In the footsteps of Israel Gutman – my tribute to a man I never met

In the footsteps of Israel Gutman – my tribute to a man I never met

Simon Walters
Simon Walters


Ironic that we flew to Krakow on the day when The Times carried the obituary of Israel Gutman, Holocaust survivor and historian of that tragic chapter of Jewish life.

Simon Walters
Simon Walters

This is the man who published a study, Anatomy of Auschwitz Death Camp, and argued that “Auschwitz must be preserved for as long as possible because it gives people a chance to go there, to see the real gas chambers”.

To read his obituary as I sat on the plane Poland-bound, somehow I see my trip as a tribute to this man who I never met.

The newspaper obituary told me plenty – that Gutman gave compelling testimony at the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, that he helped to shape Yad Vashem, that he edited a Holocaust encyclopaedia, and that he survived the Warsaw uprising and death camps at Madjanek and of course Auschwitz-Birkenau – but nonetheless I’d always wanted to see Auschwitz for myself.

In Gutman’s post-war life, he was a great advocate of the well-known phrase, “We must never forget”. Well, I’ve been to Auschwitz and I will certainly never forget.

Before I tell you about the trip, let me tell you about pre-war Jewish life in Poland.

Jews are thought to have lived here for between 800 and 1,000 years, arriving initially when it was a land of tolerance during the tumult of medieval Europe that included the Black Death and the Crusades.

By the end of the 18th century, Poland had the largest Jewish community in the world, which by WWII had only been overtaken by the USA. At the beginning of the 20th century there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland, around 10% of its population, typically being one-third of the population of cities and almost 100% of the population of certain villages (shtetls).

From 3.5 million Jews a century ago, there are now only around 3,000 left. We spent a fascinating afternoon  in Krakow, which – if I recall correctly what we were told – has a Jewish community depleted from 250,000 before the war to just 200 souls today.

Let me tell you about a town near to Krakow.

Oswiecim has a population of 40,000, is located at the intersection of two rivers, and is a major railway junction where lines from Warsaw, Berlin, Prague and Vienna converge. Its Jewish community can be traced back to the 15th century and there are traces of synagogues which date as far back as 1588. By the 20th century Jews were integrated into local life and were represented on the local council. The community was vibrant and there was barely any anti-semitism. When a new priest arrived in the town, the local rabbi greeting him and declared that Jews and Catholics should work together.

You’ve may have never heard of Oswiecim. Since January 1945 the world has become horrifyingly familiar with its Germanised name, Auschwitz. I could write a book about what I’ve seen and heard in the past 36 hours, but you know many of the facts, and typing one-fingered on my BlackBerry is a reason to limit my words.

But General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, was right in insisting that the world never forgets. In 1945 he said words to the effect: “Get it all on record now – get the films – get the witnesses – because somewhere down the line in history some bastard will get up and say this never happened”.

Trust me, this happened. I know it did, because today I sat for over an hour in the sunshine of an unseasonably warm day in Auschwitz and listened to the testimony of 84-year-old Rene Salt (Google her). Wow – she distilled the monumental brutality of the Holocaust into the extraordinary experience of a real-life horror story, recounted in painful detail as if it happened yesterday.

In contradiction of this, Rene told us that she has a poor memory. So you might understand her answer when one of our group asked how she remembers what happened in such detail. Rene said, “I don’t remember it; I see it happening right in front of me”.

Rene doesn’t recall what happened. She relives it. It happens in ‘real life’ each time she tells her story.

Rene didn’t merely escape Auschwitz-Birkenau (the largest of the three camps collectively known as Auschwitz), she also survived Bergen-Belsen.

Miraculously, she and her mother stayed together in camps for around five years (her sister and father perished, in circumstances which Rene recalls all too clearly), then in an agonising twist, Rene’s mother from starvation and illness died two weeks after liberation.

The camps are a place I’ve never wanted to visit but always wanted to visit – if you know what I mean. A trip here was on my ‘bucket list’. Six months ago I received wonderful warm wishes and thoughtful gifts from so many people for my 50th birthday, but no birthday present was more poignant than this trip here, a gift from my father-in-law who now sits alongside me at Krakow airport.

And now, with midnight approaching, a Ryanair flight home. Arguably the world’s worst airline, already they’ve announced a two-hour delay. But you know what? When you’ve just seen and heard how six million died, such trifling issues don’t seem to bother you anymore. It gives us an extra two hours to chat to 25 other people from our tour (the word “tour” makes it sound too much like a pleasure trip) about an experience that none of us will ever forget.

We travelled with Kahan Travel, and before you balk at the idea of a travel agent making money from ferrying people on these trips, let me tell you an amazing fact. Chuni Kahan, a frum Jew from Golders Green, set up this ‘travel agency’ as a spare-time activity with the sole purpose of ensuring that as many people as possible – Jews & non-Jews alike – witness the aftermath of the atrocities.

Far from a money-spinning venture, I suspect that it actually costs him to run these tours. From an ultra-Orthodox community who could easily preach segregation, Chuni’s mission is to encourage tolerance, understanding and living together in harmony.

Hats off to you Chuni. Every detail of the trip was perfect. One of the best things I’ve ever done. Some of the information in this email about Poland and its Jewish heritage is lovingly cribbed from a superb ‘travel pack’ that Chuni gave us.

We visited the camps, the Oskar Schindler museum (well worth it), a Jewish museum (also well worth it), a shul in which Rene finished telling us the story (I defy anyone not to cry) that she started earlier today on a grassy knoll in weather that seemed so unfairly warm – we really witnessed recollections of a unique slice of the most bitter experience of life in the 20th century.

We heard that if you had a minutes silence for the victims of just one of Auschwitz’s three camps, it would take more than four years. We stood together, we lit memorial candles and we said Kaddish (actually I couldn’t say most of the words, I was too choked).

The way in which Auschwitz has been preserved without being too commercialised is a tribute to the post-war Polish government and, more recently, to UNESCO, who deemed it to be a World Heritage Site, thus saving it for generations to come.

And the privilege of having a survivor accompany us on this trip meant that she was able to bring to life a story which has emerged from what I was reminded some years ago by author of Sacred Games, Gerald Jacobs, that TS Eliot – no hero, incidentally, to these victims of anti-Jewish scorn and hatred – called “the small circle of pain within the skull”.

May all the victims rest in peace. Their stories deserve to be known, to be part of a record of horrific events which are at once a memorial to those who perished and a lesson to subsequent generations.

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