Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. Today, we mourn and remember the 6 million Jews who were systematically murdered by the Nazis in the name of racial hatred and prejudice.
It is 2019, and 74 years since the Second World War was declared over. Many survivors have since passed away. The few who remain with us still bear the physical and emotional scars of one of the worst genocides in modern history.
Harry Spiro is among them. He was eight years old when the Second World War began in 1939.
Harry survived the Holocaust. This is his story:
Harry, now 89, was the only member of his family to survive the atrocities committed in concentration camps against Jews at the hands of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.
Speaking to UNILAD from his living room at home, the survivor explained the systematic dehumanisation he and his fellow inmates were subjected to, day in, day out.
He described how he became immune to seeing dead bodies around him at almost every turn, adding he was traumatised into having ‘no compulsion’ to ‘feel sorry’ and so little energy he couldn’t ‘even ask why’ these atrocities were allowed to happen.
Before he’d reached his tenth birthday, Harry had become accustomed to taking bread from the hands of the dead, who were so sick they’d passed on with no energy to bring food to their own mouths.
Harry recalled the torture he can still remember through the mind’s eye of his eight-year-old self:
You were dehumanised. You never thought as a human being about what was right and what was wrong. The only thing I thought was, ‘Another day’, and this is how you survived.
Very often, when I saw a body of a person who didn’t finish their portion of bread, I bent down and I picked it up quickly and I thought it was my lucky day.
By the time he was taken to the concentration camp where his brother and sister would succumb to the torture and die, Harry mused, no one has any energy to question the injustices and the relentless killing.
Harry and his family were first moved to the ghettos, areas of extreme poverty and exclusion where the Nazis held huge Jewish communities prisoner of their own race.
There, they were confined to a few designated streets and faced with threats of certain death by immediate shooting if they trespassed, according to the signs Nazis erected to warn Harry, and the other children for whom death threats became a daily reality.
Harry remembered being taken from the ghetto. Many hadn’t survived, he added:
They rounded up the elite of the community – doctors, lawyers, solicitors – and shot them with no reasoning, nothing. They rounded up the whole of the ghetto, which by that time was home to about 25,000 Jews.
Most of Harry’s friends, neighbours, and loved ones were sent to Treblinka, a concentration camp which hosted the mass genocide of more Jews than any other, with the exception of Auschwitz.
Of the thousands sent to Treblinka to die only 67 people are known to have survived the camp, fleeing in a brazen revolt shortly before Treblinka was destroyed in October 1943.
It is estimated the Germans killed between 870,000 and 925,000 Jews at Treblinka. Harry was lucky – if you can call avoiding an almost-certain death sentence for a fate he has since said was ‘hell’, lucky.
He and his family were sent, instead, to Rehmsdorf concentration camp. In that camp, there wasn’t a day that you went into the washroom and you didn’t see bodies laying on the floor, Harry told UNILAD.
He continued to recount the conditions:
We saw death all the time. Dying, shooting, killing, whatever. You were used to it so much you didn’t take any notice. if you went to sleep on a bed and in the morning the guy next to you didn’t wake up, you just ignored it.
Death is – well, it’s part of living – but you took it for granted that death was a part of living on a daily basis [at Rehmsdorf]. You couldn’t be scared of death because you knew it could happen any minute.
It seemed almost an inevitable fate for Harry at the time. But the war was coming to an end and with the Allied Forces fast approaching Rehmsdorf, the Nazi guards led Harry and 3,000 of his fellow captive citizens on a so-called death march to Theresienstadt.
He recalled how the SS told he and those around him, already suffering from starvation and exhaustion, to get up or they’d be shot, no questions asked.
Some just couldn’t get up, Harry said, saying the ones too weak to move just ‘took a chance’ and hoped the Nazis wouldn’t shoot. But ‘no way’ did they show mercy or ‘leave anyone out’ of the death orders.
But when you’re sitting there and you hear this ‘click’ and then a body is falling, you immediately get up and you start walking.
Harry was only one of 270 who survived. Harry was among 732 youngsters, known as the Boys (although they included about 80 girls), who were brought to the UK after the war by a Jewish charity.
He settled as a young refugee in Windermere and has since has been happily married for over 60 years, and has three children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Harry, a softly spoken gentleman, is neither embittered of full of hatred.
But he is left wondering about the madness of the Nazi regime and how those in charge were able to ‘sit around a table for a few days to decide how to kill millions of people because they’re Jews’ – a ‘monstrosity’ designed for no other reason than their race.
Harry, remembering his own family lost to the regime, said:
You’re talking about people who, before the war, were intellectual people, educated people, people who had families. They’d got children. They’d got grandchildren. They are human beings.
People are capable of doing the most horrendous things to each other. Yes, it was wrong. Yes, I’d lost everything. But do I hate? Is hate the answer? No.
At a time one in 20 Brits deny the holocaust happened – a time of great political, social and racial turmoil – Harry’s story and his willingness to choose love and not hate must never, ever be forgotten.
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