Over 150 students from across the UK gathered in Liverpool on Tuesday to hear Polish Holocaust survivor Hannah Lewis share her moving story of family tragedy and personal survival.
Hosted by UJS as part of the annual National Union of Students (NUS) Conference, the ‘NUS Will Never Forget’ event affirmed student commitment to commemorating the Holocaust and to remaining vigilant against racism. The event hoped to encourage students to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, which will take place next January.
Attendees came from a diverse range of backgrounds, with some having never heard first-hand testimony from a Holocaust survivor. Hannah recalled her early life in Poland, explaining how her family had assimilated into Polish society. Despite growing tensions, her mother dismissed any suggestion that they could leave the only place they had ever known as their home.
However, despite the Jewish community’s belief things would improve, the situation became increasingly desperate:
“Life suddenly changed, as people moved away from towns to (assumed) safer villages, we had three families move in… and then my grandfather could no longer run his shop, he was banned from trading.
“Stories started to emerge of camps being built, including at Sobibor, which was just two and a half miles away…as the German presence increased, my home town increasingly became a ghetto.
“Then the usual sounds – dogs, shouting soldiers, gun shots – as my mother and I were lying there… someone must have tipped them off.”
Hannah became visibly upset as she described to the group of students the day Nazis took her mother away and murdered her. After a long pause for reflection, she began to tell of her experiences during the liberation and her journey to build a new life in London.
Talking of the liberation, she remarked: “Was I pleased when I saw Russian soldiers? I couldn’t tell one uniform from another – I didn’t like soldiers.”
Asked if her faith allows her to forgive, Hannah explained that it is not her place to forgive those who tried to wipe out her people, whilst she stands here and those that perished do not. Although she has reached a point of acceptance, she said she is unable to forgive those that tortured and murdered her mother.
Shortly after this frank response, a young male student stood to ask a question.
As a German who had received significant Holocaust education, he explained that sitting and listening to Hannah had made him feel the most ashamed he had ever felt.
The young man explained that as there are increasingly fewer survivors, as well as fewer perpetrators, there are some in Germany that suggest it is time for Germans to relinquish the responsibility and guilt for the actions that were carried out by a previous generation of Germans.
He asked Hannah what she believes is the correct response to this and what he, as a young German, should do. He said he felt especially compelled to act as he believed his family may have been involved in the Holocaust persecution.
Responding with tremendous poise, Hannah thanked the young man for his reflections and assured him that he is not responsible for the crimes of his distant family. She went on to suggest that perpetual guilt does not engender positive relations.
Instead, Hannah suggested that Germany’s new generation and all Europeans should learn the lessons of history by combatting anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and the rise of the far right.
Closing a talk that brought many to tears and ended in standing ovation, Hannah shared her advice with the young students listening to her emotional testimony.
“You can’t defend what you don’t know. Arm yourself with knowledge and be dignified, because the bullies who seek to harm you are never dignified”.