Arek Hersh was 14 years old when he was taken to Auschwitz. “I had never heard of the place,” he says. “When we arrived they were separating boys and men and women and children. Three SS officers asked your age. I told then I was 17 and they told me to move to the right side. The people who went to the left were sent to their deaths.”
Now 89 years old, Arek is among a group of Holocaust survivors who have settled in Yorkshire - and have helped establish a new £1m Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre in Huddersfield that was officially opened this afternoon at the town’s university.
The centre, which contains artefacts showing daily life in the Nazi concentration camps, items brought by refugees and Kindertransport children, records of Nazi persecution, photographs and filmed testimony of survivors and refugees, has a simple but vital aim - to document the horrors of the Holocaust and try to prevent such a thing happening again. The venture has been funded by over £600,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund with additional contributions from the University and major charities and individual donors. The idea has come about through the Leeds-based Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association, of which Arek is a member.
Arek lifts his sleeve to reveal the faded but still visible tattoo the Nazis branded him with at the concentration camp, with the number they referred to him as - ‘B7608’. He arrived at Auschwitz in 1944, having been separated from his family in Czechoslovakia when he was just 11 and being placed in a number of work camps, as well as the notorious Łódź Ghetto in Poland, where 160,000 Jewish and Roma people were incarcerated by the Nazis and forced to work for the German war effort.
While at Auschwitz, one of the horrifying jobs Arek was given involved fertilising nearby farmers’ fields with the ashes of people who had been murdered in the camp. “I used to throw it on the field and I knew what it was,” he says.
In 1945, as the Russians closed in on the camp, Arek was among the prisoners taken on a death march in freezing temperatures. “I didn’t think I would survive. They took us for two days on the death march. The people who couldn’t walk anymore were shot in the back of the head.”
He says despite the many horrors he had encountered, he was determined to live. “I wanted to survive, I thought somebody from my family would be alive. But I lost my whole family.”
When the war was over, Arek, then aged 15, was among the refugees taken to England, initially to Lake Windermere. Seven weeks after he arrived, the Red Cross told him the terrible news nobody in his immediate family had survived the war. He eventually learnt that 80 members of his extended family had died.
Arek went on to work as an electrician in Manchester before moving to Leeds in the 1970s and becoming a property landlord with his wife. Now a great-grandfather, he has written a best-selling book about his wartime experiences and frequently gives talks in schools about the Holocaust. He says he hopes the Huddersfield exhibition - one of only two in the country with the other in Nottinghamshire - will make a lasting impression on those who visit and help them build a better world.
“It is like Nottingham, I hope young people will be able to learn from history. Let’s hope it never happens again,” he says.
“Because it was so horrific, you still get people who won’t believe it could happen, but it did very much happen. That is why I go to schools and universities to make them understand.”
Among the other members of the Friendship Association supporting the project is 98-year-old Heinz Skyte, who also has an extraordinary story.
Heinz grew up in Germany near Nuremberg and managed to get out of Germany in 1939 just before the outbreak of war. He moved to Leeds, where his older brother Frank was living after earlier escaping Germany when his relationship with a non-Jewish girl was reported to the Gestapo.
The first thing Heinz did upon arriving in England was to go and watch Leeds United at Elland Road, where they drew 1-1 with Everton - sparking a lifelong passion for the West Yorkshire club. Him and his brother managed to get their parents out of Germany just four days after war broke out - but life in England soon became much less welcoming.
In 1940, Winston Churchill made the infamous declaration to ‘Collar the lot’ in relation to Germans and Italians now living in England, no matter their political sensibilities. In May 1940,
Heinz and his family were arrested and interned. Heinz and Frank were sent first to an internment camp on the Isle of Man, and subsequently to Canada, where they remained until August 1942.
“It was a bit embarrassing because we were more opposed to the Nazis than the local population,” Heinz says today. “Eventually, it was raised in Parliament and they realised they had made a big mistake.”
Heinz went on to volunteer for war work and worked as an engineer. He went on to marry Thea, a fellow Jewish refugee who had arrived in England with the Kindertransport. Heinz eventually became chief executive of the Jewish Welfare Board and in 1976, received an MBE in recognition of a lifetime of dedication to community work.
He also helped found the Friendship Association in 1996. “I wasn’t sure anybody wanted to be reminded of what had happened to them 40 years ago. But I was wrong. To my amazement, 40 people turned up and we formed the association.”
Heinz says the new centre in Huddersfield has come at an important time, with many of the remaining local Holocaust survivors now in old age. “We are all in our 80s and 90s and won’t be here for much longer and then the Holocaust becomes history. At the moment, it is my life. Once we are gone, it becomes history like Kings and Queens.”
Among the items loaned by Heinz to the exhibition is a letter from my wife’s headmaster written in 1938 when she was a young girl, banning her from the school, solely based on her Jewish faith. Another is a heartfelt note from his mother to her parents at the time they were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp, where they died just two weeks later.
“These items don’t just teach people of what happened, but of how genocide, in all its horror, quickly become acceptable to so many,” he says.
Another long-standing member of the Friendship Association is Trude Silman, who arrived in England aged nine as a child refugee from Bratislava, then capital of Czechslovakia. After the war, she went on to build a career as a university lecturer in biochemistry after studying at Leeds University where she met her husband, Norman and built a happy family life with their two children.
The 89-year-old was a secretary of the association and encouraged the others to go into schools and speak publicly about their experiences. “It was dear to my heart as I did feel a lot of people were not aware of the problems of people who had come over. Initially, we would tell the stories amongst ourselves. I was the first one to suggest we ought to go out and speak in Yorkshire. There were about 30 of us and we are now down to four or five.”
Trude’s aunt managed to get her out of the country and into England after a tense four-day train journey through Europe. The family also managed to get her brother and sister to England but her father was killed at Auschwitz. Despite Trude’s best efforts, the fate of her mother remains uncertain but she says her research has led her to believe she was killed during a death march.
She says of the new centre: “I firmly believe that Holocaust education, if used appropriately, can be a wonderful educational tool for people to realise that we are all human and we all deserve dignity. I would like all of the world to realise we are all human beings who deserve a decent life.”
Tim Thornton, vice-chancellor at Huddersfield University, said the university is delighted to be the new home of the centre. “The exhibition is very powerful in the way it brings that story of the Holocaust home to Yorkshire through the experiences of survivors who came and made their lives here.”
The centre has been in the making for two-and-a-half years when Lilian Black, current chair of the friendship association, came up with the idea with Emma King, who is now the director of the exhibition.
Lilian, whose Hungarian father Eugene survived Auschwitz and went on to settle in Leeds and work for Marks & Spencer in managerial roles, says: “We think this is a really important development for the North of England, there is no other resource like this in the North of England.”
Her father, whose picture in Auschwitz is among the exhibits in the centre, passed away 18 months ago and Lilian says he would have loved to have seen the completed exhibition.
“He knew about this and thought it was really important and it mattered, that people needed to learn.
“It took him a long time to open up to us as a family about what he had been through. It was 50 years before he told us what he had experienced. We knew where he had been but it was obviously very difficult subject matter and I think he didn’t want to burden his children.”
She says seeing the centre in its completed form “is little short of a miracle”.
“There are a lot of bad things going on in the world but this has happened because of the goodness of people. We have not opened yet but people have already been knocking on the door, asking to look.
“I wouldn’t want any family to go through what my own family has gone through, simply because there were Jewish. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about Jews, or Muslims or people with disabilities - it is wrong that anybody is targeted for being different.
“When you see refugees across Europe today and borders are being shut to them, that is exactly the experience of most Jewish people at the time - they couldn’t get out because nobody wanted them.”
Centre to open to schools and public
The Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre will open to the public later this month – with organisers hoping it will inspire visits from schools across the region.
The official opening was attended today by former Conservative Minister Lord Eric Pickles, UK special envoy for post-Holocaust issues and co-chair of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, as well as Sir Peter Luff, chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The centre will provide a wide range of teaching, learning and research opportunities for schools, students and communities to learn about the Holocaust, explore how it happened and its relevance for today. It will also open to the public from September 17.
For more information, visit www.holocaustlearning.org.