Liberated from Bergen-Belsen by a man who later became her husband, Gena Turgel and her family are painfully aware of what the Holocaust means – and how its timeless message must be carried through the generations, writes Jenni Frazer
A family is gathered around a comfortable dining table in a home in north-west London. At the head of the table is the family matriarch, now in her early 90s, and the home is filled with the sort of memorabilia common to many Jewish households: close family pictures, graduation photographs, that sort of thing. But in a cabinet near the dining table is one symbol that shows clearly that this is no ordinary Jewish family.
It is the MBE bestowed on the matriarch, Gena Turgel, for her work in Holocaust education.
Polish-born Mrs Turgel endured Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Belsen, and famously married one of her liberators, British soldier Norman Turgel, during Succot 1945.
One of nine children – only three of whom were to survive the war – Gena has rebuilt her family. And gathered around her table on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day were some of the different generations: her daughter, Hilary Tash; her grandson, Adam Tash; great-grandchildren Jamie and Jordan Tash, and their cousin, Josh Kennet with his fiancée, Ashley Jameson.
More than most, this family is painfully aware of what the Holocaust means and how it will carry its message on through the generations. Adam Tash had just started working when his grandmother’s book, I Light A Candle”, was published in 1985.
He recalls: “As I was coming to the station, [I saw] there was a big poster from the Evening Standard, with a picture of my grandparents, and the headline: ‘The Bride from Belsen’. I knew some stories from Nana [Gena] but it was really only then that I began to realise what a big story this really is.”
From then on, he says, he would hear more stories each time he went to his grandparents. “You can’t write everything in the book.Some things were too personal,” he says.
Gena herself had not spoken to her children and grandchildren fully before the publication of the book. Some things were too painful and personal. Besides, she says, she wanted them to grow up before she discussed her experiences. But she had written some material for the book and one day found her children looking at these pages. “‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ they said. “I said: ‘I was waiting for you to get to a certain age where you would be able to understand.’”
Hilary Tash, however, says she was aware of her mother’s tragic past even earlier. She was about seven or eight and her maternal grandmother, Estera, told Hilary what had happened to her. “She told me how my mother had saved her life. But I wouldn’t have discussed it with my brother and sister, because they were too young. And then after that we found the pages Mum had been writing.” Great-grandson Josh Kennet and his fiancée Ashley say all their friends know about Gena’s life story.
“Either they have heard Nana speak first-hand [Gena has been speaking in schools for nearly 30 years] or they have discussed it with me,” says Josh. “And we will go on talking about it because it’s incredibly important to tell the story throughout the generations.”
“I took the task on out of appreciation that I am alive today, able to make the contribution to a future generation of youngsters,” says Gena.
As for her own family, she explains: “I like to broaden their horizons. But I don’t want them to go through what I went through.”
The youngest family member present, Jordan, is just 14, the age at which most school students begin to learn about the Holocaust. “I see life differently, knowing what has happened,” he says. “And I also talk to friends whose families are survivors.”
Jamie, 16, has just returned from a trip to Poland, and managed to go to the cemetery, where one of Gena’s sisters is buried. “It’s all still there,” he says.
“It’s one thing learning about it in books, but to go to the camps and see for yourself – that’s really powerful.” All the family agree that it is important for people to visit the scenes of the Nazi crimes. His cousin, Josh, went to Belsen some years ago with Gena. His fiancée, Ashley, is very passionate about transmitting the message. “Every time we’ve gone to hear Nana speak, I’ve always been very vocal about attending those events. And when I speak to people at work, they are very interested – and more so because of the direct connection with a survivor.
“I’ve passed Nana’s book around to colleagues; the interest is massive, but what is quite scary is the lack of knowledge and the level of ignorance. Everyone knows that something terrible happened and that a lot of people died, but there is very little further understanding. Perhaps the opportunity to learn more wasn’t available to them.”
For Adam, there is a clear division between committed Jewish families – where so many people are either descended from survivors or know people directly involved in the Holocaust – and those who are more secular or remove from the experience. He acknowledges, too, that the Holocaust “is part of our DNA, part of our faith. And we think of the numbers [of Jews] and what might have been if the Holocaust had never happened. But it is difficult to explain to people of other religions what it means: for them it’s another war, another history.” And for Josh, one of the strongest ways of telling the story was a visit to Yad Vashem in the company of non-Jews.
“They’ve seen how many Jews there were in Poland, how many there are now… it’s incredibly harrowing. But it’s in Israel, so 90 percent of people that pass through have some sort of connection. I think it’s incredibly important to have something more here.” Gena was once horrified to hear a Kindertransport survivor say that “it was enough talking about the Holocaust”.
She said emphatically: “It’s never enough. When I speak to non-Jewish children in schools, I see the impact on them. I feel I have done something, and it makes me feel I have to do more and more.” Hilary may be ready to take on some of the work, having been asked by the Holocaust Educational Trust to tell her mother’s story.
“It would only be my experience, but whether that would have the same impact, I don’t know.” And Ashley declares: “We have a responsibility for the story to be retold, and that responsibility is passed down through the family. There is definitely an onus on the family to tell Nana’s story, to hold up that light for her and pass it on with the same passion that she has.”