In tune with living, breathing history, Stephen Oryszczuk goes behind the scenes to discover the people and places that make our community tick.

For our 70th anniversary issue, he’s at Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors’ Centre

Stephen Orys

The place…

I followed the directions to a big brick building by a busy crossroad and stared. Was this right? It didn’t look as if it would be Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors’ Centre. But, then again, what do centres for Holocaust survivors look like? What are they like inside? Are they places of joy or sadness, or both? Come to think of it, what do Holocaust survivors look like?

Is this one here, this elderly woman popping her head into manager Aviva Trup’s office, or is she a volunteer, or a paid member of staff? In her mid-80s, this is Hannah, and she is all three – a trained councillor, confidant and facilitator who left Germany after Kristallnacht at the age of five.

This is a second home for the survivors, she tells me. They don’t live here, but access it for therapeutic, practical or social reasons, picking the events they’re interested in, as you would from a Time Out, nipping in for a bite to eat, generally coming and going as they please. They sound like teenagers with walking sticks.

The team…

Aviva’s the boss. She spends most of the day managing, but says her training as a nurse comes in handy, because survivors are usually the last to admit when they’re ill. Next door is Moshe, an arts therapist born in Chile, bred in Israel and perfected at Goldsmiths. Opposite him there’s caretaker Magalan, who chalks up 10 years at the HSC in June. He’s a baby.

Judy Broch has been here since the 1970s, says social worker Sharon, who herself dates from 2001. They’ve just been celebrating a special birthday of Anna-Mae. She’s been here even longer. Front-of-house, there’s the gorgeous administrator Claudia, the lovely receptionist volunteer Deborah and Dragan, a quiet but friendly Bosnian. He fled Sarajevo in 1992.

His job now includes payroll, finance and finding reporters a notepad when they’ve forgotten theirs.

The day…

In the main room, a lady from Barnet begins her talk on how to stay warm this winter. She means well, but it’s all complicated programme names and long-winded explanations about what this talk is, what it’s part of, who funds it, who sponsors it, when it was launched and why it’s important that everyone signs the attendance sheet (so she can get paid). Eyes glaze over. Oh no. They’re going to fall asleep.

Five minutes in, the attendance sheet goes AWOL, which saves us. The ensuing panic catalyses the group to talk about the various virtues of hot water bottles and hats. Barnet lady would clearly rather talk about high kilowatt usage, energy efficiency and Priority Service Registers, but she’s fighting a losing battle. Complaining about draughts and twiddly knobs when you’ve got arthritis is much more fun. Oh, how I’ve missed my oldies. When I was a nipper, studying for my Masters, I worked for a year in an old folks’ home. I loved them.

Now, 10 years later, here they are again, sat in a big brick building by a busy crossroad, telling Barnet lady about their friend who once lived in Siberia, and how they don’t care if they can save £75 a year just by turning the thermostat down one degree. “It’s cold,” says one. “I want it up, not down.” I’ve missed them terribly. I’ve missed the pale blue and pink cardigans, the gold bangles, floral scarves and pearl earrings, the thin, combed hair and thick glasses hiding sharp, discerning eyes. Most of all, I’ve missed the mischief and the humour. Like the looks they give when Barnet lady forgets she’s talking to Holocaust survivors and says she doesn’t want them going through “hard times”.

Or like their plans to cancel next week’s ‘cut and dry’ when Barnet lady says “humans lose most heat through their hair”. The idea that you’d only ever go see the oldies on Mitzvah Day always makes me laugh. There’s no doubt who gets more out of the visits.

Of course, there’s no humour in the Shoah, but my earlier questions are now being answered, and I see that this is a place of joviality, song and laughter, as well as of agony. Both are in evidence.

Tears flow and faces ashen as journalists from national newspapers covering Holocaust Memorial Day hear first-hand what burning flesh smells like, and what it’s like to smell it.

Survivors need to be ready to tell it, yes, but people also need to be ready to hear it, too. Often they’re not.

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Rehearsals for a singing competition

How you prepare someone for that kind of reality, I have no idea. Hats off to the educators. I eat lunch with Eva, Ina and Bella. Like any perfect gentleman, I ask how old they are. “93,” says Bella, who’s blind. “92,” says Ina, eating barley soup. “83”, says 93-year old Eva, before realising and correcting her mistake. “Wishful thinking,” tuts Ina into her broth. “We’re past our sell-by date,” chuckles Bella. “Speak for yourself,” snorts Eva. “Why, how old is he?” asks Bella.“About 25,” says Ina, after a glance in my direction. “Fine,” says Bella, without hesitation. “He can stay.”

It’s beautiful food, prepared by Nana, undisputed boss of the kitchen, and Dayib, a charming and intelligent Somalian refugee. It’s just as well; this being a survivors’ centre, food is important. Soup in the camps was cold, watery and scarce, so here it must always be thick, hot and plentiful. “You won’t leave hungry,” says Eva, nodding at my next course, as I struggle with my first.

It’s Jewish in every other way, too. Conversation around the table is engaging, opinionated and completely lacking in etiquette. Behind us, two survivors talk to me over each other. Neither gives way. Both carry on. I wonder if it’s because they’re deaf and can’t hear the other talking, until one says something the other disagrees with, at which point I realise they can hear just fine. An hour earlier, half a dozen were sat discussing the Paris attacks in Hebrew, and that now carries on in English. “They’re terrified of anti-Semitism,” says Aviva. “But they can discuss it here.”

Survivors illustrated

Survivors illustrated

Ageing brings its own, unique problems for survivors, says Hannah. “They go back to dependency, as they were in the camps,” she says. “There, if you were unwell, you didn’t survive.”

The same point is made by social worker Sharon, who has just been speaking to the relatives of a hospitalised survivor who now needs emergency respite in a care home for the first time. “They can be fiercely determined to stay independent, and so much less likely to seek help,” she says. “In order to survive, they had to stay strong. Now they’re vulnerable, it’s incredibly hard for them.” In the next room, Aviva’s talking to Cardiff art student Gideon Summerfield, who has illustrated dozens of survivors holding an object they hold dear. Recently, he drew a lady called Annie (not her real name), who’d never spoken about her experiences before. “She chose a photo of her mother,” says Aviva. “When she saw the drawing, she decided she wanted to tell her story, because she realised that those who saw the art wouldn’t know where it came from. It was entirely her idea, as it always has to be with survivors. We’re the only Jewish Care unit not to have a reminiscence class.”

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Moshe (on the right) leads a Hebrew class

Singing starts up in the main room and I sneak in through the concertina doors. It’s a rehearsal, clearly a first, judging by the sound. Dragan tells me they’re practising for a sing-off, an inter-organisational competition between the various service centres of Jewish Care.

Then I’m spotted, given a sheet and told to clear my throat. We’re singing a song in Ivrit which starts with the words ‘Nad Ilan’ (a tree sways). At Moshe’s patient prompting, staff and survivors sing together, starting with the women (“men, play the Jewish husband for a minute and shut up”).

So obviously bad are we that it soon becomes a joke. “Oh dear,” says Bella, who relies on her hearing. “Sometimes I wish I was deaf too.” The day’s coming to an end. I’ve sat next to a rare breed of living, breathing history today, and met those privileged enough to experience that on a daily basis. I feel honoured and humbled, sad but reassured.

There are only some 3,000 survivors left, but on the basis of today, they’re well looked after. Soon they’ll all be gone but thankfully we’re recording what they tell us, which seems to be of mutual benefit. “I counselled one man who never got on with his kids and decided he wanted to record his experiences, so they’d one day know what he went through and why he was as he was,” says Hannah. “It took time, many months, and was very painful, but we did it. He died the week we finished. It was like he was waiting, like he could finally rest.”

As I write, the ink in my pen begins to run out, fading fast as I finish the last sentence. Time to go. Time to go.