Exeter, Devon UK • Feb 27, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Comment Holocaust Memorial Day: my family story

Holocaust Memorial Day: my family story

Harry Craig, Print Deputy Editor, discusses the significance of Holocaust Memorial Day and powerfully retells his family story.
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Image: Harry Craig

Each year, on 27th January, I join millions around the world in lighting a candle at my window to remember the six million Jewish people killed in the Holocaust. For me, however, this is a deeply personal act.

My great-grandmother, Klara Hilsenrath, grew up in Nazi Germany. She was born in 1925 to a Polish Jewish father, Szulem, and a German Protestant mother, Frieda. Just as Klara was turning seven, Adolf Hitler came to power, and despite Klara and her family being completely assimilated into German society, everything changed.

Szulem was excluded from business life, having to sell his business and effectively forcing his family into poverty. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 excluded all Jewish children, including Klara, from German schools. The whole family moved out of their flat, which belonged to Frieda’s family – likely because it was simply too risky for a German family to house a Jewish family.

In the late 1930s, life became progressively more repressive for Klara’s family. On 28th October 1938, the day after Klara turned 13, the Gestapo arrested and expelled her father to Poland, along with 17,000 other Polish Jews.

It was too dangerous for Klara to remain in Germany. As her father was Polish, she had Polish nationality, and as her father was Jewish, she too was considered to be Jewish. On 12th July 1939, she left Germany alone, aged just 13, on the Kindertransport, in which Britain accepted approximately 10,000 child refugees from Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied territories. She would never see her parents again.

Her father Szulem had fled to his hometown in Poland, Kolomyja (now in modern-day Ukraine). This was a town at the heart of Poland’s Jewish community, with Jews making up half of its population at the turn of the 20th century. In 1941, it was occupied by the Nazis, and the town’s Jewish population was gradually repressed, starved, ghettoised, deported and murdered. Somehow Szulem survived until March 1943, when he was transported to the Bolechow concentration camp. Three months later, he was shot whilst trying to escape the camp. One of six million victims of the Shoah.

My great-grandmother passed away in 2012, before I was ever able to really understand what the Holocaust was and what happened to her. Despite the horrors she endured at such a young age as a child refugee, she went on to live a long, fulfilled life in England. Whenever I hear politicians attack refugees, calling them an “invasion” or planning to send them to Rwanda, I remember Klara’s story. It sickens me to see how contemporary victims of war and persecution, just like my great-grandmother 80 years ago, are attacked relentlessly in our supposedly “compassionate” society.

It sickens me to see how contemporary victims of war and persecution, just like my great-grandmother 80 years ago, are attacked relentlessly in our supposedly “compassionate” society

Antisemitism and Holocaust denial are currently at a record high in the UK. A recent Twitter post by the Holocaust Educational Trust marking the 85th anniversary of the Kindertransport received replies ranging from “Holocaust is fake zionist jews story and did not happened” to “no one believes jews lies anymore” [sic]. As the Holocaust slips further back in our collective memory, we risk forgetting the atrocities of the worst genocide in human history.

Antisemitism did not begin or end with the Final Solution and the death camps. It does not simply constitute “religious intolerance” – my great-grandmother was relentlessly targeted by the Nazis for her ethnicity, despite never being a practising religious Jew. As our world becomes increasingly intolerant and hateful, particularly towards refugees and Jews, the memory of people like Klara and Szulem, and the message of Holocaust Memorial Day, remains more important than ever. That is why I will be lighting a candle for Holocaust Memorial Day this Saturday.

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