Holocaust survivor: ‘Going back to Auschwitz was cathartic’
Britain's last remaining Holocaust survivors tell their stories for a deeply moving new documentary
It was a hot and stifling April day when the cattle truck finally reached Auschwitz-Birkenau. Ivor Perl, 12, rounded up with his parents and his four brothers and four sisters from a Hungarian ghetto, had been curled up on the floor watching through cracks in the caulking.
Though people had been crammed 80 or 90 to a truck for five days, and many were sick, he saw it as an adventure: “I had never travelled anywhere before. It was thrilling.”
As the train rolled in, Polish prisoners working on the track shouted a warning that children should tell the guards they were 16. That warning would save his life.
“Eventually the doors opened,” says Ivor. “How can I convey the terrible commotion, the screaming, the dogs, the guns? They let the healthy people out first. The others went into lorries straight to the gas chamber. Women and children were herded to one side; men to the other. I ran towards my mother, saying: ‘Please let me go with you’.” She coaxed him back to join the adults.
It was the last he saw of her or the rest of his family except for his eldest brother, Alec.
On reaching the front of the life-or-death selection line, Ivor was confronted by a German SS officer in white gloves, pointing: left, right, left, right. Dr Josef Mengele asked the boy how old he was. “Sixteen,” he lied. “I see his eyes every day of my life. He knew. But he must have thought: if he’s under 16, he’ll die anyway.”
With almost unbearable restraint, Ivor describes the indignity of being made to undress, of having his bodily hair roughly shaved, of being stripped of his identity. “There were hundreds of naked people running around, many with blood on them. It was all being done so fast. After the showers, we were marched into the barracks. We were given a number. We were dehumanised. That was when I burst out crying. I wanted my mother. I knew this was for real; the adventure was over. It was then that I lost my youth.”
Ivor is now almost 87. After 50 years of silence, he was persuaded to record his experiences as part of the Victory in Europe (VE Day) commemorations. He didn’t want to do it but felt he had a responsibility to bear witness. He had spent his life trying to shield his family from the reality.
“People did terrible things, but my way to move forward was to brush myself down and get on with life. Telling the children, making them cry ... what was the point? But running away from it also wasn’t right. Eventually, I realised I couldn’t run any more. Time is marching on.”
In 2018, he reluctantly revisited Auschwitz with the youngest of his four children, Judy, and her daughter, Lia, as part of a deeply moving BBC documentary, The Last Survivors.
Judy, 49, hoped the experience would free something in him; in them all. “We are second-generation survivors,” she tells me. “The Holocaust has affected my family massively. We’ve all had breakdowns. As we grew up, it was all about protecting Dad, not stressing him.”
She was 10 when her mother told her what he had been through. “I went into a corner of the room and sobbed. I could not go to my Dad when I was upset. When I had boyfriends, my mother would ask why they weren’t Jewish and say: ‘Look what your father went through’.”
Judy was appalled by Auschwitz. “It was beyond horrific. I had no idea of the magnitude.” When they were shown the wooden sleeping crates where prisoners were packed together at night, she expected her father to break down, but his face was impossible to read.
We are in Ivor’s sitting room in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, surrounded by family photographs and his late wife’s paintings. He is a gentle, genial man but there is friction as well as love in the father-daughter exchange. “If Dad can work through his torment, his angst, if he can start grieving and I can see his tears, then that would release me,” Judy says.
“I cry,” Ivor replies, “but not tears. I cry in my heart every day. Going back to Auschwitz was so cathartic, I didn’t need to cry. Tears don’t have to be salt water. Hurt is in the heart.”
She tells him: “I think it’s just sticking plaster. You have stuffed it all down, repressed it.” She explains: “My father was always comical and joking to mask everything. Joking is how he has learnt to cope with hardship.”
“The problem for survivors,” he says, “is that everything reminds you of something. When I saw the Grenfell Tower flames, I could see my family being burned.”
In 1944, Ivor and Alec were transferred to the Allach concentration camp in the Bavarian forest, where the snow was knee-high and civilised norms quickly disintegrated. “People died overnight; you’d take their boots.” Ivor went down with typhus. His brother knew that would be enough to condemn him to death, and dragged him out of the sick block under the pretence of taking him to the lavatory; the third time that Alec had helped Ivor to cheat death.
“Nobody survived without luck,” says Ivor, “but not everyone who had luck would survive.”
Many months after the liberation, Ivor and Alec were part of a group of child Holocaust survivors given asylum in Britain. The prospects for an uneducated young boy were slight. From a first job covering buttons and belts, he worked his way up in the rag trade (“a profession I hated all my life”) until he ran his own manufacturing business. Now retired, he devotes himself to speaking in schools and at the Holocaust Survivor Centre about the barbarism Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.
In May 2015, he gave evidence at the trial of Oskar Gröning, the SS guard known as “the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz”.
He feels a deep obligation to do what he can. That is shared by most other survivors, now in their 80s and 90s, conscious that they are the last living links with an unparalleled atrocity and that, with anti-Semitism on the rise and Holocaust deniers peddling lies, unspeakable things must be spoken as a warning for the future. “I never thought I would see the day when people could say it never happened,” Ivor says. “That hurts.”
Red is for dead
Frank Bright, 90, has spent years researching and recording on a spreadsheet the fate of every child on his school photo, taken in Prague in May 1942. The photo itself is blotched with red and blue stickers – red for dead, blue for survived. Most are red. “It was a duty,” he says from his home near Ipswich. “If I hadn’t done it, they would have gone into oblivion.”
He visits schools and talks about the Holocaust widely. “The individual experience doesn’t tell much,” he says. “It’s the experience of the many that counts, those who can’t talk.”
As soon as they arrived in Auschwitz, Frank’s mother was sent to the gas chambers. His father had already been killed at the camp. When someone explained to him the significance of the smoke and flames, “a curtain came down. From then on, I could see but not feel. If you feel, you’d go mad.”
Frank was selected to make propeller blades for the Luftwaffe, because he happened to be standing near the door when a factory manager came to choose labourers. A classmate in a far corner was sent on a death march and died in Dachau. “I stood in the right place at the right time. He did not.”
For 55 years, he shut out the memories, forging a career as a civil engineer. Retirement gave him the opportunity to use his survivor status for good. “You have to forget about your own trepidations and emotions and ask, what can I do?”
The real danger of deniers
Susan Pollack, 88, is another tireless witness. She was deported to Auschwitz from Hungary when she was 14 and, at the end of the war, discovered that 50 members of her family had died. The real danger from Holocaust deniers, she believes, is that their accusations have an ulterior motive: to discredit Jewish people.
“We must be alert.”
She finds UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s slowness to condemn and root out anti-Semitism within his party incomprehensible. “He is leader of a party that’s supposed to protect people,” she says.
“We cannot be bystanders. One of the driving forces within me is to keep going as much as I am able, to inform, to teach and to remember. And to ask the audience, what are you going to do?”
• Holocaust Memorial Day was on Sunday.
– © The Sunday Telegraph