Holocaust survivor tells of debt to British PoWs

By Jessica Elgot, September 28, 2010
Hannah Sara Rigler with Education Secretary Michael Gove

Hannah Sara Rigler with Education Secretary Michael Gove

A survivor who owes her life to 10 British prisoners of war has told her story to a British audience for the first time.

Hannah Sara Rigler, 82, travelled from America to address more than 300 guests at the Holocaust Educational Trust appeal dinner in central London, among them Cabinet members Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith.

Ms Rigler recalled the death march from Stutthof concentration camp in 1945, during which 700 women died, including her mother and sister.

"It was desperate," she said. "The daughter of my old Hebrew teacher was on the march with me and she died. And I shoved her aside so I could get her bread before they took it away.

"You could not believe what a piece of bread meant to us. Even now, I never let bread go stale or get thrown away."

When she attempted to buy food in a nearby village, residents called the police. Hiding in a hayloft, she was found by British PoWs who were put to work in the area.

"They had never seen a Jewish person before. But they made me a hole in the straw and nursed me back to health. They would have been killed if I was found.

"If you ask any survivor why they were not killed, the answer is always: 'I was lucky.' My survival was nothing short of miraculous."

It was not until 1978 that she was reunited with her rescuers. The men have since been recognised as Righteous among the Nations by the Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.

"Those men risked their lives to save one 15-year-old girl," Ms Rigler told the JC. "I don't know if I could ever have done that."

Another speaker was former British PoW Denis Avey, who helped saved the life of a Jewish Auschwitz inmate. Mr Avey is now an HET speaker on racism, participating in the trust's Think Equal project, which targets schools in areas of racial tension.

The dinner was the first community event attended by Sir Andrew Burns in his capacity as UK envoy for post-Holocaust issues. "There are so many issues from the Holocaust still to be understood and explored," he said afterwards. "Not only telling the stories but also in trying to make some amends by helping to restore stolen property to victims.

"It is even more imperative now, not just because of the age of the survivors, but because there are still issues of racism and antisemitism around the world." Former Education Secretary Ed Balls was also at the dinner, which raised £400,000-plus.

Vice-chair Paul Phillips said that in the year, the trust had "trained 350 teachers, taken 3,000 students on 17 trips to Auschwitz and 40,000 children have heard testimony from survivors".

Auschwitz visit was 'life-changing'

Among special guests at the dinner was Holocaust Educational Trust ambassador Lisa Hagan, 23, who is training to be an English teacher in Coventry.

She visited Auschwitz with the HET in 2005. "Before that, I'd had about one-and-a-half hours' learning about the Holocaust in a history lesson. I didn't have any idea of what it was like. I was really quite ignorant.

"Going to Auschwitz was harrowing and utterly life-changing. I can't possibly put it into words. Since I came back, I have become really passionate about telling the stories of the Holocaust. I am finishing my training to be an English teacher and the children at my school have never heard a Holocaust survivor speak before. So I have arranged for Rudi Oppenheimer to come and speak to my year eight class. I feel a responsibility to pass on the stories.

"I want to continue being an ambassador and part of the trust for the rest of my life."

Last updated: 9:54am, October 14 2010