In the shadow of the death camps

BY the time is was liberated by Russian troops in 1945 at least 1.1 million men, women and children had been murdered in Auschwitz - a blood red stain on human history.

It stands as a chilling monument to man’s inhumanity to man, and the dwindling band of survivors have shared their testimony of the barbarous cruelty they endured.

And, of course, their terrible loss.

Before the current COVID-19 lockdown local students heard first hand from a remarkable women who experienced that tumultuous time and the aftermath.

“When you heard you were going to be hearing from a Holocaust survivor, what were you expecting?”

That was the first question to the pupils of Antrim Grammar School from Joan Salter MBE - a question which she answered herself.

“A little old lady! I think I am the only woman in the world who has to apologise for looking younger than she is.”

While she is 80, Joan is not a little old lady, but formidable, a survivor in every sense of the word.

The audience could have also expected to hear gruesome tales of starvation, abuse, disease, poison gas and incineration.

However Joan’s experience - not her ‘story’, as she puts it - is instead that of a family which may have escaped the horrors of the death camps, but did not escape decades of loss, resentment and guilt.

‘Stories’, she says, are intimate works of fiction, and her ‘experience’ is all too real, adding: “For me, the trauma started after the war.”

Both sets of grandparents, her aunts and uncles and cousins, all perished in the death camps, save for one aunt who was hidden by her left-wing political allies.

Her mother, father and sister made it out alive, not always traveling together, but embarking on parallel journeys.

Joan was born Fany Zimetbaum in Brussels on 15 February 1940 to Polish Jewish parents.

Her mother, who had been widowed before meeting Jakob in 1938, used to call her Feigula, or ‘little bird’.

She was just three months old when Belgium was invaded by the Nazis.

Her father Jakob thought the Germans would march straight to France and would not attack Belgium, so at the end of 1939 Jakob and his wife Bronia moved to Brussels where Joan was born a few months later.

After the German invasion of Belgium in May 1940, Joan’s father was deported, along with all non-native men over the age of 15.

He was arrested and was held in prison in France for six months. He was then put on a train to be sent to an internment camp but managed to jump off the train near Paris and escape.

Although he was able to make it back to Belgium, the family decided it would be safer to leave and so they moved to Paris.

Joan, her half sister Lilane (whose father had died of tuberculosis) and their mother stayed with Joan’s aunt, but it was not safe for Joan’s father to remain with them so he stayed in hiding with a cousin.

Eventually Joan’s mother made it to Vichy France and over the mountains into Spain in early 1943.

Joan believes that a kindly French policeman who warned her mother - who was forced to register as an alien weekly in Paris - that they were due to be rounded up in 1942, was one of 300 officers who were executed for helping Jews to escape the deportations.

Around 1,000 Jewish children escaped with the collaboration of French police.

The family was later captured at the Spanish border after an arduous November journey through the mountains.

At one point a guide told Joan’s mother: “If you cannot stop the children crying, then you must suffocate them.”

Her half sister was put into a convent and Joan and her mother were sent to live in an open prison, where the local people treated them with kindness.

The Vichy government promised safe passage for the children of Polish parents and under the care of the Red Cross, the children would be allowed to leave France, travelling to America via the neutral port of Lisbon, in Portugal.

Joan’s mother had to make the difficult decision whether to let her children go or to keep them with her and risk possible deportation.

In June 1943 Joan was put on a boat from Lisbon to the USA, but the ship was stopped by a German submarine.

On arrival in the USA Joan was sent to an orphanage before being adopted by Dr and Mrs Farrell, a local physician and his wife.

“I lost my French and I was never able to learn it again,” she admits.

Her name was changed to Joan and with her early memories wiped, she became a proud American, pledging allegiance to the Star Spangled Banner every morning at school.

However at the end of the war, Joan was on the move again.

In 1947, Dr Farrell told a seven year old Joan that she was not his natural daughter and that she must return to her real family.

“At the time, I said it must be a mistake, I would go to England and tell them so,” she said.

“Back then, going on an aeroplane was a very big thing, so my priority was to tell the people in England that they had it wrong, the Farrells were my parents, and I could go back to school and tell everyone that I had been on an aeroplane.”

But it was not to be.

She arrived in London to meet two ‘severely traumatised’ people, living in ill-health and poverty in a heavily bombed area of east London, working in a factory.

They sent Joan to an ultra-orthodox Jewish school ‘to keep her safe’, yet did not conform to their religion and ate bacon at home.

The couple were extremely paranoid and possessive, circulating only in their small Polish-Jewish community, and Joan’s mother found it too painful to talk about the war.

“It was too terrible.”

There is a picture of Joan’s aunts, dressed in elaborate furs and clutching expensive handbags, taken in a studio in France.

For many years, Joan thought one of her aunts had a flower pinned to her neatly-fitted jacket and that their sober expressions were merely from the inconvenience of having to stand still to accommodate the camera’s long exposure.

However a comment during a talk prompted her to take a closer look.

Her aunt was in fact wearing the yellow Star of David, a mark which the Nazis used to identify Jews, dating the picture to the early 1940s.

Said Joan: “They probably knew that these would be the last photos ever taken of them.”

The photos survived thanks to Jakob’s friendship with the porter in his cousin’s 11th Arondissement apartment block in Paris, who warned him that a round-up was imminent, helped them hide and kept his personal effects for safe-keeping until the end of the war.

Joan knows that later in the war, the French police would not have believed the porter’s story that the flat had been boarded up and the family had gone away for the summer.

It was a mixture of luck and circumstance that the family were able to escape at all - Jakob’s business network meant that he had contacts who were able to help hide them and their previous wealth ensured that Joan’s mother had enough jewellery to be able to buy food and pay bribes.

However while all four escaped with their lives, the family itself was torn apart.

Joan never truly reconciled with Lilane, who always resented her baby half-sister and was badly damaged by her childhood, never settling with foster families and eventually emigrating to Canada.

Joan too found it hard to be uprooted from her all-American dream life and transplanted into an England where badly-traumatised soldiers were still fighting on the streets, which remained littered with the rubble of the Blitz.

But she knows how lucky she is to be alive.

“As a child, if I had gone to the concentration camp, I would have died.” she said.

She knows as an adult, that her parents only wanted to protect her and keep her safe by sending her away.

But as a child, sheltered from the horrors that were visited upon her people through accident of her birth, it was hard for her to understand and she has blocked a lot of her early childhood out.

“I lost my French, I have tried to learn it again since, but I can’t.

“My friend who I was in the orphanage with told me that her father had remarried and did not send for her, and that made her very bitter.

“But I can understand as an adult, how he may have wanted her to live a new life with new people without the trauma of what had happened to them all.”

Her talk was delivered to articulate young people, who tell her of their ambitions to become actors, teachers, writers, lawyers, doctors and engineers.

They are keen to hear her message, having lived through such important times.

“I know where propaganda leads,” she said.

“I know how easy it is to stir up hatred between people, the things that we are all capable of doing to other people who seem different to us.

“My father wore a Jewish head covering, but he wore a necktie.

“To the ultra-Orthodox Jew, that would have been seen as wrong, this was something that the Christians would wear.

“It seems silly but this is how you divide people so easily.

“Our family were professionals, they integrated well into the middle classes both in Poland and Paris.

“They were ordinary people. But when the Nazis came to power, people turned against them.

“Even members of our own family who had French citizenship, who thought that they would be saved if they did what they were told, did not want to harbour us in case they got into trouble.

“Their French citizenship did not save them, they too were rounded up, deported and eventually killed.

“The men believed that all they had to do was go to the factories, work hard, and they would be able to go home at the end of the war, none of them ever came back.

“Most of them did not go to labour camps, they went to death camps, to die.”

“In London after the war, the Polish Jews were still seen as backwards and did not want to integrate. This was because they were afraid and untrusting.

“The Jews in the upper and middle classes in London were of German origin, and there was still fear and division.”

In later years, after conversations with her father, Joan visited Poland, going to two death camps, lighting candles and saying prayers for the family she never knew.

When her father died and was buried in the same grave as her mother, she amended the headstone to include the family members who perished in Treblinka and Belzec.

“It was a way of saying ‘this is me, this is who I am, this is my family’,” she said.

“It was important for me to go to Poland, where my parents were from, and remember all those family members.”

Joan now returns to Tarnow, where her father came from, every year to attend a ceremony in June, on the anniversary of the week that most of Tarnow’s Jews were deported, which takes place in the woods and in different parts of the town.

Through her research she has discovered that the Vichy collaborators were a lot more pro-active in their efforts to rid France of Jews than their Nazi rulers.

“Originally the Nazis were not keen on deporting children, only their parents, but the Vichy government thought that would cost too much money.

“The French people were not in favour of children being deported, especially those who were French citizens, they were unhappy that they should be separated from their families, and there was outcry.

“The Catholic church and Pope were castigated for not doing enough, but he had much more of an intervention than originally thought and a lot of families were sheltered by the nuns in convents.

“When I was in America, there was this sense that America won the war and had saved the world.

“No one wanted to have anything to do with Europe and for many years the concentration camps and the fact that so many people had collaborated with the Nazis was a dirty secret.

“In the early 2000s, plaques started to be erected in Paris to indicate where Jews had been deported from, and who had supported and assisted those deportations.”

Joan has also uncovered evidence of German Jewish families being deported to the south of France much earlier than had been previously recorded.

Some older children were also evacuated to the USA with the help of the Red Cross.

“You have seen the pictures of my family, they were ordinary people, they did not deserve to die because they were ‘different’.

“Men, women, children, babies were sent to their deaths - how can that happen? When propaganda takes hold.

“Your generation is probably the most important one there has ever been, you must fight against prejudice.

“We live in very dangerous times - without good leadership, it is easy to be lead by those who wish to divide us.”

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