Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Holocaust - truth is stranger than fiction

It has often been said that truth is stranger than fiction.

There are just some real-life stories that seem so astonishing, so preposterous and so implausible that they would be dismissed out of hand if we knew they were just the product of somebody’s imagination.

In my experience the Holocaust is the prime example of this.

And on Friday night, in the Guildhall in Bath, we heard another story that no-one would have believed had we not heard it from the lips of an actual witness.

I’ve written before in this blog about how the Holocaust has had a profound impact on my life.

It started when I was about 10 and, while off school ill, I stumbled over a TV documentary about Hitler’s genocide which was aimed ay older teeenagers.

As I watched open-mouthed, I found it simply incredulous  to understand how a civilised nation in my parents’ generation could have tried to wipe an entire race of people off the face of a continent.

It just didn't make any sense.

Of course I saw this through the eyes of a naive, innocent pre-teen but even after all this time  that sense of bewilderment and bemusement about the whole horrible event has stayed with me ever since. My journey to try and actually understand how this uniquely evil event could have happened has taken me to Auschwitz and the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem via countless books, films, radio shows and TV series.

But, sadly, I’m still none the wiser.

And in many ways it makes even less sense now than it did through the eyes of  a stunned 10-year-old.

That is why Holocaust Memorial Day is so important to me and so many others and why I’m grateful that in the Bath area Councillor Sarah Bevan has done so much to make sure the day is marked locally. Her latest initiative was to arrange the fascinating talk we had on Friday from a man who survived being in a concentration camp as an 11-year-old child. Yes, 11. He 'lived it' at the age I was just watching TV shows about it and barely coping.... 

Our speaker was Professor Ladislaus Lob, a Hungarian Jew, pictured left, who admits he’s only here today because of a highly controversial character. And here we truly enter that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ dimension.

The man in question, Reszo Kasztner, pictured below right, saved 1,700 people – including our speaker – by paying the Nazis to give them freedom. The story of how those on the ‘Kasztner train to freedom’ ended up in the horrific concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen but were then taken from it after a number of months and allowed to go to neutral Switzerland was riveting. It would make a film drama every bit as nerve-wracking as the Spielberg depiction of how Oskar Schindler saved ‘his’ Jews from Auschwitz.

However, after the war while Schindler was generally regarded as a hero, the fact that Kasztner had dealt directly with the architect of the Holocaust – Adolf Eichmann – meant he was a highly-divisive man in Israel. After rising in the Government he was accused publicly of collaboration with the Nazis which led him to face a lengthy, gruelling court case – a case he never saw resolved because he was assassinated by a Jewish group.

An incredible life indeed.

Professor Lob, an elegant, humble and entirely dignified man told the story of the Kasztner train and the man himself beautifully. He helped vividly create a new and unforgettable chapter to add to the the book of an era when evil truly did seem to be in the ascendancy

As we all trooped out of the Guildhall (and how good it was to see the place packed) I’m sure we all felt privileged and honoured to have heard this remarkable story. It is one of thousands of astonishing Holocaust stories but no two are alike and all must be heard to get the best possible overview of this distressing period.    

Of course, tragically, there have been other, smaller, genocides since 1945 but the Holocaust remains in a terrifying league of its own and is a chapter of our history that must never be re-written. Or distorted.

We must never forget. And all credit to all of those who arrange events such as this to try and ensure we don’t.

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