Obituary: John Chillag

Born Vienna, April 20, 1927. Died Leeds, March 21, 2009, aged 81.


Auschwitz survivor John Chillag co-founded Leeds Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association, writes John Fisher.

His family left Vienna after the 1934 Nazi attempt to overthrow Austria’s government. John’s father, Jozsef Csillag, joined the family business in Gyor, western Hungary, based on building materials and contracting.

In March 1944, Germany occupied Hungary. John’s family was among 5,000 Jews, 10 per cent of Gyor’s population, crammed into a ghetto for three months, stripped of all possessions and forced onto a packed cattle train with a pail of water and no sanitation.

At Auschwitz only John, his father and an uncle survived Dr Mengele’s notorious selection. His Czech-born mother, Aranka, and over 30 relatives went straight to the gas chambers.

In August John and his father were transported to Germany as slave labourers for the Thyssen-Krupp heavy armaments and ordnance factory.

John did 12-hour shifts without protective clothing, handling steel ingots at 1,000°C. His uncle, who remained in Auschwitz, disappeared. His father died from exhaustion. Moved around camps, John weighed four stone (25 kg) when he was liberated from Buchenwald by the Allies in 1945.

After medical treatment, he returned to communist Hungary to find himself the sole survivor of his family. He fled to Austria and applied for entry to Australia, where he met British-born Audrey Banham.They married in 1950.

From 1957-63 he worked in Sydney for the Snowy Mountains Authority, precursor of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. He then moved to England and settled in Leeds, working at the British Library in Boston Spa.

In retirement he was European Information Officer at Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Metropolitan University).

His return to Buchenwald in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Europe sparked his concern for Holocaust education.

From 1997 onwards he spoke to some 20,000 school and college students in Britain and Germany. In 1999 he presented a five-hour oral history testimony for the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust project. In 2002 he addressed the Citizenship Conference in Leeds and published his memoir in 2004. With a daughter suffering from Down’s syndrome, he was active in Mencap.

He is survived by his wife, two sons and daughter.

    Last updated: 4:40pm, September 23 2009