaust.
Naomi, a Fellow of the Royal Society British Sculptors, has over 50 works on public display including Mosiac Reform’s ark doors and a stunning piece of work at the back of the shul.
Eva Wohl was one of 10,000 children whose lives were saved because their parents were brave enough to send them away.
Her daughter, Lesley Urbach said Eva was 16 and her aunt, Ulli, 13 when they were put on the Kindertransport, with their parents paying £50 per child. Lesley said: “Ulli could not stop crying but Eva was more excited. She didn’t understand she might never see her parents again.. They had one suitcase each. They could not take money. Their parents said nothing. There was nothing to say.”
Her parents, who had planned to go to Chile, were later murdered in Auschwitz in 1943.
Eva and Ulli travelled via Holland to Harwich and ended up at a convalescent home in Sussex. Lesley said the girls were well-cared for, themselves helping to look after the younger ones who were terribly homesick.
Lesley said: “It was very difficult to get news. Their parents did get a letter from them through the Red Cross but they were only allowed 25 words. You can’t say much in 25 words.”
“What a decision to have to make, to send your children away. It was not a great experience, but certainly a better experience than for those left behind. Had my grandparents not sent Eva away I would not be standing here today.”
“I call on all of us to stand together against hatred, persecution and injustice. If each of us does one thing against injustice what a better world we would have today.”
Her words were echoed by Mosaic Reform rabbi Kathleen de Magtige-Middleton who said: “People were targeted for being different. We said never again but other genocides have occurred since. We are asking you to listen and learn and take away the lessons of the Holocaust so something like this will never happen again.
“Each one of you has a role to play in speaking out when something happens that is not right: bullying, racism, antisemitism, picking on someone who is different. You have a choice. You can speak out or allow that which is unacceptable become acceptable.”
A series of workshops were held throughout the day for students from Harrow College, Harrow High School, Avanti House Secondary School and St. Dominics Sixth Form College. They explored the background to rising antisemitism in Germany which ultimately lead to the murder of 6 million Jews.
A film about the Holocaust and genocide throughout the world, to this day, was shown and a memorial candle and poems were part of closing ceremonies. The event was compered by Mosiac member Alex Gerlis.