An epic survivor's tale


Prisoner Number A26188: Henia Bryer, BBC1

Henia Bryer: “I’m too young to die”, she told herself

Henia Bryer: “I’m too young to die”, she told herself

This extraordinary film was made by Lisa Bryer, the producer of The Last King of Scotland, about her Aunt Henia.

According to the producers, when it was shown to BBC1 controller Danny Cohen, he cleared the schedules so that the film could be the centrepiece of the Holocaust Memorial Day coverage. Having seen the 40-minute documentary, I can only endorse his decision

The film is very simple in form. It consists of the personal testimony of Henia, with a few comments from her husband and children, and a little of that horribly familiar archive footage.

But her story needs no embellishment. It is remarkable, even by the standards of Holocaust survivors. Born in Poland, she grew up in the town of Radom which was occupied by the Nazis in 1939. Soon after the arrival of the Germans, the Jews were herded into the town’s ghetto. Many died either from extreme deprivation or random shootings and beatings.

Henia survived until the ghetto was liquidated. Her reward was the cattle truck to Majdanek, followed by a spell in Plazow, a trip to Auschwitz and finally the infamous death march to Bergen Belsen.

The details are narrated calmly and eloquently by Henia, who photos show to have been a beautiful, blonde teenager — just 17 when she was deported. As with all survivors, she enjoyed some good fortune along the way.

In Plazow, her barracks was enlisted to become blood donors for German troops. Needless to say more than a pint was extracted — it was more or less a sentence of death. She told a guard she had typhus. The guard felt her unfeverish head, and told her she was excused.

But for all her comparative luck, Henia survived because her will to live was unshakeable. She recalls: “I would say to myself over and over: ‘I’m too young to die, I cannot die’. It was my mantra.”

If everyone were to watch only one Holocaust documentary, they could not do better than this film.

‘Prisoner Number A26188: Henia Bryer’ will be shown on BBC1 on January 27 at 10.25pm

Last updated: 11:28am, January 18 2013