The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day 2017 – How can life go on? – invites us to consider the challenges faced by survivors of the Holocaust in rebuilding their lives after the end of the Second World War. Perhaps the most powerful example of resilience and renewal is that told by Sir Martin Gilbert in his classic book The Boys. In our latest guest blog, Lady Esther Gilbert has selected the following excerpts from the book which outline this remarkable story.
Fewer than 100,000 Jews survived the death camps, slave labour camps and death marches of Hitler's Reich. This book is about 732 of those survivors; most of them boys, about eighty of them girls. What these particular 732 have in common, apart from their wartime experiences, is the journey they made together, after liberation, from Europe to Britain. They travelled under the auspices of the Central British Fund, a Jewish organisation which had been active in helping refugees since the rise of Hitler in 1933.
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Most of those who were brought to Britain under this scheme were in their middle to late teens. All but a dozen of them had lost their parents, as well as brothers and sisters, murdered between 1939 and 1945, usually in circumstances of the utmost savagery. Almost all the youngsters had been trapped by the war from the very first days of the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. 'I was eleven years old when the war broke out and the nightmare began,' Henry Golde later wrote. 'I always say that at the age of eleven I became an adult, and five years later I became an old man. That is what I and countless others like me have seen and were forced to live through. Most people will never experience what we did, even if they live to a very old age.'
All of the 732 'boys', as they call themselves – and this includes the girls among them – had seen death at close quarters. Many of them had seen their parents, or brothers and sisters, killed before their eyes, or taken away to a death cap at the time of the deportations from the ghettos. Today, these 'boys' … form a group of friends whose companionship is deeply rooted in appalling common memories. A few of them were friends from their pre-war childhood. Some had first met in the ghettos and slave labour camps. Most became friends after their arrival in Britain. Today they are banded together under the auspices of their own charitable organisation, the '45 Aid Society, named after the year in which the first of them came to Britain. Other survivors, who came to Britain later, were drawn to the society for the comradeship which it provided.
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The story of the boys from their earliest childhood days in Europe, to their life and work today, is one that displays many elements of the troubled yet aspiring human condition. Before 1939 they were part of a settled world that, for all its problems, was evolving and even flourishing, before it was deliberately and irrevocably destroyed. They are the eyewitnesses of vanished communities and vanished patterns of life which Jews had practised for many centuries. Then, while the world around them was literally consumed in violence and fire, they were subjected to the tyranny of slave labour over a prolonged period, and saw the cruellest of tortures practised by one group of human beings on another. They survived, but only just: many of them were very near to death indeed at the moment of their liberation; some were in what might well have been their final coma, had liberation been delayed even by one more day.
The generous impulse which led the Central British Fund to bring the boys over to Britain created a bond and a focus among them that were in many ways unique. Some had known each other in their home towns and in the camps, but it was when they were brought together in Britain that the strong links between them were forged. These links have persisted to this day, unbroken, and indeed strengthened as the years pass. Their cohesion as a group is unusual in the extreme. Most of them had no other family when they reached Britain: their parents, and their closest relatives, had been murdered. First the hostels, then the Primrose Club, and in more recent decades the '45 Aid Society, became their home and the centre of their creative energies. It was in these surroundings that they renewed their lives, facing a very different world to the world of their youth; educating themselves, finding work, earning a living, marrying, raising families, and becoming an integral part of the communities in which they settled.
The past is an ever-present reality for the boys, as it is for all survivors. Yet they have not allowed its pain to embitter them, or to cloud over the constructive wellsprings of daily life, in which their own achievements have been considerable. Theirs are the achievements of new family circles in which their wives, deeply aware of their wartime torments, have played a pivotal part: and the achievements of friendships, many of them born in time of adversity, and which have been maintained and enhanced during fifty years of constructive enterprise and charitable endeavour.
'Fifty years on,' wrote Moniek Goldberg fifty years after liberation, 'I reflect that I could tell my father that I have not forgotten what I learned as a boy. I helped my fellow man when I could. I am proud to be a Jew, for I have seen man behave worse than beasts, but the Jews remembered Rabbi Hillel who taught us, "If you find yourself in a place where there are no men, you must strive to be a man." We were amongst the beasts and I am proud to declare that we upheld the dignity of man.'
Excerpts taken from The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity © Martin Gilbert, 1996.
For more information on Sir Martin please visit www.martingilbert.com. This month’s featured book on the website is The Righteous, Sir Martin’s study of the courageous minority of non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust – see www.martingilbert.com/book/the-righteous-the-unsung-heroes-of-the-holocaust/.