In many ways, it was the trip I never thought I’d take. Like a lot of Jewish people, my knowledge of the Holocaust came from books, films and documentaries, as well as encounters with survivors. But the death of my mother Millie three years ago suddenly brought my family history to the fore and I found myself discussing it with my son Robert, who has always wanted to trace our heritage.
My maternal grandparents, Louis and Golda Harris, left Ukraine in the 1900s and came to London, where they settled in the East End, on Mile End Road. It was a courageous move and, like so many others, they were poor, spoke only Yiddish and had to care for their nine children. Both of them died prematurely in the 1930s, no doubt due to the great hardship they suffered. But their decision to leave Ukraine gave my family a future. Their children went on to do well, becoming doctors, RAF pilots and pharmacists.
Had Louis and Golda stayed in Ukraine, things would have been very different. Their fate could have been that of the six million who perished or they could have been killed by the Russians during the pogroms. I genuinely only realised this from my visit there.
Robert, however, was very conscious of it all. Only a year ago, he had gone on the Taglit Birthright tour to Israel and at Yad Vashem overheard a guide describing the rounding up of Jews in Kiev. As he told me: “The mention of Kiev pushed me on emotionally. This is where my family was from — it felt a lot more personal; it felt like this affected me.”
Though it was my cousin Alan Hordyk who initially suggested an ancestry trip to Ukraine and a visit to Auschwitz, Robert’s persistence made it happen. He has a strong Jewish identity, was on the Jewish Society committee at Cambridge and, at 22, felt this visit was long overdue. I’d never felt that way and even laboured under the geographical illusion that Poland was much further away than it is. But, as my son sagely pointed out: “Education from books is not enough. You have to see things for yourself”.
With my cousin, my son and another friend, Adam Pike, we were set to travel. Our departure date coincided with the run-up to the French elections, in which 20 per cent of voters backed ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen. With renewed concerns about social instability in southern Europe, extremism is on the rise again, and it was with that troubling thought that we set off, I suppose, in search of answers. Our first stop was Krakow on Friday evening, where we were met by a friendly and efficient representative of World Jewish Relief, Jonathan Ornstein. The charity had planned our itinerary and though I’ve donated to the WJR for about 30 years, I only had the vaguest understanding of what it does. Now I know, I intend to be more involved.
From the airport, we went straight to the Beit Chayil Jewish Centre for a Shabbat evening meal. Opened in 2008 by the WJR, the centre has become the focal point for the emerging community in a beautiful city that combines ancient and modern.
There was no security around the synagogues and Jewish Centre — indeed, nor was it necessary. Everyone was proud that progress had been made. There is integration and no problems. Robert noted that the gates to Beit Chayil are left open, which would be unusual in other cities. “The community have already faced the unimaginable. They have nothing left to fear,” said Jonathan, who is the centre’s leader. “We are building a new future for the Jewish people in Poland. We are looking forward.”
There are Jewish restaurants in Krakow and we ate in one. The food wasn’t anything you’d expect to get in a Jewish restaurant at home but it was good and encouraging to see these eateries as part of the city’s make-up in the newly restored Jewish quarter.
Although it was only the end of April, it was unseasonably hot — 90 degrees — when, on the Saturday morning, we arrived at Auschwitz. Many of the visitors were in T-shirts and casual clothes. The informal dress gave the initial, incongruous impression of a holiday outing, and I found myself musing about the people and the atmosphere — was history’s most shameful monument becoming a kind of theme park?
The train tracks of Birkenau are the most visually affecting — they brought millions to the camp, many still believing the deception that they were going to a new settlement. In front of them then, and now in front of us, were the ominous gates carrying the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work will make you free”) — one of the world’s most famous lies. We took photos on the tracks, but Robert said it felt odd. “Family pictures are usually taken on a nice beach or by the Empire State Building, not the harrowing entrance to the gas chambers,” he observed. This was true, but the photos somehow felt necessary. Robert later grappled with the morality of putting the pictures on Facebook but, when he finally did, the response was very positive.
The buildings at Auschwitz are now clean, stark, well cared for. We saw the houses of the guards, the sheds for the inmates, the gas chambers, the ovens where the bodies were burnt. It took 40 minutes to kill someone and up to 48 hours to process the corpses so that there was nothing left. No evidence, no memory.
We were all silent in the chambers and visibly moved, even though boys aren’t meant to cry. “But we do,” said Robert, who was imagining the panic of the victims as they scratched at the walls to get out.
All that we’d read or seen on film now made sense. We understood the atrocity and the logistics necessary for murder on such an unprecedented scale. We thought about the mentality required to bring this about and the millions who needed to collude for it to happen. Auschwitz is not a theme park. It is a grim reminder of what human beings are capable of and what they must be prevented from carrying out ever again.
On Sunday, we left Krakow for Kiev, where we were met by another energetic WJR representative, Amir Ben Zvi and his colleague, Aliona Druzhynina, for the second leg of our journey into the past.
There are between 350,000-500,000 Jews living in Ukraine, which makes it the third largest community in Europe. Low living standards and dependence on Russia for energy supplies does not prevent Kiev from being a clean, lively city with busy streets, a medieval tower and a synagogue. Just outside Kiev is Chernigov, the region my grandparents called home and where half the population was Jewish at the beginning of the 20th century. By the end of it, mass executions had meant there were almost no Jews left. No trace of my family or our name — Chachewitz — remained there, which was a disappointment, but one I’d been anticipating. A man in his 90s with the same name had died recently, but evidently our name was a common one.
The WJR’s Wohl Centre in neighbouring Kharkov was full of friendly faces. It is used by the city’s 14,000 Jews, many of whom receive welfare services, and others who come for social purposes. The children at the centre had a band. Someone had heard I am a drummer so I was put on bongos. It was welcome light relief from the harsh reality, which only got harsher.
Reciting Kaddish at the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial site was the most moving moment of our trip. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 died at this ravine in Kiev in a series of massacres carried out by the Nazis. Today, people walk over the dead, oblivious to it all.
I looked into the ravine and felt the horror of what had happened; the thousands who marched there, knowing they were going to be shot. I tried to imagine how it would feel if we suddenly got the order to abandon our homes and march across Hampstead Heath carrying a single bag of possessions as gun-shots fire in the distance.
It’s impossible to comprehend.
Later we visited a synagogue and a cemetery. Vandals had daubed there: “Ivan the Terrible was right”. Ivan the Terrible aka John Demjanjuk, the concentration camp guard who died on March 17 this year before his trial could be concluded, still casts his shadow.
There were swastikas felt-tipped on walls around the homes of clients visited by the WJR. Personally, I would be very nervous as a Jew living in Ukraine. You always feel as though you are looking over your shoulder. The charity is doing what it can, but old prejudices have not entirely died and life is tough there.
We left Kiev’s Borispol Airport on Monday. Sadder, perhaps, and wiser. I made Robert promise that if I’m not around in 20 years, he will take his young sister Angel on this trip. Kindly, he told me not to worry and said he would happily take her and push me round in a wheelchair.
I know he will keep his promise and never forget the experience we shared. “People bond best through emotional time spent together,” he said. Now I understand why every year on Yom Kippur I read how important it is for the father to show his children the rights and wrongs.
As for my role as an educator as the boss of a media group — while I may not interfere editorially, I know that the dangers of fascism must be kept high on the news agenda. My fear is that it is going to get worse, so we must make it our life’s mission for that not to happen. We need things to get better and we need to think about that every day of our lives, and do something about it.
As told to Brigit Grant
Richard Desmond is the owner of Express Newspapers, Channel 5 and OK! magazine. He is also president of
Norwood. Information on World Jewish Relief is at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 8736 1250