The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were moved to tears during an emotional tour of the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland this week.
The Royal Highnesses, accompanied by two British survivors returning for the first time, observed the Jewish tradition of placing stones rather than flowers in memory of the victims, before standing heads bowed alongside Manfred Goldberg and Zigi Shipper who recited the El Maleh Rachamim memorial prayer.
Prince William and Kate were shown discarded shoes and clothing taken from prisoners on arrival at the site, which was originally created as a prison camp for Poles but became a concentration camp in 1942.
A total of 65,000 people including 28,000 Jews, many evacuated there from Auschwitz as the Germans retreated, died mainly from disease, malnutrition and abuse from the guards. But the royal couple were also shown the gas chamber used to murder those who were too sick to work.
Goldberg, 87, who settled in London after the war, said going back was “seismic,” and that he had hesitated when asked. “The mere thought of returning made me relive those years in my mind. But I decided I had to come and finally face the past.”
German-born Goldberg and Polish-born Shipper both spent two spells in the camp, meeting in one of the compound’s sub-camps as railway labourers, communicating in Yiddish. Through the Holocaust Education Trust, Shipper has since spent the last 30 years speaking about his experiences, but Goldberg has only recently opened up.
Speaking to Jewish News, Goldberg said: “I was apprehensive and overawed at the prospect of meeting Prince William and Kate, but they’re a remarkable couple, with a knack of making you feel totally at ease. They really understood and absorbed the horrors perpetrated there.”
While some of the camp has been demolished, the Duke and Duchess were given a guided tour of what remains, including the former barracks, which now houses several “graphic” exhibitions.
William and Kate will be meeting survivors of Stutthof concentration camp who are returning for the first time pic.twitter.com/dl6hnJ2xr2
— Victoria Murphy (@QueenVicMirror) July 18, 2017
Goldberg said: “They had a chance to hear a little of our experience in Stutthof. They were really perceptive and wanted to know more. William asked me which camp was the worst. I said each one was so dreadful we couldn’t imagine anything worse than it, but that each one we were taken to after was worse than the one before. But Stutthof was most certainly the most vicious.”
Of Kate and William, he added: “In the end I’m really pleased I came back, in part because they’re such a charming couple, I cannot tell you. We forgot we were speaking to the future king of the country. I consider it a real privilege and honour. I believe it made an impact on them. Kate certainly seemed to be emotionally quite churned up by what they had seen and heard.”
Shipper concurred with Goldberg’s praise for the pair, saying: “It was magnificent. It was like speaking to an ordinary two people that I’ve known all my life. You wouldn’t think they were Royals or anything.”
On returning to Stutthof, Shipper said: “I never came back here before now. I never wanted to. This was the only camp where I thought I was going to die, because it was well below zero, freezing, and we only had those striped pyjamas.”
The Duke and Duchess walk through the site of the camp with the Director of Stutthof Museum, Piotr Tarnowski. pic.twitter.com/le5n5evwTx
— Kensington Palace (@KensingtonRoyal) July 18, 2017
Shipper said he thanked Britain’s future king for coming to Stutthof, “because after all, when someone hears that people like you, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, come to these places, they say ‘why don’t we go.’ So, it means such a lot to me that they came, it’s so important, and that’s exactly what I told.”
He added: “They were both affected by the visit. You could see tears in their eyes, you know. Before us they were also introduced to three Polish people who were in the camps. Yes, they were very clearly affected.”
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, described the visit as “incredibly poignant and moving,” adding: “It sends a powerful example to the world about the importance of remembering the horrors of the Holocaust and the importance of our work to educate future generations.”