JN meets survivor George Shefi: ‘Covid jab lets me get on with Holocaust talks’
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JN meets survivor George Shefi: ‘Covid jab lets me get on with Holocaust talks’

Kindertransport refugee George Shefi, 89, feels a strong duty to continue his work teaching youngsters in Germany

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

The Prince of Wales (right) meets George Shefi and Marta Wise at a reception for British Holocaust survivors at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on the first day of his visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. PA Photo. Picture date: Thursday January 23, 2020. Photo credit: Frank Augstein/PA Wire
The Prince of Wales (right) meets George Shefi and Marta Wise at a reception for British Holocaust survivors at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on the first day of his visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. PA Photo. Picture date: Thursday January 23, 2020. Photo credit: Frank Augstein/PA Wire

One year ago, George Shefi briefed Prince Charles on the Holocaust and then, suddenly, the pandemic brought his life mission of raising Shoah awareness to a halt.

With poignant timing, Shefi received his second coronavirus vaccine in Jerusalem on International Holocaust Memorial Day. What is his big hope now? A family gathering, or a trip to the theatre perhaps? For this tireless 89-year-old, imminent immunity means something else enitrely: a chance to fly to Germany and teach kids there about the Holocaust. 

To date, he has met thousands of youngsters during regular visits to the country where he lived until he was dispatched to the UK on a Kindertransport, but all visits stopped during the pandemic. 

In fact, the last time he was asked to give a full face-to-face account of his wartime experiences was ahead of last year’s Holocaust Day, in Jerusalem, when leaders from around the world visited to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

Shefi, who spent much of his childhood in the UK, sat with the Prince of Wales in the Israel Museum, and Charles shed tears as Shefi and another survivor spoke.

In the months since then, the invitations from Germany kept arriving. He had to decline them but hopes that his vaccine will change this. “My generation is the last generation that can tell people about this,” he said. “I remember Kristallnacht like it was yesterday. I promised people in Germany that as long as I can stand on my own two feet, I’ll go there.

The Prince of Wales (right) meets George Shefi and Marta Wise at a reception for British Holocaust survivors at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on the first day of his visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. PA Photo. Picture date: Thursday January 23, 2020. Photo credit: Frank Augstein/PA Wire

“Wherever they invite me I go; it has to be that way. Some survivors turn around to German kids and say ‘you’re bad,’ but that’s pointless. We can’t blame German youth, and this makes more antisemitism than it prevents. From my point of view I want to get back there and return to talking to young Germans.” He added: “I feel it’s our duty as survivors. It’s not a matter or wanting to or liking to do so, it’s duty.”

When Shefi talks, vividly giving a glimpse into the horrors, it is easy to see why he is in demand as a speaker. “I was eight-years-old on Kristallnacht,” he said. “On the morning of 10 November 1938 my mother said I couldn’t go to school. Needless to say I wasn’t so sad about that. But I also couldn’t go out of the house for three days, and after that I wasn’t allowed out alone. 

“It was quite a Jewish neighbourhood in Berlin, with 16,000 Jews among 60,000 people. I remember going out with my mum and seeing a store that was broken, with all the hats strewn in the street. In our building there was a stationery store owned by a Christian-Jewish couple, and people wrote on the store ‘This site is owned by a Jewish pig and a Christian sow.’ I saw people yelling things that were unprintable. I’ll never forget it.”

Shefi’s school was burned down because it was Jewish, and when sent to a new school he was so racked with nerves that he was even scared to go to the lavatory. Telling the story of his grandfather, who was ultimately “worked to death” by Nazi forced labour, he captures the tragedy of German Jews who pledged their allegiance to their homeland only to find themselves rejected.

Shefi recalled: “My grandfather was a regimental sergeant major in the German army in the First World War, and when they brought in antisemitic laws he always said, ‘I won’t observe them; I fought in the German army.’ He sat on the benches that were prohibited for Jews and took me to parts of Berlin where we weren’t allowed to go.”

The Prince of Wales (second right) meets George Shefi and Marta Wise (left) at a reception for British Holocaust survivors at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on the first day of his visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Photo credit: Frank Augstein/PA Wire

Asked about the pandemic, Shefi, a self-described “eternal optimist”, tried to find a positive spin, but said he couldn’t come up with much aside from the fact that he is spending less on petrol and restaurants. He added that his sense of humour — which he concedes that some people find inappropriate when infused into his telling of wartime experiences — keeps him young.

All in all, he believes that his turbulent youth gave him tools to handle the upheaval of the coronavirus crisis.

“I left Germany on a Kindertransport, and was shifted around quite a few families. I went on to Canada then America. My life made me adaptable and this has helped. I lived for three years in a British family that went to church, for years with a religious Jewish family, then with a non-religious family in America before moving to Israel.”

He reflected: “I think I handled the pandemic better than a lot of other people. My experiences in life made me more adaptable to changing times and changing places.”

 

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