Noemie Lopian and Derek Niemann make an unlikely double act.
But the daughter of a survivor and the grandson of an SS officer guilty of crimes against humanity are bearing their difficult legacies together; travelling the country to share their stories with university students and deliver a warning on what can happen when politics veers towards extremes.
On a recent evening at London’s UCL organised by the Union of Jewish Students, Lopian warned an auditorium: “Be aware of politics then and be aware of politics today.
“In 1928, Hitler was not taken seriously and he had a 2 percent vote. In 1932, his vote went up to 37 percent and in 1933 he came to power.
“Don’t dismiss fringe politics. Politicians with extreme views mean what they say.”
The duo were introduced by a mutual friend lecturing in Cambridge about a year ago, after Lopian left a Facebook comment on an article Niemann had written for Aish, asking to meet him.
“She’s my stalker; that’s what Noemie says,” Niemann jokes, when telling Jewish News the story of how the two came to meet.
He continues: “It was fate. I was giving a talk in a synagogue and Noemie was meeting up with me in Cambridge a few days later and she said ‘I’m in London so if you like I’ll come and see you.’
“We met there, and it was her idea to go around universities and give talks together. It was a fantastic idea”.
Describing her first impressions of Niemann, Lopian says: “I came to hear what Derek had to say. I imagined it would be positive, Derek speaking at a synagogue.
“I knew that I had to feel comfortable with Derek’s words, but also – we are human beings – emotionally comfortable to say this together.
“It’s felt extremely comfortable, because not only do we respect and almost like what each of us says, but we come up at the end of our talks with a common message.”
Lopian is the daughter of Ernst Israel Bornstein, whose Shoah memoir The Long Night recounts the horrific tale of survival through seven labour and concentration camps before he was liberated by American soldiers in 1945.
Her French mother Renee was held at gunpoint by the Gestapo and imprisoned in Annemasse’s Prison du Pax until the town’s lord mayor Jean Deffaugt convinced the Nazis to release her and other young children.
“My mum is French and has a home full of ornaments”, she says. “The Long Night had a place on the shelf of its own.”
But Renee did not open up about her experiences in Annemasse until relatively recently. “My mum’s story, I didn’t know until about seven or eight years ago.”
“I always heard snippets,” Lopian says. “But I didn’t understand that she was arrested. My dad didn’t know my mum’s story because she thought his story was so much worse than hers.”
She adds: “I am not angry with them. I think, on the contrary, at the age of 12 I would have been too young to handle it. I would be crazier than I am today.
“You want to protect your kids from your own trauma. I think it’s quite common among kids of survivors. They are doing us a kindness.”
Niemann was similarly late to his family’s dark past.
Originally a nature writer, he wrote a book called A Nazi in the Family after finally pulling back the curtain on his family’s secret Nazi history at the age of 49.
His father Karl was an SS officer, imprisoned for only three years after being convicted of crimes against humanity for organising slave labour in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.
Niemann says he first began to unravel his family’s terrible secret following the death of his aunt. She had moved to Scotland after marrying a Scottish soldier and was joined by his dad in the late 1950s.
“They both hid what their families had done,” he says. “It was only after my aunt died that my dad told me that he had lived in Berlin during the war.”
About two years after his aunt’s death, Niemann asked his father for the address of his old house in Berlin. He wanted to take photographs during a trip he was due to take with his wife Sarah.
“He gave me the name of the street and just for interest I googled the name of the street to see if there was anything historical.
“Up came a sheet and it said ‘SS Hauptsturmführer Karl Niemann crimes against humanity use of slave labour’.”
Niemann’s grandparents stopped at Dachau while driving to the Alps, where they relocated towards the end of the war because it was seen at the time as the last Nazi stronghold.
“My grandparents were looking at a crematorium and my grandma said ‘you know what they are doing there’. My grandfather denied knowledge of what was going on. That was to his wife,“ Niemann says with some difficulty.
While the nature of what was hidden from them for so long could scarcely be more different, Niemann and Lopian found common experience in how they came to terms with their families’ past.
“I came to see them with adult eyes,” says Lopian. “I can deal with it with a lot more compassion and understanding.”
It’s that message which this unlikely pairing are traveling the country to share.
Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.
Unlike other Jewish media, we do not charge for content. That won’t change. Because we are free, we rely on advertising to cover our costs. This vital lifeline, which has dropped in recent years, has fallen further due to coronavirus.
For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.
Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.
You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.
100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...
Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.
There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.
In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.
Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.
In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.
Voice of our community to wider society
The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.
We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.
By Joe Millis