One of the most memorable elements of the Holocaust Exhibition is the video testimony by survivors which accompanies visitors along the route. Comment cards left at the end of the exhibition reveal how much visitors appreciate and learn from this additional layer of story-telling. The memories conveyed in the videos - shocking and painful to listen to - testify to the endurance of the human spirit through unimaginable circumstances.
But what happened to the survivors after the Second World War? How did they rebuild their lives in the years that followed their release from Nazi persecution?
The video in the end section, ‘Discovery’, gives some hints of the difficulties the survivors would face. Roman Halter went back to his home village of Chodecz, but found no-one there. Freddie Knoller remembers how in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, when the British arrived, there was no ‘hooray, hooray’: everyone was just too exhausted to take in the fact that their terrible ordeal was at an end.
It required years of effort to rebuild lives that were still young, but deeply traumatised. Special reception centres offered help with resettlement, but the scale of refugees on the move in the late 1940s was colossal and the obstacles were huge. For many there were false starts and disappointments, and much could turn on the luck of finding a caring spouse, a teacher prepared to give extra encouragement or a supportive workplace. Roman Halter writes in his memoir about the ex-RAF officers at the architectural practice where he trained and how they helped him learn English.
For those arriving in the UK those early years here were far from easy. The facts of the Holocaust had not been properly pieced together, society was less multi-cultural than it is today and there was suspicion and disbelief of survivors’ stories. Kitty Hart-Moxon was warned by her uncle not to talk about her experiences, and remembers unpleasant remarks about the tattoo the SS had put on her arm.
Many survivors had seen their parents die of starvation, simply disappear or even shot in front of their eyes: the agony of these events would stay with them forever. For some, religion was a way to make sense of all that had happened. Rabbi Hugo Gryn – one of the UK’s best known rabbis up until his death in 1996 – used appearances on The Moral Maze to encourage listeners to understand the dangers that are ever-present in society.
Some survivors sought justice on behalf of others: Rudy Kennedy and Roman Halter led a campaign to obtain compensation from the German government for those who had been forced into slave labour. For some, writing offered some solace and the satisfaction of telling the world what they had been through. Kitty Hart-Moxon’s memoir I Am Alive was published as early as 1961. Later she went back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she had been a prisoner, and re-told her story for the TV programme Kitty: Return to Auschwitz (1978).
The ordeal people had been through brought an extraordinary dedication to helping those in need. Yogi Mayer, a teacher and sports instructor who had escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, was a leading light in the Primrose Club, giving a lifeline to hundreds of young camp survivors who arrived in the UK in 1945. Those young survivors went on to form the ’45 Aid Society, raising funds to support Holocaust education and other survivors. The Society’s chairman Ben Helfgott, who competed in two Olympic Games, dedicated his life to ensuring that the group of youngsters who arrived with him to recuperate initially on the shores of Lake Windermere would stay in touch and support each other – something they have done for over seventy years.
For many survivors the arrival of grandchildren provided affirmation that 'life can go on'. We have been touched to receive essays and project work by the grandchildren of survivors, who have chosen to research their grandparents’ history – often making visits back to the family’s place of origin. Several survivors continue to astonish us with their energy and resilience. Kitty Hart Moxon went ski-ing into her late seventies. Freddie Knoller told his life-story in a remarkable tv programme made in his mid-nineties.
If there is a common trait among the survivors in the Holocaust Exhibition it is that they espoused deeply humane values - recognising what had been lacking among the Nazi perpetrators and many of the general population during the years of occupation.