Caron Kemp talks to four survivors about how they successfully rebuilt their lives here in Britain in the years following liberation
Former international pop star Dorit Oliver-Wolff remembers the moment. “As I stood on stage, fame having found me and looking and feeling in my prime, some 200 German soldiers ogling at me as I sang a selection of my biggest hits, something changed,” she says.
“In that moment, as they responded to my performance, which included my personal favourite, Hava Nagila, with a standing ovation, there was my triumph, there was my success, there was the highlight of my career.”
The reason for her pride came from the fact that just 12 years earlier, the Yugoslavia-born performer’s life was at the mercy of the Nazis.
Having fled for Hungary with her mother as war broke out, Oliver-Wolff was twice picked up by the SS in Budapest and, aged just seven, was separated from the only family she had left for eight long weeks.
Eventually she escaped after her mother smuggled her from the sorting house she was placed in before people were sent to the death camps, but the constant fear of being discovered and the tragedies she witnessed at such a young age reduced her to skin and bone. As the war ended, Oliver-Wolff’s mother was advised by doctors that her daughter, suffering from pleurisy and pneumonia, had just six months to live.
“Probably I didn’t appreciate the gravity of the situation, but all I could think was there was no way I could become a famous singer in six months,” she explains. “But as it happens, I believe that singing saved me. If I felt afraid, anxious or happy I would sing. It was my escape.”
And after being nursed back to health and having lived a nomadic post-war existence across Europe, Oliver-Wolff’s dream was realised when she was snapped up by a record label and at the age of 21 enjoyed her fame and fortune. “The situation was so ironic,” she admits. “Me, the little Jewish girl who once trembled at the sight of the German uniform was now a pin-up for them and one of the top 10 recording artists in their country.”
Her success was no accident, however. “I chose to change my life around at a young age,” she admits.
“Life is for living and it is short, so you have to remain positive and make the most of it.”
That said, now aged 79 and living in Eastbourne with five grandchildren to fuss over, she is still haunted by her past. “I still have nightmares,” she confesses.
“It’s not that I want to remember, it’s just that I can’t forget.” But having completed her memoirs and now a proficient public speaker, Oliver-Wolff recognises that she has much to teach future generations.
“People must learn about one another because it is ignorance that breeds hatred,” she concludes.
“We are all the same and we all have a right to live and to be happy and we should appreciate what we have and each other.”
It is a sentiment that resonates with 87-year-old Harry Olmer who, despite retiring just last year from a long and prosperous career in dentistry, says that he regards his biggest achievement is the family he created. “They are undoubtedly my greatest source of pride,” admits the Mill Hill resident. “Against all the odds, I survived the greatest trauma to marry and have four wonderful children who I raised with a Jewish spirit, and now with my eight grandchildren I feel extremely grateful.”
Born in Poland in 1927, Olmer spent the war in various concentration camps and in April 1945 was transferred to Theresienstadt, from which he was liberated by the Russian Army a month later. Three of his five siblings perished. Having been brought to Scotland with 300 other boys by a relief organisation, he went on to gain a place at university where he studied dentistry before a stint of National Service running Germany’s army dental centre. He then opened his own practice in Potters Bar, where he worked for some 50 years.
“I never wanted to be a burden on society,” admits the former warden of Mill Synagogue. “I believe that if you lead by example, people will follow. “I feel very grateful to have survived the Holocaust and to have had the opportunity to make something of my life.”
For Radlett resident Harry Spiro, the drive to make something of his life in the years after the war came from the final memory he holds of his mother. “At 10 years old I got a job at a glass factory after lying about my age and became responsible for finding food for my family in our Polish ghetto,” he recalls.
“One day the Nazis decided to liquidate the ghetto, asking all those who worked in the factory to assemble in the town square. “I didn’t want to go but my mother forced me. Her final words to me were: ‘Hopefully one of us will survive’.”
Spiro’s family was murdered in Treblinka. “At the time I didn’t realise what she meant and I couldn’t stop crying, but she must have had an intuition that it would save me,” he explains now.
Spiro was one of 732 survivors known as ‘the boys’ who came to Britain together to start new lives. He went on to marry, have three children and own a highly-successful tailoring business. “I always knew I needed to live for my mother’s memory but it was when I married and started a family that I truly appreciated what she did for me and importantly that was when I felt that Hitler didn’t win,” he confesses.
“What we went through was terrible but I learnt that life has to go on. By ridding myself of any hatred and always respecting other people, even if I don’t agree with them, I have been given immense pleasure in life and achieved things I once couldn’t dream would be possible.”
When Ben Helfgott was liberated from Theresienstadt in 1945, weak and weighing just six stone, he could not have imagined that a mere 11 years later he would be the British captain of the weightlifting team at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
At 12, he had seen his mother and sister for the last time, and became an orphan at the age of 14 after his father was taken to Buchenwald. Having lived through three concentration camps, he says he can still recall the smell of human flesh.
Yet, having been brought to England, he went to university, married, had three sons and subsequently nine grandchildren, as well as a career as a clothing manufacturer. He is also the only known survivor to have competed in two Olympic Games and to win bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff in 1958. But while he is undoubtedly proud of his achievements in the face of great adversity, he has one very personal ongoing mission.
“I lost the best years of my life to war and promised those around me in the Holocaust that if I survived I would tell the world what happened there,” he explains. “No child should suffer the way I did and it has left me with a dream of understanding, humanity and fraternity for our fellow man, without hatred.
“I will continue to promote tolerance for as long as I can and to urge people to recognise all the ways in which we as people are similar rather than our differences.
“Could you imagine what the world would look like today if people throughout history had adopted this view?”