TRCH Priscilla

Auschwitz survivor Arek Hersh MBE: “I wanted to live. I wanted to survive.”

13 July 19 words: Ashley Carter
photos: Natalie Owen

Aiming to inspire research and understanding, The National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Newark is dedicated to keeping alive the memory of all who died during one of the darkest chapters in human history, while spreading a message hope through education. With one eye set on the past, the other is firmly looking to the future, promoting an understanding of the roots of discrimination and prejudice to hundreds of school children every week. We spent the day at the inspiring Centre, where we talked to Arek Hersh MBE, a ninety-year-old Holocaust survivor whose remarkable story saw him endure the horrors of Auschwitz.

There’s something about the scale and savagery of the Holocaust that will forever render it impossible to truly comprehend. The average human mind is simply not able to grasp the magnitude of a number like six million, let alone begin to contextualize the apocalyptic tragedy which those men, women and children suffered at the hands of the Nazi Germany regime. It’s only through the details of individual stories that we are able to, on a minute scale, understand the Holocaust, learning the lessons of the past in order to avoid repeating them in the future. And few stories are as harrowing,  extraordinary and inspirational as that of Arek Hersh MBE. 

This appears to be the thinking behind The National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Newark; a remarkable venue dedicated to preserving the memory of those affected by the the Jewish persecution during World War II, while promoting a message of hope, understanding and compassion. Their comprehensive Holocaust exhibition details the roots of antisemitism in Europe, the subsequent rise of Hitler, Kristallnacht and the Holocaust itself through an incredible collection of artefacts, and their innovation Journey Exhibition, which provides an interactive experience for younger children, and their beautiful Memorial Gardens all place an emphasis on inviting Holocaust survivors to share their stories of survival. One of those speakers is Arek who, as a young Jewish boy living with his family in Sieradz, Poland at the outbreak of the war, experienced unimaginable suffering and heartbreak but, somehow, miraculously survived.

They were taken into a forest, gassed in a van, and buried in three mass graves with 65,000 others. My whole family is buried there, somewhere

There was an air of excited nervousness in the room full of secondary school children as they awaited Arek’s arrival to the stage. This was a result of having just viewed a short documentary chronicling his story, which included footage of his return to the concentration camp sites where he had been held during the War. Accompanied by his wife, Arek ostensibly looked like any other ninety-year-old man as he entered the room, moving well for a man of his years and well-equipped with a warm, friendly demeanor. Welsh poet George Herbert wrote that “the eyes have one language everywhere” and it’s only when Arek turned to face his audience that the endless, melancholic depth of his dark eyes struck. Eyes that have witnessed the depraved, cruel extremes of the human experience at an age when most of us are only concerned with what our next birthday present is going to be. Eyes that can never forget the merciless violence, starvation, torture and murder meted out on family, friends and neighbours over those endless, hellish years. Eyes that have seen the depth of man’s potential for barbarism.

Arek’s childhood was a pleasant one. The son of a boot-maker for the army, he and his three siblings enjoyed the comforts of a close-knit family and the simple pleasures of life that pre-war Poland afforded. When the German army invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, his family were confined to their home town that had now been made into a ghetto. However, at the age of 11, Arek was sent to his first camp: Otoschno. Having been severely beaten upon arrival, Otoschno was to be the scene of incredible cruelty for Arek over the next eighteen months, not least of all from a foreman named Rudi, who would arbitrarily kill prisoners by hacking them to death with a spade. Days consisted of fourteen hours of backbreaking forced labour, food was extremely scarce, and the constant threat of death forever lingered in the air. Prisoners were hanged for begging for extra food or urinating without consent, with Arek and his fellow prisoners forced to watch the executions.

Arek recalls one particularly cruel incident in his book, A Detail of History, during which a young man named Shymek was executed. “Twice those brutes hanged him and twice the rope snapped,” he writes, “and each time, in a dreadful state of shock, he begged for his life. However, those barbarians succeeded a third time.”

Arek survived Otoschno through his job cleaning the camp commander’s office, which allowed him the opportunity to steal food. After eighteen months, he was one of only eleven of the 2,500 prisoners still alive. Miraculously, he was allowed to leave and return home to his family. But his return to Sieradz was brief. After he had only been home for two weeks the Nazis began to liquidate the 4000 remaining residents in August 1942. Huddled together in a small church awaiting transport to an unknown location, Arek left his family momentarily to get some water. While outside, he was confronted by a Nazi guard who asked him his profession. Lying, he answered that he was a tailor, instinctively knowing that his chances of survival would be increased by knowledge of a useful trade. He was then taken to join a separate group of workers. It was the last time he would ever see his family. “At the time I didn’t know that they had killed my parents and everyone I knew,” he says, “But they were taken into a forest, gassed in a van, and buried in three mass graves with 65,000 others. My whole family is buried there, somewhere.”

Having been sent to the Łódź ghetto, Arek found some semblance of solace in an orphanage, which he describes as “a haven amidst my nightmare”. Warmly welcomed by the other boys staying there, Arek was shown the bed where, for the first time in years, he would be able to sleep alone in comfort, as well as a wardrobe and drawers, though the only possessions he had was three prized photos of his family. In relative peace, Arek was to spend the next two years living there, while working in a nearby textile mill. “Everything was so much better there,” he recalls, “There was no more sleeping on a wet mattress in a freezing cold room, no more squalor, dampness and misery.” Despite his new surroundings, the events of the previous few years still haunted his young mind. “My nights were often filled with terrifying nightmares, from which I would wake shaking and sweating.” 

They brought me fertiliser. It was sacks of ashes from the crematorium. I threw it on the ground and could feel the bones of those people they burnt in my hands.

Some comfort was found in the presence of a young girl named Genia, who Arek describes as his first love. “She was a beautiful girl; big brown eyes, black curly hair and a delightful smile,” he remembers. “Just seeing her and speaking to her made me feel wonderful.” But in 1944, with the advancing Russian army closing in, the decision was made to definitively liquidize the ghetto once and for all. The remaining population, including Arek, Genia and the other 183 orphans, were forced onto a goods train for a two-day journey. Their destination was Auschwitz. Arriving at the notorious death camp, the prisoners were separated into two lines, those who were to work, and those who were to be immediately gassed. Making that decision was Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi officer and physician, whose deadly, aberrant human medical experiments earned him the nickname The Angel of Death. The orphanage children were placed in one queue but, using his experience of surviving Otoschno, Arek noticed that the other queue consisted of strong, relatively healthy men. With the guards distracted by the screams of a woman whose child was being ripped from her arms, he made the split-second decision to jump into the other queue. It was a decision that would save his life, as Genia, his young love, and most of the friends he had made in the tranquility of the Łódź ghetto orphanage, were all murdered that day, gassed in the same Auschwitz death chambers that would claim over 1.1 million lives before the war was over.

While The National Holocaust Centre and Museum serves as a fitting memorial to these victims, its primary ambition is to educate and inspire, providing young visitors with the opportunity to spend an entire day learning from the lessons of the past. Survivor testimony like Arek’s facilitates critical and independent thinking, as students are asked to draw conclusions from what they have learned, ask questions and discuss what they have heard. They are then taken through the award-winning Holocaust exhibition by one of the Centre’s educators, where they are challenged to critically evaluate evidence from the perspectives of perpetrator, victim and bystander in a contemplative setting. 

When asked his age on his arrival to Auschwitz, Arek again used his experience to outwit the Nazi guards. “I was fourteen when I first arrived, but I told them I was seventeen,” he says, during his emotional talk, “If they’d found out I was only fourteen, I would have been sent to the gas chambers.” Having lost all of his friends, Arek then lost the only other things he had left in the world: the photos of his family and his name which, after having his head forcibly shaved, was replaced by the tattooed number by which he would be referred to as during the rest of his time at Auschwitz: B7608. Standing from behind the table at which he sits to tell his traumatic life story, Arek rolls up the sleeves of his suit jacket, revealing the tattoo that still marks the skin of his left arm. 

Life was even more treacherous and cruel at Auschwitz than it had been previously. Assigned agricultural work duty, his job was to plough fields. “They brought me fertilizer,” Arek recalls, “It was sacks of ashes from the crematorium. I threw it on the ground and could feel the bones of those people they burnt in my hands.” After six months in the isolated hell of Auschwitz, Arek noticed a change in the outside world. “I heard firing in the distance. The Russians were nearing us, and the Germans started to move.” In -25 degree snow, and wearing little more than his pyjama-type uniform and wooden clogs, Arek and the rest of the Auschwitz prisoners were force-marched for two days and nights. “Those who could not walk anymore were shot in the back of the head by an SS guard who marched at the rear of the column,” Arek remembers.

Unfortunately for Arek, his worst experience was still ahead of him. On what he refers to as “the train of damnation”, 3,000 people were loaded on to open wagons and sent on a month-long journey to Theresienstadt. The journey was designed to kill those who had somehow survived Auschwitz and the forced march through freezing cold snow, with many dying of exposure to the torrential conditions, and more still succumbing to starvation. Driven almost to the point of madness by the lack of food, Arek only survived by cooking and eating strips of leather from a pair of boots. When the Russian army finally liberated the train, only 600 of the prisoners were still alive. “I never felt like giving up,” Arek tells the room full of school children, “I wanted to live. I wanted to survive.”

Poignant memorials to the victims of the Holocaust are spread around the reflective, beautiful gardens at The National Holocaust Centre and Museum, providing visitors with the opportunity to contemplate the information they have been given during their visit. Sculptures of Anne Frank and Raoul Wallenberg, a Children’s Memorial that gives visitors the opportunity to place a stone to remember the 1.5 million young victims of the Holocaust as well as a stunning rose garden are all designed to inspire creativity and facilitate the understanding of young visitors. 

Arek spent his first three months away from German occupation in Terezin near Prague, where he was slowly nursed back to health. Then he was flown in a Lancaster Bomber to Lake Windermere to start a new life in England where, two years after the end of the war, Arek learnt that one of his sisters had also survived by escaping to Russia. Having married and raised three children, Arek now lives in Leeds, but regularly travels to The National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Newark to tell his story. Having written an account of his survival, Arek decided that all proceeds from A Detail in History were to go the Centre. 

More than simply remembering the past, the Centre, which was started by brothers James and Stephen Smith in 1991, is keen to use stories of survival like Arek’s to educate a younger generation of visitors about the dangers of discrimination. With a focus very much set on using the dark past to manifest a brighter future, their comprehensive educational programme provides a tangible, accessible introduction to the Holocaust while challenging visitors to respond to contemporary discrimination and persecution. Given the current political climate, there has never been more of a need for organisations like The National Holocaust Centre and Museum. The message they put out is clear; it isn’t one of hatred, vitriol or revenge, but a message of hope, and the role that we can all play in ensuring a future of understanding and empathy. “I talk because people should learn what human beings can do to one another.” In the words of Elie Wiesel, “What hurts the victim the most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.”

The National Holocaust Centre and Museum, Acre Edge Road, Laxton, Nottinghamshire, NG22 0PA

holocaust.org.uk