This is from my speech at the Holocaust Memorial Day event, held this afternoon jointly by Hackney and Islington branches of Stand Up to Racism. The central feature of this event was a very moving film called Terezin: Refuge in Music, which tells the story of Alice Herz-Sommer and Coco Schumann, two extraordinary musicians from very different musician worlds, both of whom survived Terezín/Theresienstadt. It also reveals what really happened there between 1941-45 behind the Nazi’s propaganda facade
Ghettoes, concentration camps, death camps: these were all different phenomena within a system of oppression, brutality, slavery, and industrial murder, in Nazi occupied areas of Europe
Every life lost was of equal value whether they were Jews, Roma and Sinti Gypsies, Russian Prisoners of War, Jehovah’s Witnesses, socialist, communists, trade unionists, Gays, disabled people or others. Many died from starvation and diseases in the brutal conditions in which they were kept, whether behind ghetto walls or in concentration camps.
Two peoples were marked out for complete extermination in an industrial process calmly and professionally designed by educated and skilled architects and engineers in offices in Germany, for a series of death camps in Poland: Around 6 million Jews and at least half a million Gypsies were murdered.
But even in the very worst circumstances during these times though there was resistance. That resistance took many forms cultural, spiritual, psychological, physical.
The film focuses, through interviews with survivors, on a particular kind of cultural resistance, in a location that was a hybrid of ghetto and concentration camp: a small town within a one-time military fortress.
It was called Theresienstadt and was located in Czechoslovakia, about 40 miles from Prague. It was liberated by the Red Army in May 1945 – the last of all the camps to be liberated. In the period of the Holocaust, 33,000 of those incarcerated there died, mainly from disease and malnutrition, and yet the Red Cross visited and went away apparently satisfied that prisoners were being treated well.
The Nazis had a more permissive regime there, than at other camps, that fooled them. As it was meant to. Meanwhile, some 88,000 Jews were deported to death camps from Theresienstadt. Less than 4% of them survived the war.
I personally knew one of the survivors who was liberated from Theresienstadt having been there a relatively short time. His name was Perec Zylberberg.
My friend Perec was a Polish Jewish socialist who arrived in Theresienstadt at the end of April 1945, just days before its liberation and a couple of weeks before his 21st birthday. He had been travelling in inhuman conditions on a packed transport with hundreds of other Nazi prisoners over a few weeks. Many died en-route.
Perec was suffering from typhoid when he got to Theresienstadt, but his nightmarish experiences of suffering under the Nazis had begun shortly after the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939.
Perec grew up in a working class socialist family in the city of Lodz in Poland. He had an older brother and younger sister. His father was a textile worker and prominent activist in the Bund – a radical internationalist-minded movement of socialist Jews, especially active in trade union and political campaigns, and increasingly in anti-fascist work with the ever more threatening situation in Poland in the late 1930s. Poland already had a deeply antisemitic, very right wing government before the Nazis invaded.
In Lodz the first Nazi order to create a ghetto was made in December 1939. Over the subsequent months through processes of stigmatisation and discrimination, the Jewish community was separated from the non-Jewish population and ghettoized. A large community of ethnic Germans in Lodz were were relocated to replace longstanding Polish communities near the boundaries of the ghetto – which was completely sealed off – making solidarity efforts very difficult.
The responses of local Poles varied – some tried to help the Jews, despite the difficulties of doing so, others deliberately collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, but the majority just acquiesced and did not take a stand, did not take risks, to help the Jews who were being targeted.
One of our purposes today in educating people about that history must be to ensure that people are atuned to what is happening to others, and do not remain bystanders but become upstanders when they witness oppression and mistreatment, whoever the targets may be.
Inside the ghetto, a few political activists had clandestine radios. Perec did not, but his role was helping to distribute news from those that did about the progress of the war, through clandestine bulletins.
There were around 250,000 Jews in the Lodz ghetto and around 5,000 Roma.
At the end of 1943, deportations to the death camps began from ghetto. People were not told where they were being deported to or why. Perec was one of hundreds of young Jewish men rounded up but taken to the prison in the ghetto in December 1943. He was told he would soon be part of a slave labour group that was being formed for work outside the ghetto, but spent two to three months in the prison before being moved with others to a camp at a place called Warta near the city of Czenstochowa.
In January 1945, without any warning, they were hurriedly transported from Warta to a huge and notorious concentration camp called Buchenwald, which was near Weimar in Germany, Buchenwald had been set up in 1937. Its first detainees had been political prisoners before the war – communist anti-fascist resisters. Perec had already heard of Buchenwald before the war. In a memoir he wrote in the 1990s, he said this about Buchenwald:
“It became known the world over immediately after it was established… synonymous
with torture, inhumanity and bestiality. All of those designations were constantly confirmed by stories that came out of the German underground. We used to shudder at the very thought of that horrible place… It became a scare word everywhere.”
Camp prisoners were given numbers, sewn on uniforms and tattooed on their arms. Perec wrote: “ I was transformed into 113208, I was just a number. It was a vast camp… Barracks devoid of anything save the three-tiered bunks. Dark, cold and frightening.”
The constant flow of new prisoners also brought more news from outside. Perec learned there why he and many others had been hurriedly transported to Buchenwald. A day after they had been evacuated from Warta, the Nazis had fled as that camp was liberated by the Russians. He had missed out on being rescued and freed by 24 hours.
Buchenwald had prisoners from all over Europe. Perec had grown up in a movement that stressed belief in humanity and international solidarity, and despite the terrible circumstances at Buchenwald, he was pleased to meet Italian and Spanish anti-fascists.
It was a brutal and punishing regime there working 6.5 days a week for 12 hours a day on the most meagre rations.
Because we tend to focus on the mass murder during the Holocaust, there is insufficient attention to the system of slavery, and how that fits into the long history of slavery in the world, which includes the millions who suffered through the transatlantic slave trade, through Nazi slavery, and the estimated 30 million people in the world today trapped in conditions that are labelled contemporary slavery. Putting Nazi slavery in that context ought to encourage us to build solidarity and campaigning links between communities that have suffered, and still suffer, from slavery and its effects.
In April, Perec and many Buchenwald prisoners who had survived their slavery, were transported again, arriving at the end of April/beginning of May in Theresienstadt, suffering from typhoid. He didn’t know the precise date that he arrived there. We know from records recovered after the war that between 20 and 30 April 1945 there were 12,555 new registrations there. One survivor, called Aliseh Shek, who managed to keep a diary at the camp, noted on 20th April that 1,800 people from the camps arrived in twenty-five wagons, “stinking, infested cattle wagons, inside, stinking infested people, half alive, half dead or corpses.” Perec found himself in the camp hospital.
With Germany losing the war rapidly, and the Soviet Union’s Red Army getting closer, the Nazis prepared to abandon the camp in early May. First the Red Cross and then the Red Army took over the administration of the camp. Other allied soldiers arrived too. Their task was to look after the survivors, help them recover and help them find somewhere to go to start to rebuild their lives.
Perec remembers that summer of 1945 and various schemes being put forward to offer a new future to survivors. In his memoir he recalled a lot of activity by Zionist emissaries to persuade Jewish survivors to go to Palestine but he wrote:
“I was never enamoured of the idea of a Jewish state. It seemed unreal and carried the threat of Arab-Jewish confrontation. I thought this was an attempt to avoid fighting for your human rights wherever you lived.”
He heard rumours of a scheme to bring unaccompanied young refugees to UK, drawn up by the British government and a Jewish refugee committee in Britain, but candidates had to be 15 or under.
Perec had some relatives who had got to Britain before the war. He was 21 but physically small and after five years in the ghetto and slave labour camps living on the most meagre food, could pass for being younger. He registered for the scheme and put his age as 15.
He came to Britain in 1945. They were divided into groups and his group was at first taken to Windermere in the Lake District. Eventually he settled in London‘s East End, where there was a large working class Jewish community. Over the next year he was able to establish that his sister had survived. She is known to people who were active in the Anti-Nazi League – her name is Esther Brunstein.
Perec made contact with other Bundist survivors, socialists and Labour Party figures, one of whom was Fenner Brockway, a great socialist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist and fighter for equality, who was also well connected at the Home Office. Brockway interceded with the Home Office to help Esther get a permit to come to Britain as a domestic worker.
Perec lived in London until late 1950s then emigrated to Montreal in Canada He stayed active there with the remnants of the Bund. He remained a socialist, anti-racist and anti-fascist till he died in 2007. In the 1980s I got to know his sister Esther very well and Perec used to come over to visit Esther for a few weeks every year or two. I used to meet them both. I often played chess and talked Bundist politics with Perec.
Today and tomorrow, politicians of all stripes in Britain will be saying meaningful words at Holocaust remembrance events. Those words will ring especially hollow from the mouths of the 350+ Tory politicians who, this week, callously voted down an amendment to guarantee the right of family reunion to a few thousand unaccompanied child refugees.
Just in December there were grounds for optimism of a major turnaround on refugee policy. There was the prospect of defeating the Tory government. Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell was committed to closing down the shameful detention centres, and to welcoming instead of oppressing refugees.
But Instead of bucking the trend, Britain chose the hard right Conservatives, and has fallen into line politically with the populist right wing forces that have been growing and dominating in Poland, Hungary, USA, Brazil, India and Israel. Far-right movements remain strong in France, Spain, Italy , Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine
Old racisms and newer racisms co-exist and flourish in these countries with anti-Roma prejudice, antisemitism , Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, all finding free expression. For all the media attention alleging antisemitism against the Labour Party (and there have been some real cases), we know the real story that antisemitism is strongest in its natural home – the right and far-right of the political spectrum. But anti-racists and antifascists do need to reflect very seriously on the new realities
Of course the openly fascist Far-Right forces will be emboldened – and we need to impede and confront them where we can, but those same forces can get much of what they want from the men and women in suits in the heart of the Conservative government. We will need to shift the balance of our activities much more into confronting government and state racism.
And we should note that the Johnson Government is not just wedded to racism but to authoritarianism too. Many talk about similarities between Johnson and Trump, but as much as Johnson looks west to America for his inspiration, he is looking east to Poland and Hungary where racism and authoritarianism are combining.
It is also clear in both Poland and Hungary that the populist right governments mobilise support among working class voters on sexism, homophobia, and promotion of the Christian family, as well as on old and new racism. These must be our arenas of struggle too.
And the place where we will have to do our work will shift from set-piece confrontations on the streets with far right thugs, to patient work to build as much solidarity from the ground up as we can inside our communities across the many divisions that our government will try to foster.
The fundamental lessons we must draw from the Holocaust are about being upstanders not bystanders; being bold in support of others as well as ourselves; resisting every attempt to shut down civil rights, human rights; and building, communicating and spreading a vision of the kind of world of freedom and progress and diversity that we can create that is the polar opposite of everything the Nazis sought.