Holocaust Survivors and the Rebuilding of Their Lives
Gillian Walnes Perry MBE
The post war experience of Holocaust survivors is a profound topic for young people to study. Many survivors, determined that evil would not win, successfully rebuilt their lives after their liberation in 1945. Many survivors were able to recover from trauma and develop a positive attitude and identity, despite having lost so much, often including family, home, community, friends, work, and businesses. In some cases, and especially if survivors were young, such resilience reflects the fact that the Holocaust happened in the first few years of their life, but in others, the physical and mental difficulties were so profound that it took many years for their lives to resume normality.
It is a useful life lesson for young people to appreciate that many survivors went on to have very productive post-war lives and created happy and grounded families. Some who came to the USA and Britain after the end of the war gave to society in many ways, some even becoming great philanthropists. Many became educators, teaching young people about the Holocaust, and have been honoured for their work in education. In many cases, in order for them to succeed in moving on, they simply closed the door of their memory bank, only opening it again and speaking about their experiences many decades later. Even their own close family members – spouses and children – were not fully aware of the extent of suffering of their life partner or parent, some only knowing that they had come to the country to rebuild their lives after the war.
Having been the Co-founder (in 1991) and Executive Director of the Anne Frank Trust UK for 26 years, I have spent time with many survivors of the Holocaust, and subsequent genocides, who are living in the UK. I believe it is highly important to show young people studying the Holocaust that Jewish people, and those of other groups persecuted in the Holocaust, lived full lives before and after the maltreatment by Nazi persecutors.
This chapter will focus on just a few of these remarkable people and their experiences, and as I live and work in the UK, they will be those who came to my own country. Throughout the USA, especially in areas with large Jewish populations, there will be similar, equally inspiring, examples. Notable stories from Britain include that of Sir Ben Helfgott, who represented his newly adopted country of Britain in weightlifting at the 1956 Olympic Games, just 11 years after having been close to death from enforced starvation. I will also describe the post war life of Otto Frank, who set up the Anne Frank House just 15 years after his own liberation from Auschwitz, to carry out his educational mission. These kinds of achievements were by no means easy, bearing in mind the profound psychological challenges these people faced in the post war years, including survivor guilt.
Survivors of wars and persecution rarely completely leave behind their intensely affecting experiences. Memories of these experiences are buried deep inside their psyche and may come out to taunt them at night, especially as they become more elderly and find themselves with increased leisure time on their hands. However, we can all appreciate the resiliency shown by Holocaust survivors who readjusted to living in a more civil society, often as refugees in a new nation, and in many cases given so much to their communities.
Over the past 30 years, I have felt privileged to have spent time with survivors of the Holocaust, of the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, and other terrible wars. I have learned that people who have been fortunate to survive carry with them a wide range of experiences and stories.
Some of the survivors I have met have been rewarded by long lives and relatively good health. Otto Frank died at 91 and his second wife, another survivor, Fritzi Geiringer-Frank, at 94. I can cite many more examples of Holocaust survivors. Could this be explained through a combination of genes and strong will? Perhaps, but a Holocaust survivor, and even a rescuer , needed not one or two, but many incidents of lucky escapes to evade the Nazi killing machine, often seizing opportunities that others were denied, not privileged to have, or afraid of taking.
Sometimes just being in the presence of an elderly Holocaust survivor stops you in your tracks at the sheer miracle that they are standing in front of you. It is often hard to believe that this was the same physical entity that was living under the chimneys of Auschwitz, in the slave labour death pit of Mauthausen or in the squalor of Bergen-Belsen – you are looking into the very same eyes that saw these things.
In Wakefield Cathedral in 2001, I sat listening to the, by then elderly, writer and journalist Janina Bauman as she vividly described her life in the Warsaw Ghetto as a girl. Throughout her talk I could not take my eyes off her elegantly clad feet. These are the very same feet, I told myself, that had walked through those foul-smelling cobbled streets of the ghetto, trying to avoid stepping on the desperate, dying, and already dead.
Concentration camp prisoners, sometimes like those harmed in other wars and genocides, tried to hold on to their humanity and innate humanness whenever and wherever they could. Although we may believe that all camp inmates were no more than dehumanized tattooed numbers to their guards, I have heard first-hand of the rare instances where there have been lightning flashes of empathy by guards towards their prisoners. In 2009, I met Catherine Hill, who was in London from her home in Toronto for the launch of a book entitled The Thoughtful Dresser, a philosophical exploration of the importance of fashion by the British journalist and writer Linda Grant (2010). Catherine was featured in a chapter of the book.
Why was a Holocaust survivor being included in a book on fashion? Well, it transpired that her own desire to look pretty, even in Auschwitz, helped sustain her determination to survive. After her liberation from Auschwitz, Catherine moved to Canada, which in the post-war years had none of the creative and progressive drive of large American cities. Starting her career as a retail assistant on the shop floor of a major Montreal department store, Catherine’s European flair for fashion saw her soon become appointed as the store’s women’s wear senior buyer. In the early 1970s, she opened a boutique called Chez Catherine where she gave women in Toronto their first experience of exciting young Italian designers such as Armani, Versace and Gianfranco Ferre. Catherine Hill became a highly influential name in the growth of Canadian fashion, but not many of her followers may have been aware that her love of clothes possibly saved her life.
Over lunch, Catherine told me more about her time in Auschwitz as a teenager, just one of thousands earmarked for death. When she arrived at the camp and her clothes were replaced by the dirty, ragged striped uniform still smelling of its murdered previous occupant, she knew she would have to do something to keep her spirits up. She tore a strip from the jacket and created a striped headband to cover her shaven head, reminding herself of the beauty of clothing and of life. Catherine could have been killed just for this act of defiance, but seeing the teenager’s determination to be pretty in the face of death somehow generated a spark of humanity from a male guard. At the daily 5.00 a.m. roll call, he quickly spotted her covered head but chose to spare her life by sending her for kitchen duties instead of to the gas chamber. Catherine carried that deep understanding of our need to be clothed and to look beautiful throughout her life (she sadly died in 2020), and when I recall her visit to London in 2009, I can still picture her sashaying into our lunch rendezvous in a luscious pink fur coat that drew approving smiles from around the room.
French-born Freda Wineman, also a very elegant, immaculately dressed woman, now in her nineties, survived the camps of Auschwitz, , , and finally Theresienstadt. But only just.
Freda told me that, in Auschwitz-Birkenau in September 1944, she is certain that she was held in the same barrack as Anne Frank and her sister Margot, since all the women and girls who had arrived from France, Belgium and the Netherlands at that time were put together. Freda’s own sister-in-law Janine was in the same barrack, and when Anne Frank’s diary started to garner attention in the 1950s, this prompted Freda’s memory. She asked Janine, “Don’t you remember those two teenage sisters from Amsterdam who were with us in the barrack?” (F. Wineman, personal communication, 2015). Freda and Janine were moved on from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where they spent five months. When she speaks to schools, Freda describes the long winter spent in Bergen-Belsen without any substantial food, just a little watery soup, and only dirty water to slake her desperate thirst.
Freda told me that she discovered 40 years after her liberation how close she had come to being blown up, along with hundreds of other women. She had long wondered why, in the last days of the war and so close to death from starvation, she had been transported away from Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany all the way south to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. Once there, she met women who had been brought from camps all over Europe. Why had the Germans soldiers bothered with this final act of complex logistics, when they could have already gone home to their families in Germany?
Attending a lecture given at London’s Imperial War Museum by a Russian army officer in the mid-1980s, Freda at last heard why. The Russian officer shocked the audience through his revelation. Newly discovered Russian archives had shown that the Nazi units had been directed by senior authorities to gather the remains of Europe’s Jews in Theresienstadt. There they were planning to blow up the camp and all those inside to destroy evidence of their atrocities. This was to have taken place on May 10, 1945. By a miracle, Theresienstadt camp, with Freda in it, was liberated by the Americans on May 9.
Speaking to an audience at the Anne Frank exhibition launch, Freda told of another example of the persistence of the human capacity to love and dream of a future, even in the most hopeless of circumstances. Several members of the audience were seen wiping away a tear as she told them how her brother, David had met his wife-to-be (and Freda’s sister-in-law-to-be) on the way to Auschwitz. In the same cattle car taking Freda and David and their family from the French internment camp of Drancy, located in the suburbs of Paris, there was a pretty girl, Janine, who also came from their home region of Alsace. David and Janine’s eyes met in the frightened melee of people crushed together in the wagon over the horrifying three days of the journey (Wineman, 2015).
Stepping out of the cattle truck into the blinding light at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the terrified and weakened people were confronted by SS guards, with their whips and barking German shepherd dogs. Freda’s mother was ordered by an SS guard to take a baby from a young Dutch woman. Despite the young mother’s imploring screams, Freda’s mother had no choice but to take the baby. And because she was holding a baby and was with her own young son Marcel, Freda’s mother and the children were sent to one side with other mothers, children, and elderly. Freda tried to follow her mother but was ordered to stand in the other line and told by the guard not to worry as her mother would help look after the children. In fact, Freda’s mother, and all those in her line, were sent to the gas chamber.
Janine and Freda became close and supportive friends once they were in the crowded and uncomfortable women’s barrack. It was there among the French, Belgian and Dutch women, crammed together on bare wooden bunks that Janine first remembered coming across Margot and Anne Frank, ‘those two young sisters from Amsterdam.’ Janine and Freda were set to work in the Kanada block alongside the crematorium sorting the still warm clothes of murdered Jews. The two terrified young women formed a camaraderie, which helped them through the trauma of seeing three of the girls who worked alongside them hanged for smuggling a few of the clothes back into the camp.
Janine confided in Freda that, if she survived, she wanted to spend her life with David. Her determination bore fruit. Janine and David were able to find each other again after liberation; they married and had four children. In 1950, Freda relocated to London and fell in love. She married a discharged British soldier who had fought in the war. They had two children, but when Freda’s youngest child was six weeks old, her husband died of hepatitis, probably picked up during the war. Having to bring up two young children on her own and without the benefits of modern post traumatic counselling, Freda could not shake off the nightmares she endured. It was only after she gave her testimony to the British Library Sound Archive in the 1990s that Freda Wineman at last found herself more at peace.
When she speaks to schools, Freda gives a powerful message to young people, “They were terrible times. I sometimes wonder why it was that my friends and family were made to suffer in this way. It could happen again. The world has become much more fragmented, and the prospect of suffering is very great indeed. It is certain that if you do nothing and say nothing this let evil in. You should speak up for civilised behaviour…There are still people who deny that it happened. It was not a mistake by an otherwise good government. It was pure evil. It is vital that this message is not diluted. We all need to understand this” (F. Wineman, personal communication, 2015).
Freddie Knoller is a survivor who turned 100 in 2021. For many years he was a very popular speaker in both schools and prisons. This was partly because his story is one of exciting and daring escapes, and eventual capture after a brave flight across western Europe.
Freddie was born in Vienna, and as a child was a talented violinist. Following the annexation of Austria by Germany in March 1938, antisemitism became even more virulent, causing Freddie and his brothers to leave Vienna. Freddie went first, and travelled illegally to Antwerp, Belgium. Freddie’s parents, both in their fifties, naively believed that they were too old for anything to happen to them, and so they stayed. They were deported to Theresienstadt, and from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were murdered.
In May 1940, Freddie found himself in Belgium when Germany invaded. Freddie tried to escape to France, but he was arrested at the border and detained as an enemy alien in an internment camp. He was able to escape in the middle of the night, and made it to Gaillac, part of the unoccupied area of southern France, where his aunt, uncle, and cousins lived.
A city boy, Freddie quickly became bored with provincial Gaillac and decided to visit Paris, a city he had always dreamed about. While there, living in the heart of the lively Pigalle district with its famed Moulin Rouge nightclub, he became seduced by the exciting nightlife. He obtained false papers and earned money steering German soldiers to the nightclubs, brothels and cabarets, where he earned a percentage of anything that they spent once inside. In May 1943, while plying his night-time trade, he was apprehended by a Gestapo officer who bragged that he could ‘easily identify Jews’. Despite this, the officer did not remotely suspect that Freddie was Jewish and was using false papers. However, he told him to stop working in Pigalle and that he should instead be working for the German Reich. Freddie knew that he could no longer risk staying in Paris and fled to Figeac in southwest France.
Through his contacts in Figeac , Freddie joined a French Resistance group. A broken love affair led to his vengeful betrayal by his spurned girlfriend and arrest by the Vichy Police. Under torture, and without giving away any details of his Resistance colleagues, Freddie Knoller finally admitted to being a Jew. He was sent to and then on to Auschwitz-Birkenau. During the horrific journey, he looked after a middle-aged Frenchman called Robert, who turned out to be a doctor. Robert went on to be put in charge of the camp hospital barracks, and in gratitude for Freddie helping him on the journey, Robert found him morsels of extra food every day, which Freddie believes was the reason for his survival.
Like Freddie, many Holocaust survivors who spent their post-war life in Britain have been recognised with royal honours or honorary university degrees for their contribution to their adopted country. It is a happy irony that those who were considered Untermenschen by their Nazi oppressors have been given Britain’s highest recognition for their voluntary work as educators, as distinguished entrepreneurs, and as philanthropists.
Educators honoured have included Mala Tribich, and her brother Ben Helfgott, who came to Britain as teenage survivors in 1945. Mala has described the shock of her childhood hometown of Piotrkow-Trybunalski being turned into a ghetto; in fact, it was the first town in Poland to have one. She was sent to live with a Polish Christian family until it was considered safe for her to return.
By this time, the ghetto had shrunk to less than ten percent of its original size, and soon after Mala’s return, her mother and sister, together with 560 other people, were taken away and brutally murdered in a local forest.
Mala and her cousin Ann were lined up for , surrounded by soldiers with their rifles at the ready. Mala describes what happened next, “When I spotted the officer in charge, I went up to him and told him that I had been separated from my father and brother and asked if I could please go back to them. He looked shocked and a little surprised that I had the audacity to approach him, but he smiled, called over a Jewish policeman and said, “Take her back inside the ghetto.” I tried to take Ann with me, but the policeman said she did not have permission. So, I was faced with the dilemma of leaving Ann or missing the chance of being reunited with my father and brother. However, I continued to argue and eventually he let me take Ann with me” (Tribich, 2017).
Towards the end of 1944, Mala was sent to Ravensbrück camp in Germany. She describes what took place on her arrival. “After we queued up to have our details recorded, we had to undress, everything was taken from us, our heads were shaved, we went through cold communal showers and were given the concentration camp garb, a striped skirt and jacket and a pair of clogs. When we emerged at the other end, we couldn’t recognise one another. Our identities, our personalities, our very souls had been taken from us. At this point we started to lose all hope. My aunt, Frania Klein, died within a few days of arrival, my best friend Pema died soon after that; people were just giving up. But little did we suspect what was to come.”
From Ravensbruck, Mala was sent to Bergen-Belsen where she encountered people who were walking skeletons. Somehow, she managed to hold on to the end and liberation. She came to England in 1947 to be reunited with her brother Ben, her only surviving close relative. Mala quickly applied herself to learning English, attended secretarial college and within a year was working in an office. Whilst her children were growing up, Mala studied and gained a degree in Sociology from the University of London. Several years ago, Mala was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth for her many years educating young people about the Holocaust.
Mala’s brother Ben Helfgott arrived in Britain at age 16 in 1946, as part of a group of 700 other teenage Holocaust survivors. As many were first looked after at a facility on beautiful Lake Windermere in the far north west of England, these teenagers, including Ben, became known as “The Windermere Children.” Only 11 years after he was liberated from a concentration camp, Ben Helfgott represented his new homeland of Great Britain in the Olympic Games as a weightlifter and captained the British weightlifting teams in 1956 and 1960. In the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, he won a bronze medal. This was a remarkable achievement by a boy who had nearly been starved to death. In 2018, Ben was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth for services to Holocaust remembrance and education and is now known as Sir Ben Helfgott.
Refugees, who as youngsters fled Nazi Europe in the 1930s and came to Britain, have also been great contributors to the country that gave them shelter. Many, such as the politician Lord Alf Dubs, have publicly spoken out in support of modern-day refugees fleeing oppression. Ian Karten MBE, who lost his father in Buchenwald and his sister on a death march, became successful in business and set up the Ian Karten Charitable Trust, which created 100 dedicated centres to teach computer skills to the disabled.
Some Holocaust survivors went on to become heroic helpers in response to post-war human rights abuses. One evening during a visit to Argentina in 2010, I gave a talk, with an interpreter alongside, to a gathering of community supporters of the newly opened Centro Ana Frank (Spanish). A charming elderly woman was introduced to me as a Polish-born Holocaust survivor, Monica Davidowicz. I subsequently discovered that Monica herself had hidden people whose lives were at risk during Argentina’s notorious internal (1976 – 1983), and that several other Holocaust survivors living in Buenos Aires’s large Jewish community had done the same.
Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank, was a seventh generation German Jew born in 1889, whose family were so well assimilated into Frankfurt society by the late nineteenth century that his father by then owned an investment bank and provided financial services to Kaiser Wilhelm. As a young man, Otto served as a patriotic German soldier in World War I and was decorated with the Iron Cross for his bravery.
Just 15 years later, and a few months after the Nazis came into power, Otto Frank and his family were forced to flee Germany for Amsterdam. Otto lost his wife Edith in Auschwitz, and two teenage daughters Margot and Anne, who died of starvation and disease in Bergen-Belsen, a few weeks before the camp’s liberation. Otto barely survived and, had the Russians not liberated Auschwitz on 27 January of 1945, there was no doubt in his mind that he too would have perished.
After the publication of Anne’s diary in 1947, Otto and his second wife Fritzi Geiringer devoted their lives to promoting Anne’s diary as a general force for good. Otto set up the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam in 1960. One of its first projects was to host international student conferences, and remarkably, some of the first students Otto invited were West German students. Only 15 years after his liberation from Auschwitz and the murder of his family by the Nazis, Otto Frank strongly believed there could be a better future, using the power of education to break down the barriers of hatred and suspicion that had killed his own two daughters.
Eva Schloss is the stepdaughter of Otto Frank through his second marriage, and is often described as the posthumous stepsister of Anne. Anne and Eva had known each other as children, as they lived in the same neighbourhood in Amsterdam before both families had gone into hiding in 1942. Through a set of miracles, Eva and her mother Fritzi had survived Auschwitz together, quite an unusual occurrence. Eva was 15 when she was liberated from Auschwitz, and after the war, had gone back to high school in Amsterdam. However, it was near impossible for Eva to feel she had a shared experience with her classmates. Although the Dutch had suffered terribly in the final months of World War II, they had not experienced, as Eva had, being a teenager in Auschwitz, and the loss of both a father and adored older brother.
After Eva’s mother and Otto Frank became close as a support structure for each other, Otto suggested sending Eva to London to study the art of photography, her passion, in a new environment and in a city that had not endured Nazi occupation. Eva started to build a life in London, married in 1953, had three daughters, and went on to create a thriving antiques business. However, neither her husband Zvi, nor her daughters, really understood what had actually happened to Eva until she first spoke publicly at the 1986 British launch of the Anne Frank exhibition, some 40 years after her liberation. This finally helped Eva confront her past. She went on to become a much-admired educator, who, at the age of 92, is still telling her story to school students and older audiences. Prior to the Covid pandemic, she spoke to audiences around the world, including often frenetic speaking schedules in the US, but sadly, Eva’s travelling was curtailed in 2020.
With these inspirational lives, it is easy to forget the deeply embedded scars that come out at night to haunt their living victims. Mala Tribich (2017) has summed up her life after the war by saying: “Leading a normal life after living through the Holocaust is one of the biggest challenges, for the bleak shadow of that time penetrates deep. What we the survivors have been able to show is that the human capacity for resilience can prevail.”
We remember all victims and survivors of the Holocaust and we are blessed by the memories of survivors informing this chapter: Freddie Knoller, Mrs. Freda Wineman, Mrs. Janina Bauman. and Catherine Hill.
Grant, L. (2010). The thoughtful dresser: The art of adornment, the pleasures of shopping, and why clothes matter (1st Scribner). Scribner.
Tribich, M. (2017, January 23). Holocaust Memorial Day [Speech]. Holocaust Memorial Day, London, England.
Wineman, F. (2015, April 25). Anne Frank You Exhibition [Personal Communication at Exhibition Launch]. Anne Frank You, London, England.
Information and further reading
All survivor stories in this chapter are featured in The Legacy of Anne Frank Gillian Walnes Perry 2018
Janina Bauman Opening of the Anne Frank, A History for Today exhibition at Wakefield Cathedral, 2001.
Catherine D Hill Speaking at The Thoughtful Dresser book launch at Jewish Book Week, February 26, 2009.
Also, through personal conversations between Catherine Hill and Gillian Perry
Freddie Knoller Books: Living with the Enemy, My Secret Life on the Run from the Nazis, Freddie Knoller and John Landaw; Desperate Journey, Vienna-Paris-Auschwitz, Freddie Knoller with John Landaw. Also, through personal conversations between Freddie Knoller and Gillian Perry
Mala Tribich speaking at Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration, City Hall, London 23 January 2017
Eva Schloss books: Eva’s Story, A Survivor’s Tale, 1988; The Promise: The Moving Story of a Family in the Holocaust, 2006; After Auschwitz, A Story of Heartbreak and Survival, 2013. Also, through personal conversations between Eva Schloss and Gillian Perry and various speaking events
- Sadly, Freddie Knoller passed away on 26 January 2022. ↵
Used to describe the development, structure, and function of society. Lexico
A person in his or her nineties. Lexico
A Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany. It was originally a POW camp, but parts transitioned to a concentration camp in 1943. Wikipedia
A sub-camp of Buchenwald, Wikipedia
An internment camp located outside Paris. Jews held there were later deported to extermination camps. Wikipedia
The expulsion of a person or group of people from a place or country. Wikipedia
A period of state terrorism in Argentina, part of Operation Condor. Wikipedia