HOPE not hate’s Liron Velleman reflects on the lessons his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, taught him throughout his life as a refugee in England.
Tonight people from all across the UK, from every background, will be coming together to remember the victims of the Shoah.
For those of us in the Jewish community, Holocaust Memorial Day is always a time of personal remembrance – almost all our families have a path that traces its way back through that darkness.
As time passes the events of the 30s and 40s turn slowly from being experiences into being stories from the past, into being history.
But in my family, that line of history was a real person, my grandfather Alec Ward (born Abram Warszaw), the man who I grew up knowing as a very special man who went through unimaginable trauma, but who always had a story, song or joke to tell.
Last November, I decided to make a trip to learn more about my grandfather’s journey of survival through the Holocaust and beyond.
But I didn’t travel to Magnuszew, the village in Poland where Abram Warszaw spent his days as a child, or to the two ghettos, the three slave labour camps or the two concentration camps he survived, despite incomprehensible tragedy.
Instead I drove to a quaint English mansion called Wintershill Hall on the outskirts of Bishop’s Waltham, a village in Hampshire. Why?
Because Alec’s Holocaust journey didn’t end the day American forces liberated him from Mauthausen in May 1945.
On the day he was freed, after enduring six years constantly facing death, he was a malnourished, naked teenager, so weak that the liquid from a tin of peas given to him by a soldier proved too much for his stomach and made him ill.
His physical distress was equalled by his emotional loss and he was consumed with grief, loss and trauma. In those years he had witnessed his younger brother murdered and many others, but still had hoped that he wasn’t alone – it would turn out that he was the only member of his vast extended family to still be alive.
Emotionally his path through the Shoah never ended, it haunted him long after he was taken from Mauthausen to Regensburg in Bavaria with other survivors, before living in a Displaced Persons camp called Kloster Indersdorf near Dachau.
He was completely unaware that at the same time an Anglo-Jewish philanthropist called Leonard Montefiore was embarking on a mission to bring unaccompanied child survivors of the Holocaust to the UK, through the Central British Fund (known today as World Jewish Relief) – lobbying the Government to allow 1,000 child survivors to recuperate in the UK.
He succeeded, though with severe restrictions such as their stay being temporary and that the Government would not provide monetary or logistical support to the operation. Hampered by these restrictions and the post-war chaos, in the end only 732 children could be found and rescued.
In November 1945, Abram made the journey in an RAF plane to Stoney Cross airfield in Southampton. At the time no-one really knew my grandfather’s age, and we still don’t. One of the effects of the trauma was that he forgot his own date of birth, and the various conflicting records from the period showed that he was possibly just 16 when he flew to the UK, which would have made him just ten at the beginning of the Second World War.
On the flight, Alec was very apprehensive. He would later write about the thoughts that went through his mind: “Would I be able to learn how to speak English? Would I have the opportunity to learn a trade or profession? What kind of people were the English? Would they force me to change my religion?“
But by his own account these fears were quickly dispelled:
“These questions and others need not have worried me as on arriving in England I found nothing but wonderful hospitality’. [On arrival] “the staff of the RAF airport laid on a most wonderful tea for us, with cakes and oranges.”
The children (known as ‘the ’45 Boys’ even though there were many girls amongst them) were taken to Wintershill Hall – a mansion owned by the Montefiore family at the time used to support their physical renewal, as well as education and psychological support.
During his time there, Alec had felt “intoxicated by the freedom”, writing he could “walk freely wherever [one] wanted, ride a bicycle, and could be a free person all of which [one] had not experienced for the last five years.”
It was these feelings that I was moved by too last year, when I walked around Wintershill Hall and the nearby town of Durley. As I listened to the stories told by the current owner and resident of the mansion, I felt a sense of hopefulness and renewal, emotions that understandably are rarely exhibited during Holocaust remembrance.
I was visiting a place where, despite all of the trauma of the previous few years, my grandfather took his first steps as a free person in a free country and began to rebuild his life from scratch.
Holocaust Memorial Day, and other moments of reflection on the Shoah are rightly centred on the vast human tragedy of the Holocaust and the devastating potential of man’s inhumanity to man.
However, this year, I will be thinking about the tireless work of the leadership of the Central British Fund, who lobbied a reluctant post-war Government into showing a minimum of compassion and allowing child Holocaust survivors the chance to re-establish themselves in society.
As Political Organiser for HOPE not hate, I can’t help but see the parallels with Britain today, but my grandfather had nothing but gratitude for his welcome in Britain, and his ardent and unwavering patriotism and love of Britain and everything it stands for has been passed down the generations.
It was that commitment to his new home and new society that led to him co-founding the Holocaust Survivors ’45 Aid Society, creating a vital and supportive community for those who came to Britain as he did as they made a new path for themselves in their adopted home.
So today I will think about, and be thankful for, the extraordinary achievements of the 732 Boys (and girls) who built their lives, started families, and most importantly continued to tell their stories to future generations so that the Holocaust and its lessons would never be forgotten.
Most of all I will think about the most important lesson that my grandfather taught me, one expressed by so many of ‘the Boys’:
“I implore you not to hate the Germans or any other people as it was hatred that caused the Holocaust in the first place.”
Learn more about the ‘The Southampton Boys’ story: