The irreplaceable value of hearing history, and family history, first-hand...
The Holocaust Educational Trust runs talks by Holocaust survivors, to tell their story, to commemorate the past and educate the future. Eva Clarke is one such survivor, who recently gave a talk to Huntingdon Regional College students, and I was fortunate enough to attend and hear her haunting account.
Eva Clarke’s story is, as she explained, ‘a family’s story’, which begins before she was born in the late 1930s when her parents, aunt, uncle and cousin, packed up their homes in Germany, and fled to Australia, England and Czechoslovakia, to what they hoped was safety.
In May 1940, in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, Eva’s German-Jewish father, Bernd, married her mother, Czech-Jew Anka, and they started their married life dealing with the daily drudgery of the wartime rules for the Jews (such as the curfew, the prohibition from attending the cinema or travelling inside trams, and, of course, the compulsory wearing of the infamous yellow star) that little by little took away their rights. But at each turn, the Jewish response – as Eva Clarke related in her talk on her family’s Holocaust experiences - was, ‘Well, we can cope with this’.
Then, in 1941, the cards arrived in the post with details to report to a warehouse, near the railway station in Prague. First Bernd was summoned, and a few days later Anka was sent for too. And so began their transportation and imprisonment in Theresienstadt concentration camp for the next three years.
These were three years of starvation (and the relentless daily struggle to find enough food just to survive), separation (men and women were largely isolated, families were split up), oppression and fear - and also, seemingly strangely, hope. With hindsight, we wonder how it was that no-one knew what would happen next. But the horrors of mass executions and gas chambers, a history with which we are so familiar today (though nevertheless appalled by) was simply, literally, unimaginable to our ancestors just a generation or so back.
And so it was, in September 1944, when Bernd was summoned to move camps to Auschwitz, that Anka volunteered to follow him – she’d already suffered three years of imprisonment (‘Why and how could it get any worse?’ Eva recalls her mother explaining her optimistic decision to go with him), and of course Anka would prefer to be with her husband.
When Anka arrived at Auschwitz she was already pregnant. This was a perilous position as only those prisoners fit for work were allowed to live, but over the coming months her baggy prison clothes disguised her condition, and in October 1944, Anka was sent to work in a bomb factory. Then in the spring of 1945, with the Allies advancing, the Germans began emptying some of the camps and for three weeks Anka, by now heavily pregnant, was forced to travel on an open coal truck. As the train neared Mauthausen camp, Anka went into labour.
Weighing 3lbs, Eva was born on 29 April to her emaciated 5 stone mother. The gas chamber at Mauthausen had been blown up the day before, so mother and baby lived to survive the war.
After he had left Theresienstadt in September 1944, Anka never saw her husband again, and later she discovered that he had been shot dead on 18 January 1945 in Auschwitz. Auschwitz was liberated by the Russians nine days later.
Eva told her story, to a hall full of students at Huntingdon Regional College, as part of an educational program by the History and English Department to help teach the lessons we can all learn from the Holocaust, about prejudice, ourselves and our values. But in addition to telling one family’s story, Eva says she tells her story to preserve the memory of those that perished but who have no one left to honour their lives. ‘We only live on by being remembered by other people,’ Eva explained, encouraging the students: ‘Go home and talk to your families – every family has a story to tell.’
Eva Clarke’s mother, Anka, is alive today, and you can see an interview with her on YouTube – search on ‘The baby born in a concentration camp’.
At Huntingdon Regional College, Eva Clarke’s Holocaust testimony was preceded by a workshop with Mary Mihovilovic on the Holocaust and issues of prejudice. To find further details of other talks run by the Holocaust Educational Trust visit www.het.org.uk.
For more information about Holocaust Memorial Day and other organisations who work with Holocaust and genocide survivors, or focus on remembrance and education, visit www.hmd.org.uk and also click on its ‘Links’ page.