I was seven years old when I met a Holocaust survivor for the first time.
His name was Leon Greenman, and every Sunday he would sit in the Jewish Museum to answer questions. My parents thought it was important for me to visit him while the opportunity still existed. I can’t remember what I asked him — my mother worried I was too intrusive — but I left determined to see him again.
By the time Leon died two years later, I felt I had lost a family member. Over our regular Sunday meetings, he didn’t just teach me about the Holocaust; in my eyes he became the Holocaust. Like many others, I promised I would tell his story after he had gone.
I am now aged 19, and have just finished making a documentary about Leon’s life after the camps. I chose not to focus on his harrowing experiences during the Holocaust, but on a story equally deserving of telling: the keeping of a promise to God that if he survived Auschwitz, he would tell the world what he had witnessed. When Leon was freed in 1945 only to discover that his wife and three-year old son had been murdered, he made this vow his life’s purpose.
He was one of the first to speak, starting in 1946, not stopping until his death — even after suffering a major heart attack in his nineties. It is thought he reached over a million school children and countless other adults, an unwavering, sixty-year commitment.
Leon felt he needed to do more than just tell people — he wanted to fight prejudice on the streets as well. In the early 1990s, the British National Party were becoming an electoral threat, against a backdrop of racist violence, of which the most notorious incident was the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in South London in April 1993. Six months later, 60,000 people marched, calling for the closure of the BNP headquarters in Welling, Kent. Aged 82, Leon led the march, his courage and incredible stamina an inspiration to many other anti-racism activists.
But this came at a cost. Leon’s profile made him a target for the far right; his life was in danger once again. He was determined, however, to continue his work so others wouldn’t suffer like he had. Leon was adamant that the Holocaust could easily happen again, and so he gave everything he could to protect our future from the ideology that destroyed his.
During the filming of interviews for the documentary, news broke from the United States of the murder of Heather Heyer on an anti-racism protest. It reminded me that Leon’s message of tolerance is as relevant today as it has ever been.
This is why I feel it is so important Leon is remembered, and why I made the film. I was lucky enough to have known him, but always regretted that my friends couldn’t share this with me. As the last generation to hear first-hand the stories of Holocaust survivors, soon the duty to retell them will be ours. Leon believed that his experiences could shape the world’s future, but his story will only survive if we choose to continue telling it. I think it is vital that we do.
Leon Greenman is a symbol that can keep the Holocaust relevant. He’s more than a testimony of the past. His message stands as a sign that we’re always too close to it happening again, that the fight is never won and it’s up to us to do something.
It doesn’t matter where hate manifests itself — it can be Europe, America, or even on the streets of South London — it can never be ignored. Leon Greenman’s voice must endure to remind us.
‘Leon Greenman — Survivor’ will be shown at the Jewish Museum on January 21. Tickets can be ordered for free www.jewishmuseum.org.uk