The Holocaust was the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War. The Nazis also enslaved and killed other groups who they perceived as racially, biologically or ideologically inferior or dangerous.
Jews, Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), Poles, Slavs, Soviet prisoners of war, people with disabilities, political opponents, communists and trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and countless others were stripped of their rights, imprisoned, forced into slave labour and killed in vast numbers. Those who defied Nazi authority either through individual or organised resistance also faced imprisonment, torture, forced labour and execution.
In the audio clips below, seven survivors talk about and reflect on their experiences.
Download the transcript of the survivors' testimony.
Alfred ‘Freddie’ Knoller was born on 17 April 1921 in Vienna, Austria. Following a series of antisemitic attacks on the Viennese Jewish community in 1938, he left Austria and lived as a refugee in Belgium and France.
In 1943, he joined the French Resistance and was eventually arrested. He was taken to Drancy, a transit camp on the outskirts of Paris, and then deported to Auschwitz. As the Allied armies advanced through Europe in early 1945, Auschwitz was evacuated and the inmates were taken to the Dora-Nordhausen and Bergen-Belsen camps in Germany. Freddie took the uniform badge of a dead French political prisoner to conceal his Jewish identity. This helped him survive at Dora because as a political – and not Jewish – prisoner, he was given a less dangerous job.
After the war, Freddie was reunited with his two brothers and became a United States citizen. He moved to London with his wife in the 1950s.
Here, Freddie describes antisemitism in pre-war Austria and the effect the German annexation of Austria in March 1938 had on the Viennese Jewish community. He also recalls the events of 9 November 1938, when Germans staged mass violence against the Jewish communities of Germany, Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia. This became known as Kristallnacht (‘Night of Broken Glass’).
Freddie Knoller interview © IWM (IWM SR 9092)
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'It didn't just happen when Hitler came to power'
Toby Biber was born in 1925 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Mielec, Poland. Following German occupation in September 1939, the Jewish population of Mielec was subjected to increased antisemitism, persecution and violence.
Mielec’s Jewish community was deported in March 1942 and its residents were forced into a nearby forest. From there, they were moved to a small town where Toby’s father obtained forged papers for Toby and her sister, allowing them to escape. They lived in hiding until arriving in Krakow in southern Poland.
In the autumn of 1942, several thousand inhabitants of the Krakow ghetto, including Toby and her sister, were moved to the Plaszow forced-labour camp. They remained there until the summer of 1943, when they were deported to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen in 1944. Toby’s sister died eight days after Belsen’s liberation in April 1945.
After the war, Belsen was used as a displaced persons camp and Toby remained there until 1947. She met and married her husband at the camp and they immigrated to Britain in 1947.
Here, Toby reflects on her experiences and describes the conditions in Plaszow camp.
Toby Biber interview © IWM (IWM SR 19792)
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'This lorry with the children drove off and never seen again'
Premysl Dobias was born in June 1913 in the Czech town of Turnov. In September 1938, Germany annexed territory along Czechoslovakia’s northern and western borders. Six months later, German forces occupied what remained of Czechoslovakia and divided it into two separate territories – Slovakia in the east and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in the west.
In the winter of 1941, Premysl was arrested for helping Jews and in May 1942 was deported to the Terezin transit and labour camp. From there he was sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where he was forced into slave labour and subjected to medical experimentation. The camp was liberated by American troops in May 1945 and Premysl worked with the Americans as an interpreter. He moved to London in 1947.
Here, Premysl describes an encounter with Austrian civilians following his deportation and remembers a particular incident at Mauthausen.
Premysl Dobias interview © October Films (IWM SR 19781)
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'That is an experience which will haunt me all my life'
Maria Ossowski was a Polish civilian living in Zakopane, Poland when the Second World War began. During the war, non-Jewish Poles were conscripted into forced labour in Germany and Maria’s parents sent her to live with family in Warsaw in an attempt to save her from being called up. In Warsaw, Maria and her aunt helped Jewish children by providing them with whatever food and clothing they could. She was suspected of being part of the Polish Resistance and arrested in 1943. She was deported to Auschwitz in May later that year.
As the Soviet Army neared Auschwitz in January 1945, the camp was evacuated and Maria was taken to the Ravensbrück and Buchenwald concentration camps in Germany. Shortly after, Buchenwald was also evacuated, but Maria escaped during the journey. She hid in a forest for two weeks before being discovered by farm labourers working nearby. Disguised in civilian clothing and claiming to be a German refugee, Maria joined the workers until the Soviet Army arrived in April 1945. Maria felt it was still unsafe to return to Poland and, pretending to be a French civilian, she travelled west into the American and British zones of occupied Germany.
After the war, Maria met her husband Alex. Together they joined the Polish Army under British command and eventually settled in Britain.
Here, Maria describes what happened upon her arrival at Auschwitz and reflects on her own survival.
Maria Ossowski interview © IWM (IWM SR 19794)
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'If you started to feel sorry for yourself you were a goner'
Alex Ossowski was a Polish civilian living in Starogard Gdański when the Second World War began. Under German occupation, some non-Jewish Poles were deemed ethnically German and were conscripted into the German Army. Alex received his conscription notice and under a new identity fled to Warsaw, where he joined the Polish Resistance.
He was arrested in 1943 and deported to Auschwitz, where he worked in a camp hospital. He was sent to Buchenwald in August 1944, where he was forced to work in a German munitions factory. Buchenwald was liberated in April 1945.
After the war, Alex met his wife Maria. They travelled to Italy, where they both joined the Polish Army under British command before eventually settling in Britain.
Here, Alex explains how some Poles in Warsaw helped Jews while others denounced them and describes how the Polish Resistance treated collaborators. He also recalls his contact with other prisoners at Auschwitz.
Alex Ossowski interview © IWM (IWM SR 19795)
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'He was crying all night and you couldn’t help him anything'
Daniel Falkner was born in Poland in 1912 and grew up in the city of Rzeszow. Daniel hoped to become a doctor but was unable to attend medical school because of restrictions placed on the number of Jewish students. As he neared the age of compulsory military service in Poland, he was sent to a military academy. After completing military service he moved to Warsaw and shortly before September 1939, he was called up.
Daniel’s division eventually surrendered and he became a prisoner of war. After escaping, he returned to Warsaw. In the autumn of 1940, Warsaw’s Jewish population was forced into the ghetto. Daniel and his wife escaped the ghetto and lived in hiding until discovered in 1943. Later, hiding amongst a group of non-Jewish Polish political prisoners, Daniel was taken to Sachsenhausen camp in Germany.
As Allied troops advanced in April 1945, the Germans evacuated those prisoners deemed fit for forced labour and left the rest behind to die. Daniel avoided deportation by hiding under floorboards and was liberated. After the war, Daniel joined the British Army as an interpreter and was reunited with his wife in 1946.
Here, Daniel describes the conditions in the ghetto and the deportations to the Treblinka death camp.
Daniel Falkner interview © IWM (IWM SR 19783)
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'Every morning the undertakers had to collect bodies from the streets'
Magdalena Kusserow and her family were Jehovah’s Witnesses living in Bad Lippespringe, Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933. In accordance with their religious beliefs, Jehovah’s Witnesses did not accept the authority of the Nazi regime and refused to be conscripted or participate in any military service. Several thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested and sent to concentration camps and an estimated 250 others were executed after being tried by military tribunals.
Magdalena and the other members of her family were arrested and after spending six months in a juvenile prison, she was told to sign a declaration renouncing her beliefs or face further imprisonment. Magdalena refused and returned to prison before being sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp in northern Germany. She remained in Ravensbrück from 1942 until 1945, when she and other prisoners were evacuated from the camp in the wake of the Soviet advance through Germany. The prisoners were discovered and freed by Soviet troops.
Here, Magdalena explains how supporting Nazi Germany conflicted with her religion.
Magdalena Kusserow interview © IWM (IWM SR 19793)
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