Two Holocaust survivors, Renee Salt and Harry Olmer, spoke movingly about their ordeals to a hushed audience of over 100 local students at a Holocaust Memorial Day event hosted by Mosaic Jewish Community on 30 January as Jane Harrison explains. Holocaust Memorial Day is a national commemoration day dedicated to the remembrance of those who suffered in The Holocaust, under Nazi Persecution, and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.
Based on the Northwood Holocaust Memorial Day Education Programme, where over 3,000 students attended various shuls over two weeks, the day included a Holocaust Memorial Day Trust film, which also highlighted global genocide.
Synagogue members ran workshops during the day where pupils were encouraged to take part and think about all the aspects of the Holocaust and urged to fight against stereotyping in the future. But it was the survivors who spoke about the rising anti-Semitism which led to the Holocaust, who held the young teenagers spellbound as they heard, first hand of man’s inhumanity to man.
Renee, from Poland, spoke of being forced from her home and their possessions sent to the families of the German army. After being moved to a ghetto she said they had “to contend with overcrowding, starvation and no sanitation. “In order to obtain a ration card, I worked very hard from the age of 10 in a factory making socks for the army. A gallows was erected and Jewish men were hanged, randomly and with no warning. They let them hang for days”.
Finally, Renee, her parents and an aunt were taken to the railway station en route for the Łódź Ghetto. She said: “Of 30,000 Jews forced from the Ghetto only 1200 survived, and I was one of only 3 children… A journey of 40 km. took 24 hours – over 100 people suffocated.
“Two weeks later, a further “selection” took place, during which my grandmother was taken and an SS officer noticed a heavy gold ring worn by my father. It was too tight for him to remove. The officer was about to fetch an axe when the ring rolled off my father’s finger and landed at the officer’s feet. I didn’t see many miracles!”.
Conditions at Łódź were appalling and she contracted typhus.
She said: “There was overcrowding, starvation and disease. People struggled to survive from one day to the next. People were dying like flies.” She was in hospital when the SS came for all the patients, but she was ‘lucky’ as they did not go into her contagious ward. When she was put on a cattle truck bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau she said notes had been left by the cleaners that people were being taken to concentration camps and murdered. She said: “We could not believe it but we should have done”.
When they arrived her father disappeared and was never seen again. As the selection process began, beautiful music was playing. Renee said: “There was an electric fence and high watch towers. It was so frightening, impossible to describe. This was the place where people were taken straight into the gas chambers.
“I was with my mother as we were forced to strip, have our heads shaved, forfeit any remaining valuables and go to the showers. As we were needed for work, we were not gassed. The whole time you could see the black smoke and notice the sickly smell of burning flesh.” She spoke of having to share soup from a saucepan with five people and the roll calls in the freezing cold until the guards were satisfied. She said: “People would collapse from hunger or weakness or drop dead and the soldiers would dance round them making fun of us. ‘Medical’ experiments were carried out, particularly on twins”.
Renee said: “ I saw Mengle once and noticed if he saw someone holding hands he would split them up. With a flick of his fingers he would decide who should live and who should die.”
She was later taken to work in the Hamburg docks, where a camp for 500 women had been established. She said: “The washrooms had no soap or towels, it was freezing cold – our clothes froze to our skin – and rations barely kept starvation at bay. The work involved the demolition of buildings – it was very hard, dangerous and exhausting”.
Although, by 1945, the Germans were aware that they were losing the war, the persecution showed no signs of abating. Renee said: “Dead bodies littered the roads on the way to Bergen-Belsen, which was full of walking skeletons and a deathly stench. Lice and disease were rife and it was difficult to distinguish between the living and the dead. I could not find my mother and began searching for her. There was no organisation in the camp, no food or water and no roll call. I found her two days after my arrival and she was barely alive. When we got there I gave up all hope of survival.
“One day I heard a tank in the distance. It was British. I collapsed and was unconscious for several days. I was taken to a tank training centre, where there were clean beds, German medical staff and a gradual re-introduction to food. 14,000 died in the following two weeks, including my mother. They were buried in mass graves”.
With an aunt she returned to Poland to search for family survivors and with another aunt went to Germany and eventually Paris, where she met her husband. They married in London in 1949 and had two children and five grandchildren.
She said: “I feel driven to undertake this work so that the world cannot deny that the horrors of the Holocaust actually took place”.
Also born in Poland, Harry Olmer, survived three concentration camps, the first, Płaszów, for one year, Buchenwald and finally Theresienstadt as well as working in two munition factories. He said: “In 1942, all the Jews were expelled from their homes and we were forced to gather at a field next to a railway track at a nearby village where 2000 Jews were held for four days. At the end of the 4th day there was a selection and all the females, children and older men were forced on to cattle trucks and taken away.
“After the train left another train arrived and the remaining young fit men and boys were sent to Płaszów concentration camp near Kraków. The living accommodation was horrendous. We were infected with lice and bed bugs and only had cabbage soup to eat. Typhus broke out and there was no medication. Many people died”.
Speaking of one of the munitions factories, he said: “I was filling shells with explosives and manufacturing land mines filling them with picrene. Everything was yellow; the trees and the people. There was a terrible smell of decomposing bodies. It was indescribable. We had to carry steel shells with our bare hands and our skin would stick to the shells.This place can only be described as hell on earth”.
He was liberated from Theresienstadt by the Soviet army on 8 May 1945, but was so ill he was kept in a hospital until the end of June. On 14 July 1945, 300 mainly boys and a few girls were sent to a camp in Windermere to recuperate. One of his observations was he had ‘not seen white bread for a very long time.’ Finally Harry went to Glasgow University to study dentistry. In 1954 Harry was conscripted into the British army for national service and sent to Germany to run an army dental centre. He married in 1954 and has four children and eight grandchildren. Out of five siblings, three perished in the Holocaust.
He told the youngsters: “Please remember what I have told you. Nowadays people deny it happened. I am a witness to it”.
Before lighting candles in memory of those who died, Rabbi Kathleen de Magtige-Middleton said it was a privilege for these survivors to share their history with us and urged the pupils to pass on their message. She said: “When you get home we want you to tell your friends and family what you heard here today.”
She said: “Hatred and fear of the other, of someone who is different, can lead to a campaign of state sponsored, systematic mass murder. After the war people said never again but humanity is not conditioned to learn lessons of such magnitude. Today you are being given an opportunity to learn lessons from Renee and Harry; “We are asking you to listen, learn and remember. Don’t let the unacceptable become acceptable”.