The Second World War is arguably one of the darkest times in the human memory. Violence, destruction, organised persecution and genocide shook the European continent and beyond until the whole globe had encountered conflict in some form. Atomic warfare became a reality amidst scenes of concentration camps, battlefields and the ensuing poverty and food shortages. Those days are now 70 years ago but we evidently know that there have been other such events chiseled into our collective memory which resemble, not in scale but in nature, the same notions of discrimination and persecution of minority groups. Rwanda, Kosovo, Cambodia, Armenia, Myanmar. You would feel regrettably justified in asking ‘will humanity ever learn?’
Sometimes it can feel like we are stuck on a karmic hamster wheel of ethnic cleansing, and so hearing stories of those who have experienced these atrocities first hand bears testimony to the need for higher forms of thinking in order to not repeat the same experiences.
My grandparents both grew up in Europe as Jews during the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. Whilst my grandfather’s family were fortunate enough to get VISAs and flee to what was then still the British Mandate of Palestine, my grandmother’s family could only flee as far as Holland, which at the time was still safe. Following the German invasion the country became a Nazi stronghold and Jewish families were forced into hiding in the attics of apartment buildings protected by members of the Resistance. Unable to leave the country for fear of being captured, many families remained concealed in silence in rooms heavily hunted by the Nazis. Those who were found were deported to the extermination camps which were constructed predominantly in Poland.
Having been betrayed by the Dutch lady providing the family’s hiding place, my grandmother, Eva Schloss, survived almost a year in Auschwitz-Birkenau where her life was completely turned upside down. Her brother and father died there and following the war a long period of internal suffering followed; coming to terms with the horrors witnessed and trauma of loss of her closest relatives. In 1986, 2 years before I was born, she began talking publicly about her experiences, having suppressed much of her pain for some 40 years, and this set her on a journey of writing and speaking about the rise of Nazism, the camps and the lessons to learn in order to bring about more peace. The connection with Otto and Anne Frank, famous writer of a diary whilst in hiding in Amsterdam, definitely played a part in giving her the platform to speak. She attributes much of her learning about humanity and forgiveness to Anne’s father, later her step-father: Otto.
She has spoken thousands of times, in schools, in prisons, from Japan and Brazil to Germany itself and now has a profile which means she is invited to speak at some prestigious platforms for peace building. Holocaust Memorial Day falls on January the 27th every year and 2018 saw the opportunity to speak at the UN arise. Discussions on the Syrian crisis and Nuclear Disarmament occurred simultaneously across the same days. Eva has become more and more outspoken over the years and now uses her profile to bring messages of peace and equality to mainstream news outlets.
The proceedings at the United Nations HQ in Geneva saw 3 days of talks and Q&A sessions and a screening of No Asylum, a documentary about the Frank family’s experience. Across the events nearly 1,000 people heard the story of Eva Schloss, including delegates from the UN and school children from the city.
Whilst the number of Holocaust survivors becomes smaller every year, the opportunity for young people to learn so vividly and vicariously about the dangers of discrimination and the shadow side of the human condition has never been so important. With the rise of ‘far-right’ ‘populist’ groups across Europe, animosity to migrants and refugees and fractionated relationships between religious, ethnic and cultural groups still worldwide it is essential for us to hear such personalised accounts of the repercussions of allowing such extreme division to run their course.
For me, it was not the first time to hear my grandmother’s story but the power that the message carries and the willingness and openess with which she delivers with on this path is so moving and invigorating. For others to be moved to a place of deep comprehension on these matters and be confronted with remnants of those times, such as the tattoo which Eva has marked on her arm from the camps, will leave the future generations with the engraved emotions of how people lived, suffered and overcame such atrocities.
She is a true testament to the resilience and strength of the human spirit. Love not hate is what makes us strong. Forgiveness not condemnation is what makes us resolute. We all contain the capacity for good and evil, and we have the choice in every moment of which to align ourselves with.
The Eva Schloss website is currently being developed, her books are available online and this coming month she will depart for the States on a 6 week tour giving talks about her life.
I am planning to arrange a screening of No Asylum in London in the coming months and hold a discussion session alongside it. Please be in touch if you want to find out more or have suggestions on actions and collaborations about any of the above.
Now, more than ever, we have to carry the torch of peace whilst the shadow of the human past is cast across the Earth. We are more interconnected than ever and by being strong and united we can educate and transcend the paradigm of separation and indifference.