Mala Tribich, MBE Survivor and educator
When I speak at schools, I am often asked whether it is hard for me to tell my story. Because I do not have a set text, but speak from memory, my answer is always: “Yes, it is painful, and emotionally draining, and I have to keep a tight grip on my emotions.”
I then anticipate my audience’s next question: “Then why do you do it?”, by continuing that it is important for me to preserve the memory not only of my own family, but of all those who have perished, possibly with everyone around them, leaving no one to remember them – as if they had never existed. Which is precisely what Hitler wished.
Those of us who survived were very lucky, and feel it our duty to speak for all of those whose voices have been silenced, and also, of course, to warn about the dangers of discrimination and bigotry.
For the past 20-odd years I, and other survivors, have spoken to older schoolchildren and have been heartened by the welcome I receive, by their attentiveness, eagerness to listen to and learn from the survivor, and the intelligence of their questions and comments.
The teacher’s introduction often includes something like: “You are fortunate to have the opportunity to listen to someone who was there and survived. Your children won’t have this privilege.”
More recently, after speaking at a school during the day, I have also spoken to an audience of parents in the evening.
This is a very valuable extension, with the likelihood of stimulating discussion within the family.
Recently, also, some Government ministries and large commercial organisations are inviting me to speak to their staff.
I spoke to staff at eBay’s HQ in Dublin and explained why the advertising of certain banned merchandise is offensive.
As the number of survivors is diminishing, and the time is approaching when there will not be a single living witness, I have been wondering how its memory can be conserved intact, and presented to future generations.
There is now sufficient documentary evidence to confute all but the most virulent academic Holocaust deniers, but there will be no one left to confront the died-in-the-wool bigots with: “I was there!”
More slippery are the attempts to categorise the Holocaust as just one subspecies of genocide.
As the eminent historian Sir Ian Kershaw insists, the Holocaust was unique, both in its motivation and purpose, and in its organisation and performance.
The Prime Minister’s appointment of a Holocaust Commission, with the remit to make proposals for a fitting and permanent memorial, has given me hope that a really suitable idea will emerge – but what?
In this country, several memorials already exist, either in tangible form, such as the Laxton Holocaust Centre, the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust Exhibition, Trevor Avery’s Other Space ‘45’ exhibition in Windermere, and the memorial at The Dell in Hyde Park; or institutionalised events: International Holocaust Memorial Day, or the Jewish Yom HaShoah, which falls close to the liberation of Belsen by the British on 15 April 1945 – to which I owe my own life.
It is in the natural history of such things that they become degraded by time and the passing of generations. However this need not be so for the Shoah. Because of the inclusion of this subject on the school curriculum, and the active outreach of the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), including its Lessons from Auschwitz Project, together with the very imaginative idea of sustaining interest by the appointment of senior sixth formers as HET Ambassadors, we have a generation of school-leavers who are ‘Holocaust literate’, many of whom will be able to tell their children that they met a survivor, visited Auschwitz and know it was no myth.
If the Holocaust memorials are to be as meaningful in 2065 and 2115 as they are today, then continuing education is the key.
Many survivors’ accounts have been published; some, such as those of Primo Levy, are of great literary merit, and these could speak to future generations; and we should remember that Schindler’s List, and The Pianist, opened up the history of the Holocaust to public interest at large.