The Arolsen Archives and the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association – Learning from History in Partnership and Friendship

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Lilian Black is daughter of Holocaust Survivor Eugene Black and Chair of the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association, Leeds, England.

Lilian Black concentrates on the cooperation between the Arolsen Archives and the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association in Great Britain. The author writes from the perspective of the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who has researched the history of her father’s persecution.

By Lilian Black 

In August 2008, after a number of unsuccessful attempts in previous years to secure access to information at the International Tracing Service (ITS, today: Arolsen Archives), Eugene Black and his eldest daughter Lilian arranged to visit the archives in Bad Arolsen. Eugene was born Jeno Schwarcz on 9th February 1928 into a Jewish family in Munkacs, formerly Hungary. He was the youngest of five children and had three sisters, Blanka, Jolan, and Paula, and an older brother, Alexander. His mother was called Leni and his father Bela. They lived prosperous and happy lives. Eugene’s father was not very religious, but his mother was, and they kept a kosher house and had the Friday Sabbath meal, often with members of the wider family. Eugene was a bright student, but his greatest love was football. He played in the school team, and his mother frequently told him off for coming home with dirty boots! On 19th March 1944, everything changed as the Germans occupied Hungary and their already well-rehearsed plans for the Final Solution were implemented. The ghetto was formed, and families from outside Munkacs were forced in from the surrounding areas. On 14th May, Eugene was coming home from school when he saw his family being pushed into the back of a lorry. He approached them and was himself made to get in. They were taken to the brick factory and immediately loaded into cattle wagons. Thus began his journey into hell. After three days they arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau where Eugene was selected for slave labour, and he never saw his family again. 

Eugene was then sent on to Buchenwald, Mittelbau-Dora, Harzungen, and Ellrich. In March 1945, he was sent by train to Bergen-Belsen. He was liberated there on 15th April 1945 by the British forces. He was 17 years of age, weighed less than 50 kilos, was an orphan, and in the country of his enemies. He had experienced and witnessed the worst in humanity. After liberation, once he had recovered some of his health, he became attached to the British Forces as an interpreter, and in 1948, he met my mother, who was with the British Army. They fell in love, and he came to Britain in 1949, where he married, had four children, two grandchildren, and a successful career with Marks and Spencer.

Growing up, we were never allowed to speak about the camps. We knew father had been in the concentration camps and his family had been gassed, but there was a long silence about something which was too horrible for words. We were not allowed to watch TV programmes about the camps, anything German was ‘verboten’, and we were to be protected at all costs. There were no photographs, no impression of how they had looked or lived, and no possibility of father ever revisiting the former camps or returning to his hometown. It was all just too painful and too difficult. I remember as a child wondering why there were no members of father’s family at our family parties and how sad this was.

Then, in 2005, we decided to attend the 60th liberation commemoration event at Bergen-Belsen and also to visit Mittelbau-Dora and Buchenwald. By this time, father had retired and had started to speak about his experiences in schools and to community groups. He and I both became members of the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association (HSFA) in Leeds, and this is how our journey of discovery began. We were welcomed in Germany by some truly wonderful Germans, people like Sabine Stein, Jens-Christian Wagner, Bernd Horstman, Diana Gring, and Thomas Rahe, who were giving their lives to working in the Memorial sites day in day out, facing the past and the actions of their forefathers, taking responsibility even though they had not themselves perpetrated the crimes. I remember the occasion on the evening after the liberation event, when we entered a restaurant in Celle to have dinner after an emotional day. We must have looked like a survivor family, dressed as we were in dark formal clothes, and then something amazing happened. Everyone stood up and bowed towards us in contrition and respect. We just nodded and tried to smile in acknowledgement. This journey gave father the opportunity to see a new Germany, not one which was destroyed and bombed, but one which had been rebuilt, a Germany where he was made welcome and where it was acknowledged that he was a victim of the Holocaust. This was a truly cathartic experience for us all, but especially for father. He had faced his demons and so had I.

From this point on, we never looked back and returned frequently to the annual commemoration events at Bergen-Belsen, Mittelbau-Dora, and Buchenwald, keeping up our friendships with the memorial staff, who always welcomed us so wonderfully. 

In 2006, father decided he wanted to return to Birkenau to pay his respects to his family who had perished there. This was the most difficult of journeys. For the first time, father could walk around the camp and see the bureaucracy, scale, and organisation of death as it had been. However, there was no smell of burning this time, he said. He recounted step-by-step his arrival and separation at the ramp and his subsequent entry into the camp, including his sheer terror and total confusion as to what was happening. He described to us how he was stripped and had all his hair removed from every part of his body and how he was issued with ‘striped pyjamas’ and underwear. He told us about how later on that night, when he saw the chimneys blazing and there was a terrible smell of burning, his friend’s father, Mr Kornreich, who had survived selection, told him that this was the bodies of their families burning. This was the first time he told us this. It was a very sad visit, but it was born with great fortitude by father.

In 2008, I again wrote to the ITS in Bad Arolsen and said we would like to come and see what records there were for father. I was immediately contacted by Gabriele Wilke of the ITS, who said she would look into the matter and be ready to meet us on the agreed date in August 2008. We arrived there by car and were greeted by Gabriele and an interpreter, although we both spoke and read German. We were taken to a room, and there we saw several files which had been extracted from the archive and contained all of my father’s prisoner records. It was quite astonishing to see his Auschwitz card, one from Buchenwald, and one from Mittelbau-Dora, the transport lists, movement from block to block in Mittelbau-Dora, his sick records when he was ‘excused from tunnelling’, a liberation list from Bergen-Belsen, and a photograph from his International Refugee documentation post liberation. The bureaucracy of death was just astonishing to us.

Then Gabriele asked us if we were ready to hear about the fate of his two sisters Paula and Jolan. At this point we were quite without words and in some shock. She then produced the prisoner cards for father’s two sisters who had been selected for slave labour like him. They were sent with 1000 Hungarian Jewish women to the Gelsenlager in Gelsenkirchen to perform slave labour in the oil refinery and clear up after the bombing raids. 

Also contained in the records was a death certificate. They had both been killed in an RAF bombing raid in September 1944. For 64 years, my father and the whole family had believed that his entire family had been gassed in Birkenau. The shock was enormous. The ITS then telephoned Stefan Goch, the historian at Gelsenkirchen, and we arranged to go there the next day. We took our leave of the ITS staff, and drove to Gelsenkirchen, where we were shown the railway line they came in on from Auschwitz, the oil refinery which still exists, and the cemetery where there is a memorial stone for the 151 Hungarian Jewish women killed in that fateful bombing raid. Sadly, there is no memorial and indeed no memory of the incident at the present-day oil refinery judging by the company’s website. Their broken bodies lie there still. After the war ended, correspondence shows that the company denied any involvement in the use of slave labour as ‘they came under the Nazis.’ This continues to be unresolved and is, for me, an unfinished story.

In 2010, I was elected as Chair of the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association, and the membership of survivors determined that we should collect our survivor´s testimonies, continue to speak in schools and to wider community groups, and undertake Holocaust education. In addition, there were many precious letters, photographs, and some artefacts, quite ordinary but of great emotional value, which had been brought out through the Kindertransporte or had been recovered post war. I was asked by many of the members whether there could be any records of their families’ fate, similar to those my father had found. Thus began a long relationship with the International Tracing Service, now the Arolsen Archives. We found that by combining documentary evidence of persecution with a survivor’s story, we could take an evidence-based approach to our educational work. When we started receiving information from Bad Arolsen, so much was revealed to our survivor members. One person received the date and time of her stepfather’s death in Sachsenhausen and the date of her biological father’s death from the Auschwitz Death Book, another discovered that her mother had been previously married and had had a child who had died and was now buried in Belgium. People received their own records of persecution, which they had never seen before, and this often filled in time gaps of not knowing for sure how long they had been in a particular camp. To date, we have received hundreds of copies of documents relating to our members through the Arolsen Archives. Our friendship with the Arolsen Archives is based on human contact with people who care about our legacy and about how we need to use this to alert the world to what may happen when people are persecuted for whatever reason. This is the dearest wish of our survivor community, to make sure no one ever suffers as they did simply because they were Jews.

It is to this end that we decided in 2016 to create a permanent Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre at the University of Huddersfield. There is no similar resource in the North of England, yet Holocaust education is part of our national curriculum. We came to Germany to discuss this with our German partners, including the International Tracing Service, and sought advice about our interpretative approach and plans. We then raised the funds through the Heritage Lottery Funds, a number of philanthropic trusts, family trusts, and individual donations. The Centre opened in September 2018. Our Holocaust Exhibition and Learning centre will create an immersive experience combining visual testimony with narrative, artefacts, and our evidence base provided by the ITS Digital Archive.

In 2017, I was part of a UK delegation to Bosnia. This is a more recent genocide perpetrated against the Muslim community, much smaller in actual numbers but with many parallels to the Holocaust in terms of the processes used. In Bosnia, however, there is no acceptance of responsibility. Male survivors and the Mothers of Srebrenica told us how they had returned to their villages to live amongst the perpetrators, who walked freely. There were no records, and some mass graves remain hidden. They have no place to go to grieve and nowhere to get information. There is a high level of denial from ‘authorities’. This is in stark contrast to our experience in Germany.

Perhaps we need the passage of time to help heal wounds, or maybe the scars are there forever. I know that we as a family and as an association never forget our relatives and mourn their loss everyday. But we believe that by working together, we can secure our legacy and enable future generations to learn what happens when stereotyping and persecution become the norm.

In September 2017, Eugene Black died peacefully in his home, his most precious place. He is missed by so many people. A man of great humour and humanity, he would wish us all to go on and never give up. He always said, “Life is for living.” His legacy forms part of the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre.

We are grateful to our many friends in Germany who helped us on our journey and especially to the Arolsen Archives for their professionalism and humanity. We value our partnership going forward.

For more information about the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre please refer to:  www.holocaustlearning.org.uk


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