'I’m looking for the people who helped me,' says Shoah survivor at Yad Vashem

Rosa Doherty joined Holocaust survivors as they visited Yad Vashem


They stood out like a sore thumb.Most of the foreign visitors pulling up in coaches in the car park at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, were either schoolchildren or tourists.

But this group was different - it included five survivors and refugees from London, with first-hand experience of the history recorded inside the white building carved into Mount Herzl, on the edge of Jerusalem.

"If you don't think you can face it, you don't have to go in," warned Jim Sutherland, the social worker from Association of Jewish Refugees, the organisation that had brought this small band of elderly Jews to Israel.

The survivors discussed their nervousness among themselves while their tour guide, Michael, himself a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, told them what to expect within the long, pyramid-shaped building.

"Once you are inside, you have to go through to the end. It is designed that way. So if you need to leave, let someone know. Follow the zig-zags, you can't get lost," he said.

The museum, designed by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, makes it impossible for visitors to escape any aspect of the harrowing history, which begins with pre-war film footage of Jewish life in eastern and central Europe.

The five survivors were part of a larger group of AJR members taking part in a 10-day tour of Israel, organised by the charity to include a varied programme of sightseeing and activities.

But these five pensioners were the only ones out of 17 on the trip willing to face the history, and reminders of the lives they had suffered and escaped.

The tour started in the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations. Michael explained it was opened in 1962, and trees were planted in honour of the non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Plaques at the foot of each tree record the names of those honoured, along with their country of residence during the war.

One of the visiting group was 76-year-old Zdenka Hursserl. Originally from Prague, she was just two-and-a-half years old when her father was deported to the Lodz ghetto in 1942. He died there a year later.

"I'm looking for the people who helped me," she said as she searched through the hundreds of trees lining the pathway. "I know they have a tree planted here somewhere."

Ms Hursserl was sent to Theresienstadt with her mother, only to be separated from her two years later when she was deported to Auschwitz in 1944.

Barely five years old, she managed to stay alive until the camp was liberated and she was placed on a transport of 300 child survivors to England, sponsored by the British philanthropist, Leonard Montefiore.

She said: "I can't remember very much because I was so young, but I have key memories.

"I had my hair shaved when I went there because I had lice and I have a burn on the top of my right hand and I can't really remember how I got that, or what happened, but I know it is from the camp. I also remember standing in the snow with no shoes on. It felt pretty bad."

Once inside Yad Vashem, the group slowly made their way past the displays. The emotion was palpable.

"Don't leave me alone," Ms Hursserl said to her friends, explaining: "I'm scared of being on my own because of what happened to me in the camps."

It was in the camps section, where tattered uniforms hang behind glass boxes, and videos of survivors' testimonies played in their mother tongues, where one set of tears triggered another, and it became too much for three of the group to bear. They started to sob.

The AJR staff decided it was time to leave and the group was led out past the remaining displays to the exit.

"It can bring up all sorts of things for individuals," Mr Sutherland said. "They might not have expected to feel that emotional, but anything can trigger it, and once one goes, it makes sense that seeing them distressed might be too much for the others.

"If anything, it is brave of them to want to come in the first place, I don't know if I could do it myself."

Outside the museum, Ms Hursserl stood at the viewing point looking out across the hills and tried to explain why she felt she had to make the trip.

"There is not a day that I don't think about what happened to me. I don't really like to do things that make me relive the past.

"But I wanted to try and I did. I think I am brave. We all are. I don't go round advertising who I am and what I went through but it has affected me for life. It took a long time before we could talk about it at all."

Standing next to her, friend and fellow refugee Gisele Winton was nodding.

"I was in Paris during the occupation of the Germans," she said. "I did not even know I was Jewish, because my parents didn't want me to know.

"I used to read the papers and I used to see things like 'all those dirty Jews' and I said to my mum 'what is it? Who are they? Who are the Jews?'

"I used to ask 'are they dirty mum, are they dirty?' because I just couldn't understand. She would say: 'No, it is all right don't worry about it.'

"One day, one of the cousins in the family said 'we must tell Gisele that she is Jewish, there is no point in making it a secret'. I was so sad and scared, I cried, I said, 'those dirty Jews, it's me isn't it, it's me?'. I knew then I was going to have a very difficult life."

Mrs Winton, who managed to come to Britain as a refugee from Paris, said: "To hide who I was felt terrible, I felt at any minute I was going to die. It was ever so frightening.

"I have always had a fear that when I wear a Magen David, I have to hide it. It is something which just stays with you.

"But in Israel when you see so many Jewish people around you, it is such a beautiful feeling. I don't have to hide being Jewish here and that feels very odd for me. I feel safe and welcome."

Later, AJR member Vera Kovacks, who is 79, explained why the visit had been a valuable experience.

"I can't move around as much as I used to be able to, and I can't travel alone so to come on a trip with AJR has been great," she said.

"They have introduced me to new people and I've made friends who share the same story as me. We are all different, but we all share something similar - we all came away from something horrible and we survived."

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