The Search for Humanity in the Holocaust | Karen Pollock MBE | TEDxDurhamUniversity

Translator: Elisabetta Siagri
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney Has anybody ever read
“The Tiger Who Came To Tea”? It’s a children’s book. A little girl has a tiger
that turns up for tea. Eats everything. Drinks everything. She can’t even have a bath,
there’s no water left. I’m not actually here
to talk to you about that book, but it is written by Judith Kerr. And Judith Kerr is also the author
of “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit”. And it tells the story
of her experience as a child refugee. She and her family were uprooted,
because she was Jewish. In fact, her parents made it
like an adventure, so her memories of it aren’t all negative. And “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit”,
I guess the message is in the title: she left one of her toys,
her pink rabbit, at home. But the story brought to me what it meant for a child having to leave
her school, her neighbours, her friends. And it was the first book, probably,
that I read about the Holocaust. And in fact, I probably
was the same age as the little boy in the middle of the picture –
they’re my nephews and niece. When I was about 11,
I used to meet a friend at a certain point on the road
to walk to the station to go to school. And everyday we’d be near a house where a beautiful lady
used to come and open her door, take the pint of milk and go in
and sometimes would say, “Hello”. And I asked my mom who she was,
because she was a neighbour. And my mom told me her name was Gena. Gena Turgel was, in fact,
a Holocaust survivor. She had been in a number of camps, she also had a number of siblings,
many of whom were murdered – And she ended up at Bergen-Belsen
concentration camp in Germany, where she was eventually
liberated by British troops. And in fact, went on to marry
one of the liberators and her wedding dress was made out
of one of the parachutes. It’s an incredible story. But why I am saying this
is because I was brought up learning about and getting
an interest in this subject. And I learned from an early age
or began to understand where hatred can lead. Prejudice leads to hatred.
Hatred to victimisation and persecution. And persecution to genocide. And whilst I learned that, I think I also was asking the question
that is inevitable, which is: “How could it have happened?. Why would people do this to other people?” And it might be easy for us
to just say: “You know what? These were evil monsters,
they weren’t like you and me”. But they were human beings
who committed monstrous acts. Human beings like you and me. What was the Holocaust? The Holocaust was a systematic,
industrialised mass murder of six million Jewish people. It shook the foundations of society. The Nazis – Hitler and the Nazis tried to destroy a whole culture,
families, communities, the repercussions of which
are still felt today. And when we say six million – and with the shoes –
that gives you some idea – shoes of six million
or thousands millions of people, it makes you think: “How can we really
understand six million?” We all wear shoes
and we’ve all got different shoes. One plus one plus one, every single person
has a different taste in their shoes. But the point is:
these were individual people. Individual people with their own hopes
and aspirations like you, their lives cut short. And the individuals concerned are not only
the ones that were murdered, but I think it is important to know
the individuals that survived. In my work, I am privileged to know and work with so many
incredible survivors, mainly in Britain, but beyond as well. And what I find inspirational
about them is that, despite what they’ve been through, they have something about them
that is a zest for life, a love of life. And when they tell their testimony,
they go around schools, around the country,
delivering their testimony, because they want people to know
what happened to them, but also what happened to their families, all the people who don’t have a voice. They still do this
with some sort of positivity. For instance, there’s a survivor
called Zigi Shipper. Zigi ends his testimony
with the message “Do not hate”. Another survivor, Ben Helfgott. Ben, he was 15 at the end of the war. He weighed under six stone. He ended up going to represent
Great Britain as a weightlifting champion. I mean, if that isn’t a triumph
over adversity, I don’t know what is. The thing is, though, while I tell you
these positive stories, and it’s a source of inspiration to me, the truth is the Holocaust
is a dark episode. It’s not a positive thing to talk about. Yet, it is interesting to me that some survivors talk about small
gestures that made a difference to them. I’ll never forget a story
from Anka Bergman. Anka was heavily pregnant. She was exhausted and starved
and in incredible pain. And she was being transported on a cart from Dresden to Mauthausen
concentration camp. And a local farmer saw her
and gave her a glass of milk. Now, that might not sound like a big deal, but I can tell you
that most stories I hear are when the Jews
were being transported, the locals laughed and jeered
or walked away. So, this local farmer bravely
gave her a glass of milk. And Anka maintains that this saved
her life and that of her baby Eva, that she gave birth to
when she was liberated. Or Joan. Joan Salter and her family
were in occupied Paris and every day had to report
to the local police station. And one day a local policeman
tipped off her mother that she and her children –
the two sisters – they were on the list,
they were going to be deported. That small act of mercy gave the family the opportunity to escape
in a laundry van and they got out. They might seem like small things,
but they made a difference. Joan lived to tell that tale. And as well as these small gestures
that I am referring to, there were some bigger acts of kindness. People who against all odds
took immense risk to help save lives. I can’t tell you all the stories,
but I do want to tell you about one. Well, actually two. Firstly, Nicholas Winton. Nicholas Winton was a 29-year-old
stockbroker in London and he understood that there was
an imminent threat to Jews in Europe. And this was just after Kristallnacht. Kristallnacht, when the Nazis
burned down synagogues, vandalised Jewish shops,
killed a number of Jews, forced Jews to walk on shards of glass
barefoot in the street. Rabbis having their beards shaved off, kneeling down in front of synagogues
while crowds jeered. Known very much as
a turning point in the Holocaust. He heard about it and he was concerned
what that meant for Jews in Europe. He was supposed to be going
skiing in Switzerland and he got a note
from his friend Martin Blake. It told him that he had an assignment
for him and not to bring his skis. So Nicholas Winton went to Czechoslovakia,
and when he was in Czechoslovakia he saw for himself what he considered
problematic times for Jews. He was worried for their welfare. He saw the squalor that
Jewish children were living in and deteriorating conditions,
and he wanted the help them get out. This is a 29-year-old stockbroker. He sat in his hotel bedroom
compiling extensive lists of names. He organised for guarantors
in England to take these children in, form after form, raising money to enable
these children to get out. The first transport that he organised
was in March 1939, and he organised seven more
and managed to save 669 children. Just remarkable. There was however another train. The train set off,
but two days later war broke out. Of the 250 children on that train – two survived. Nicholas Winton carried on supporting
the war effort and joining the RAF, and afterwards he settled down
in Maidenhead and had a family. And nearly 50 years later,
his wife was clearing out the attic and discovered a suitcase full of names. And it was only then, that the extent
of what he had done really came to light. This was brought to the attention
of some journalists and there is this incredible moment
that I encourage you all to look up. A programme called “That’s Life!”, where the host Esther Rantzen
sees Nicholas Winton in the audience and asks him what he did
in the war and he says. And she says, “Do you know
you saved some children?” “Yes” And she says, “Is there anybody else in the audience
here, were they saved by this man?” And you see a sea of people
stand up around him, all saved by this man. It’s the most humbling thing to watch,
and very, very moving. He didn’t just save them,
they managed to have children, and their children had children, so generations as a result of his actions. You know, what was incredible
was that he said that he did what anybody else would do. He had a motto, that was: If something isn’t impossible,
there must be a way to do it. He was made Sir Nicholas Winton, and in 2015, he died at the age of 106. I want to tell you about one other
brilliant man, in my opinion, Frank Foley. So Frank Foley was a British
diplomat in Berlin, responsible for the passport office. And he also, in fact, was an MI6 agent, doing covert missions
of providing intelligence to London. And when Hitler and the Nazis
rose to power, he became concerned
for the Jews in Germany, and he wanted to find
a way to get them out and started issuing false Visas. This is a man without diplomatic immunity
and so really was taking risks. And when Kristallnacht occurred, he went around the streets recording
things and passed that back to London. But he also hid Jewish people in his home. He invited journalists to come
and meet these Jewish people to hear firsthand about their experiences. And when Jewish people
were queuing outside the embassy and the Gestapo came along,
he told the Gestapo to go away. Incredible. He apparently had an unflappable nature. But his efforts went even further, because at the outbreak of the war,
you’d imagine he’d leave Germany. But he stayed there, going as far
as going into some of the camps, and forcibly taking Jews out
with their false passports. Just remarkable. But yet again, he came back
to the UK eventually, he settled in Stourbridge,
in the West Midlands, and he led a very ordinary life. And his efforts really came
to light many years later. He was recognized for them after he died. He was made a Righteous Among the Nations by the leading Holocaust museum,
‘Yad Vashem’ in Jerusalem, and he was made a British Hero
of the Holocaust by the British government,
as was Sir Nicholas Winton. Frank Foley saved 10.000 lives. 10.000 lives, he and his team. They decided to. Nobody asked them and nobody forced them. So why am I telling these stories? And why is it instinctive to feel some sort
of hope when you hear these stories? The fact is the story
of the Holocaust is a dark one, it’s a dark chapter in our history, it’s one of destruction and loss. You’re talking about
gas chambers and mass graves, you’re talking about people
who were complicit in the murder. Some thought of their
personal gain or stood by. The stories that I’m telling you
are the minority. And so I suppose my questions
to leave you with are: Why do we hang onto these stories? Why do we think that it is important
to remember these positive stories? Is it because we think
we would have done the same? Is it because actually it is important
to know that it wasn’t all bad actually? Is it because we want to have
some sense of hope for the future that there is some essence of humanity? I wonder whether we need to believe that if it isn’t impossible,
there must be a way of doing it. (Applause)


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