In view of the refugee crisis in Europe, it seems apposite to be reading this collection of testaments from survivors of the Holocaust, people who fled Europe to make a new life here in Australia. With a foreword by Arnold Zable and a powerful introductory essay by Alice Nelson, the book consists of fourteen narratives which consist of what Zable calls a three-act drama: the time before, when there was home, family and a sense of belonging; a period of unrelenting horrors; and then liberation, accompanied by a sense of devastation, loss, a period in limbo and then rebuilding a life…
Reading these stories is an emotional experience. No matter how much you think you know about the Holocaust, the personal story brings to the fore the very ordinariness of people who are just like us, who went through the unimaginable. The B&W photos make this ordinariness vivid – pictures of little kids; a girl who perished with her doll; a brother and sister who died in Sobibor – because a labourer had a fight with the farmer who was hiding them and got his revenge by giving them away to the Nazis. And yet remarkably these people came here to the other side of the world, with nothing in their pockets, and somehow managed to create new lives, new families, new reasons to go on living. The family photos taken in Australia are a testament to the human spirit and what can be achieved when people are given a fair go.
This year is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camps, but this anniversary has a special resonance because so many of those who were freed have since died. There are few survivors left to bear witness now. So many of the stories in this book conclude with a shift from the first person narrative to the author’s gentle summary that this survivor has now passed on. One especially poignant summary concludes with the postscript Not much is known about Aaron’s life in Australia and the whereabouts of his descendants. (p. 145, following the story of Aaron Landau). It seems dreadfully sad that after so much loss, family connections are again broken, so if anyone reading this knows Danielle Landau, his daughter or any of Aaron Landau’s descendants, do connect with Alice Nelson or the Holocaust Museum of WA.
What is particularly striking in the context of the European refugee crisis, is that although anti-Semitism was the soil which allowed Nazism to flourish, there were many ordinary people who helped to rescue Jews from the murderous Germans. Farmers, pharmacists, teachers and Christian pastors found hiding places and extra rations, while a miraculous chain of underground heroes moved Jews from place to place, often just a few steps ahead of certain death. Today, it is not necessary to risk your life to try to help the flood of refugees in Europe and the camps in the Middle East: all that’s needed is to open your heart, speak up, and try to persuade others to do the same – so that once again we can see the efforts of ordinary people to bring their political leaders to show humanity in the face of human misery on a scale not seen since the end of the war.
Let’s hope those efforts do not fall on deaf ears in Australia.
PS (the next day)
If you would like to help the present refugees either in Europe or in the camps in the Middle East which this week had to cut back on food rations because they are overwhelmed by numbers, this article in The Age includes a useful summary of agencies that are working in the field. They keep updating the article, so you may need to scroll down to find the list.
Author: Alice Nelson
Title: After This: Survivors of the Holocaust speak
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2015
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press
Fishpond: After This: Survivors of the Holocaust Speak (eBook also available)