On Holocaust Memorial Day Liron Velleman writes about how his activism is inspired by the experiences of his family
‘I implore you not to hate.’ These are the words that I carry with me. They help to define my politics. They are the words of my grandfather and Holocaust survivor Abram Warszaw (Alec Ward).
He was born in Parysow, just outside of Warsaw in 1927. He lived with his parents, older sister and three younger brothers. At the start of the war in 1939 all of his grandparents and great-grandparents were still alive. He remembered the restrictions starting to be placed upon Jewish people in his town; who were forced to wear a Star of David on their arms, couldn’t walk on the pavements and a strict curfew was imposed. His synagogue was vandalised and holy books were burnt.
Once a ghetto was established around the town, Abram, who after the war changed his name to Alec, managed to smuggle himself out to sing Yiddish songs to sell cigarettes to nearby Polish people, providing scraps of food for his family. Not long after, his father ordered Abram to take his younger brother Laib and escape from the ghetto. They lived for three months in the forests with no food or shelter and even when they went to former neighbours to beg for food, they were given tiny amounts and told never to return. Abram and Laib managed to sneak themselves in with a group of Jewish farmers in Chmielow who were incredibly generous and shared their minimal rations with them.
On their way to a slave labour camp, having been rounded up by the SS, they stopped at a town called Radom where they encountered a selection, where SS soldiers would send those ‘capable’ of work in one direction and slaughter those not deemed ‘useful’. Abram survived but Laib was deemed too young to work and was shot in front of my grandfather. This moment stayed with him for the rest of his life and I was named Liron in his memory. My grandfather miraculously survived the next four years, through two concentration camps and three slave labour camps and was liberated as a mere skeleton from Mauthausen concentration camp by American troops in 1945.
He arrived in the UK as part of ‘The Boys’, 732 boys and girls who Britain took in at the end of the war and lived in Southampton for the first few months before moving to London. He became a tailor, started a family and for the last 25 years of his life, told his story in schools, synagogues and to various organisations and individuals before passing away in 2018.
It was important to me to tell his Holocaust experiences in this blog for a few reasons. Firstly, with so few Holocaust survivors able to tell their stories first-hand, I feel that it is incumbent upon second and third generation survivors to re-tell the story of our parents and grandparents so it is never forgotten. But I also told it to re-emphasise my opening line, the words he would end every talk and almost every encounter with.
‘In spite of what you have heard me tell you I implore you not to hate the Germans or any other people as it was hatred that caused the Holocaust in the first place. Had I lived with hatred in my heart for the last 60 odd years I would not be here today.’
To go through the continual unimaginable pain and suffering of the Holocaust and the subsequent trauma and be able to live a life espousing the value of tolerance of hate is nothing short of inspirational. His most rewarding talk was to a group of inmates at Lincoln Prison on life sentences. He gave them hope and always felt that ‘education is the key. Young people should be taught not to hate,’ as modelled by his insistence that my mother had a German pen-friend growing up.
The politics of hope over hate in 2020 is in a worrying place. Populism on the rise in the UK, across Europe and in the US. The treatment of Uighur and Rohingya Muslims not being tackled strongly enough by the international community. Far-right groups using social media sites to spread messages of hate.
But the answer to these problems isn’t to just fight hate with hate. Only by standing together, as the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day asks us to do, and by promoting the values of hope and mutual understanding can we continue to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and learn the lessons from it.