Survivors’ Memory Quilt in London News

In January 2015 the Camden New Journal in London highlighted the work of the Second Generation of the 45 Aid Society and the Memory Quilt project. The article is reproduced below with a link to the original online version

FORUM: The memory quilt keeping Holocaust survivors’ stories alive

Published: 29 January, 2015

Hannah Gelbart’s mother and aunt, Rosalind Gelbart (left) and Julia Burton

Hannah Gelbart’s mother and aunt, Rosalind Gelbart (left) and Julia Burton, with the memory quilt

AS the world marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, a group of Holocaust survivors and their families are weaving their memories into a gigantic memory quilt.

The quilt is inspired by textile artist Sheree Charalampous and each survivor’s family is contributing a fabric square to the patchwork commemoration.

The survivors, many of whom are now in their 80s, along with their children and grandchildren, have attended workshops where they turn their stories and their memories into cloth quilt squares. The designs are beautiful: abstract paintings, charcoal drawings, photos stitched into the fabric and family trees made of felt, to name but a few. The squares are a celebration of survival in the face of adversity and of lives rebuilt in the UK.

Yet behind each of them linger memories of one of the most horrific massacres of mankind.

One of the survivors was my grandfather, David Herman, who lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb. He died in 2008, but was determined to leave his testimony. He wanted the world to have no doubt about what he had been through.

David was 12 when the war started. A year later, his hometown of Munkacs came under the rule of Nazi Germany. David and his family moved to the Jewish ghetto, sharing their apartment with 24 other people. Three years later, on a chilly spring day, an SS officer appeared at their door, giving them minutes to pack their bags before herding them to the station. Their destination: Auschwitz.

They didn’t know that yet. Instead, they believed what they were told, that they were headed east, to be resettled on new land. On arrival at the infamous death camp, they were met by SS officers who beat them brutally with sticks. David was separated from his family as his mother was led to one side. He never saw her again.

Hannah Gelbart, a West Hampstead freelance journalist and Cambridge modern languages graduate, and her grandfather David Herman

My grandfather lied about his age so many times during his lifetime that, when he died seven years ago, not even he could remember how old he was. It was one of those lies that saved his life.

In Auschwitz, women, the young, the elderly and the infirm were sent straight to the gas chambers. At the age of 16  David would have been too young to work. By saying he was 18, and that he had a trade, he was judged useful enough to live.

From Auschwitz, David was transferred to five more concentration camps. In Rhemsdorf, where he was brutally exploited as slave labour to produce petroleum for the German war effort, he was miraculously reunited with his younger brother, Abe, who had also survived Auschwitz. They managed to keep each other alive during their imprisonment, and on the bitter and painfully long death march to Theresienstadt. Here they were eventually liberated by the Russians in 1945. At the time David was suffering from typhus and weighed four-and-a-half stone.

After the war the British government agreed to receive up to 1,000 orphaned Jewish child survivors. But of the 1.5million children who suffered at the hands of the Nazis only 732 could be found to move to the UK as part of this initiative.

Another lie about his age was enough to reserve David’s place for a new future in England. All of the child survivors that came to the UK carried experiences of several death camps and some had survived the infamous death marches. They travelled from Prague and Munich to residential hostels in Britain to begin new lives.

Being mostly male, they came to be known as “The Boys”, even though about 80 of them were girls. Bonded by terrible shared experiences, and having lost their families in the Holocaust, they formed a tight-knit group.

Their stories have been told by historian Sir Martin Gilbert in his 1996 book The Boys.

Despite the hands they were dealt, The Boys thrived in the UK. Many went on to have large families and build successful businesses. My grandfather made fur coats and it was as a fashion designer that he met my grandmother, Olive, who modelled his designs.

The Boys were determined to support each other and give back to the community that received them after the war. They created their own charitable organisation called the ’45 Aid Society, raising money for refugee causes and Holocaust education.

Every year they hold an annual reunion in London to celebrate their survival and their friendship. It is here that the memory quilt will be unveiled in May, before starting its journey to many museums around the country and the world.

My grandfather’s story is one of many, but nowadays the number of survivors who can tell those stories first-hand is dwindling.

The memory quilt will keep those stories alive and gives us, the children and grandchildren of The Boys, another great story to tell.” ”

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