Christa Ackroyd: Why we must never doubt the horrors of the Holocaust

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Matilda is just three years and three weeks old.

As I write this she is fast asleep in bed on an unscheduled sleepover on the night I normally write this column uninterrupted.

“I think I will stay with you tonight, Nonna”, she said “Because actually (her new favourite word) it will be fun.”

And it has been. We have sung and danced and played Sleeping Beauty.

“Close your eyes, Nonna, and wait for the Prince on his horse,” she commanded, the Prince ably played by grandad.

And no, I don’t need a lecture on gender stereotypes in fairytales. She is a little girl who likes playing princesses and I won’t break the spell. Time enough for that.

Before bedtime we watched the ‘old’ Mary Poppins as Matilda describes her because together with mummy we went to the cinema to see the new one. And she loves both.

They make her smile. And this morning we shared breakfast in bed with two cuddly rabbits and Winnie the Pooh on the television. Innocent, happy times. Just as childhood should be.

All of which makes the subject I had already chosen and researched for this week’s column all the more poignant and all the more important as grandad and Matilda sit head to head reading a book in the room next door.

At the weekend on National Holocaust Memorial Day a survey was released that showed one in 20 people in this country believe the greatest atrocity committed by mankind never happened. Or if it did one in 12 believe the numbers of those murdered has been exaggerated. Their ignorance doesn’t anger me. It breaks my heart.

So let me give you some numbers.

Six million people were murdered for being Jewish.

At least another five million died too. Romany gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, the mentally ill, resistance fighters, priests, the intelligentsia, at least 11 million people murdered because of who they were or what they believed in.

Some historians say the figure may be as high as 15 million.

There were an estimated 45,000 camps, incarceration sites and ghettos, including 30,000 slave labour camps, 1,500 Jewish ghettos, 980 concentration camps, including extermination camps.

There were 3,000 in Berlin alone. And it did happen.

It is just over a year since I visited Auschwitz.

There the young and the old, the grandmas and the grandads, the children and the grandchildren, were chosen to die first.

For me it was the pile of shoes, especially the children’s tiny sandals, that haunts me. For my husband it was standing on the platform where the trains came in and imagining your loved ones being wrenched from your arms because they were deemed too young or to old to work that brought him to tears.

It was exactly such a scene that gave Arek Hersh his chance of life.

The 14-year-old was an orphan. He had been one of only 11 to survive the labour camp he was sent to aged 10.

The rest of his family had been murdered in the ghetto when he found himself on that same platform at Auschwitz where the Nazis were separating people into two rows.

One row would work. Those in the other would be sent straight to the gas chamber.

He was in the death row.

A woman screaming as the guards wrestled to take her child caused a distraction. Instinctively he crossed to the other line and told the guards he was 17. Miraculously he survived and was one of 300 transported to England after liberation. He found his way to Leeds and since then has dedicated his life to educating young people on the horrors of what happened and has helped establish a new Holocaust Centre in Huddersfield opened last year and one of only two in the country. If I don’t, Arek at least understands the doubters. “It is too horrific to contemplate,” he says, simply. “But happen it did.”

If you can’t go to Auschwitz or Bergen, at least go to the Holocaust Exhibition in Huddersfield.

If you can’t face it, well you 
should, for Arek, for his family, for 15 million people who should never be forgotten, but particularly for the Matildas and grandads of this world. Those who died never stood a chance, but those who fought every day to survive, who like Arek have faded numbers tattooed on their skin, lived to tell the truth.

How dare we ever doubt their story.