As local dignitaries marked Holocaust Memorial Day at the weekend and events were held this week to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, it’s important to remember how these events in our history blighted the lives of real people going about their everyday business.
Irmina Corder is a powerful writer and in this moving piece she highlights the real significance of this past week as she recalls the effect of the atrocities on her own family and how as a ten-year-old her parents sent her to Britain and to Pestalozzi because they believed that way she would have ‘a better life’ even if that meant they would only see her once a year.
In May 1945 when the Americans and Russians liberated the Dachau concentration camp my father, who had somehow survived more than three years in there, weighed just five stone and was near death.
He had Tuberculosis (TB) and many other conditions, mainly caused by malnutrition, beatings and hard labour. He was taken to an American run Sanatorium in Amberg in Bavaria, where he spent more than a year, being transformed back into the semblance of a human being.
Although my father was not Jewish but Polish, he was equally inhumanely treated by the Germans, as were thousands of Poles.
When the Nazis invaded Warsaw in September 1939 and created the Jewish Ghetto many Polish Warsaw citizens found themselves locked in it together with their Jewish compatriots. The Jewish people were made to wear a large ‘J’ on their upper sleeve, the Poles had to wear a ‘P’.
Conditions in the ghetto deteriorated rapidly into a horrendous and pitiful state. Lack of food, sanitation, proper living conditions and medicines soon turned it into a hellhole of disease and death.
My father, who was 36 years old at the time of the invasion, was a well known architect and artist and he soon became one of the many Jewish sympathisers who smuggled whatever they could in to the ghetto.
He went about his business with the ‘P’ attached to his shirtsleeve until 1942, when he was caught smuggling stuff into the ghetto.
He was immediately arrested, beaten up and thrown into a cell. When he was subsequently interviewed by a Nazi Commander and they found out who he was and what skills he had, the Nazis told him he could be useful to them and offered him work.
My father though was fiercely patriotic and declined the offer. In the next few days he found himself on a stinking cattle truck to Dachau.
He had been married but was divorced, he’d had two daughters from his first marriage but they lost touch with each other after my father was incarcerated and it took about 15 years before the Red Cross was able to reunite them.
My two half sisters still live in Warsaw and we’re all on very good terms.
My father could never really talk about the atrocities perpetrated on him and the thousand others in Dachau and he never recovered to be the man he had been in Warsaw, before the war. The physical and mental ravages stayed with him for the rest of his life. He met my mother while in the Sanatorium where she worked as a nurse for the Americans.
She had also been herded onto a truck while standing in a queue for bread and forcibly deported to Germany. She never spoke about how she managed to avoid the concentration camps; only ever saying she had to do horrible things.
She was a very beautiful girl in her early 20s so I can only surmise at the horrible things.
When American troops first entered Germany in 1944 my mother managed to escape into one of their camps. There they trained her in nursing and she was nursing in the Sanatorium my father was taken to. They married in 1947 and settled in one of the displaced persons – or refugee – camps where I was born in 1949.
Discrimination and racism were rife in Germany and having a Polish name made life very hard and unpleasant. In 1959 The Pestalozzi Children’s Village was established in Sedlescombe, I was one of the lucky children chosen to come to England. So my English, happy life began.
But how was I chosen? Well my father belonged to Polish organisations in Germany where they found out about Pestalozzi. My parents wanted me to have a better life and they applied for me to come but my parents, like all the other parents of children who came to Pestalozzi, stayed in Germany.
We were all stateless with no nationality or passports. We did have travel documents and I still have mine to this day.
My parents could not return to Poland as there was a Communist government that didn’t want them. They tried to emigrate to various countries but because of my father’s past TB and ill health, he was always rejected.
When I came here I had to have lung x-rays every six months!
We travelled to Germany once a year in the summer holidays by train and boat to see our parents. During half terms, Easter and Christmas holidays we all had English foster families who had volunteered to have us. We forged very good relationships with them. Mine were the Stuttafords, they lived in Tulse Hill London and I loved going to them.
Pestalozzi was a big deal in the 1960s we were filmed for ITV with Andrew Gardener and David Dimbleby for the BBC. We were taught English there for six months and then we all went to Claverham in Battle.
Most of us did really well with our O’levels and I went on to take A’levels at the Convent of our Lady in Filsham Road, then I went on to College in London, stayed there for 45 years, worked for the actor Jude Law for the last 15 years before returning to my home – Hastings – for a blissful retirement.
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