A few years back, I was at the Wiener Holocaust Library showing my children around the archive my grandfather had started. We visited the exhibition and I picked up a pair of headphones linked to one of the exhibits. It was playing some audio clips of people telling their wartime stories. And the voice I heard was unmistakable. It was my dad.
This was a surprise and very moving as I hadn’t heard him since his death in 2011. I didn’t know he had made a recording. I listened right to the end, about two minutes in all, then asked whether the library might send me the clip. And very kindly they duly sent me a CD.
Having just heard the whole thing, I didn’t listen again right away. I put it in a drawer and didn’t think about it for six months. Then I thought it might be nice to hear Dad once more and took it out and put it in a player.
To my irritation it didn’t work. So I took it out, examined it and realised that it wasn’t a CD at all. It was a DVD. And, as it turned out, not a two minute audio clip but more than three hours of video of my father talking about his life, interviewed in our dining room in Hendon in 2006.
Since 2003, the Association of Jewish Refugees has been recording the stories of survivors of the totalitarian murder and exile on the 1930s and ’40s. They have accumulated 250 such interviews and are continuing the work. My father and my mother both gave interviews, skilfully conducted by Bea Lewkowicz.
My mother’s story is the more familiar. She tells of her arrest and imprisonment, first in Westerbork and then in Bergen Belsen. She talks of the German Jewish community in Amsterdam before the war, which included the Frank family, and of seeing Anne and Margot in Belsen in the last weeks of their lives.
I know a fair bit about it all but, however many times I see it, I always learn something new. Watching again this week I heard Mum talk about her yellow star and how the Germans made the Jews pay for them.
My father’s story is less well known, not to me so much but generally. Born in Lwow, he was exiled to the borders of Siberia when the Soviets arrested his father. He would surely have died there if Hitler had not invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Operation Barbarossa led to my grandfather’s release and the end of Dad’s Siberian exile. They were reunited and went with the Anders army — the Polish Armed Forces in the East —to Persia and Palestine before coming to Britain.
That they were reunited was a miracle but, as my sister always says, there is always a miracle in every survivor story. Because, if there wasn’t a miracle, you didn’t survive.
At the end of the video, Bea asks my dad to identify some of the people in various photographs. There are the usual family snaps. And then there is one from a birthday party taken in the late 1930s with a fairly large group of happy children sitting in a row on a log. They are all perhaps eight years old. What happened to them he was asked? And Dad replies that he was the only one to survive the war.
The interviews — not just the dialogue with my parents but all the videos — are particularly strong on life before the war, a lost civilisation described with warmth and clarity. Kurt Marx, whom I met for the first time this week, describes his experience of Kristallnacht, and Ruth Edwards her tears when she saw her father’s coat and realised he had been arrested without it on a cold winter’s night.
As Bea puts it: “Each interview is in itself a small memorial, a memorial of words, gestures, images and voices”.
The AJR’s archive is now moving to a new phase. Their website www.ajrrefugeevoices.org.uk allows the archives to be searched and AJR are beginning to provide edited versions of some testimony so that it can be used on social media to reach new audiences.
As a tool of research and education, this is a truly magnificent endeavour.
Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times