Legacy of hope for Holocaust survivor

A Holocaust Memorial Day Candlelit Vgil.
A Holocaust Memorial Day Candlelit Vgil.
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It’s been almost 70 years, but Holocaust survivor Arek Hersh’s memories have not faded.

Like the ‘B7608’ tattoo still clearly visible on his left forearm, they are etched into him and their scars will never disappear.

Holocaust survivor and author of A Detail of History Arek Hersh talks to students about his experience - one of many talks he does all year round, every year.

Holocaust survivor and author of A Detail of History Arek Hersh talks to students about his experience - one of many talks he does all year round, every year.

Seven decades after the true depths of Nazi brutality were exposed to the world, the 85-year-old can still recall every detail of his six-year ordeal - a chapter in history most of us have only read about or seen in TV documentaries.

Arek was just eleven years old when his entire family was exterminated by the Nazis and he was sent to a concentration camp.

And as Yorkshire joins the rest of the world today, in honouring Holocaust Memorial Day, Arek told The Star it’s vital that none of us ever forget what happened.

“I shouldn’t be here,” he admits, sitting comfortably in his favourite armchair at his home near Leeds.

“Six million Jews died during the Holocaust, my entire family among them.”

Arek, who visits schools, museums and synagogues across Yorkshire regularly thoughout the year to speak of his experiences, was one of just 150 Jews to be spared when his entire Polish community - 4,000 people - were executed in 1940.

He was herded from one concentration camp to another, narrowly escaping death many times, before finally arriving at Auschwitz in 1944, where millions of Jews were put to death.

He said: “There were 185 children in my group, only myself and another boy were chosen to live. The others were sent to the gas chamber.

“I saw people brutalised and dying every day - such suffering.”

Arek was finally liberated in Czechoslovakia on May 8, 1945. After the war he was sent to recuperate in England, where he met and married his wife Jean. Together they have three children and seven grandchildren and Arek now considers Yorkshire his home.

In recent years, after decades of refusing to talk about his experiences, he has been back to Auschwitz and has even visited the mass graves where his family are buried.

Arek, who said he will spend Holocaust Memorial Day speaking at a number of events in Harrogate and Manchester, as well as visiting the synagogue to remember his family, added: “The next generation and the next generation and the one after that - they must never be allowed to forget what happened, it’s an important message and one that I will never stop spreading, particularly to our young people.

“Most of them are older now than I was when I was taken from my family and I think hearing my story in person helps to make this chapter in history more real for them than any textbook could.”

Survivors like Arek will be remembered at a candlelit memorial ceremony this evening in Sheffield’s Winter Garden from 5.30pm. 
The hour-long service will include readings which reflect this year’s theme of ‘journeys’ and how those who survived the horror went on to rebuild their lives.

The Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Coun Vickie Priestley, will attend alongside other dignitaries from across the city.

She said: “The survivors of the Holocaust have shown us through their experiences and accounts how we can learn from these horrendous events. 
“As well as speaking of their pain and loss, strength, survival and despair, their wish is to leave a legacy of hope.

“That’s what we all need to remember and reflect upon in founding a future free of persecution and exclusion.

“I hope as many people as possible will join me at the Winter Garden to light a candle and mark what is such an important day across the world.”

Prior to the candlelit service, a selection of short films and documentaries will be shown at Sheffield’s Millennium Galleries and The Showroom Cinema.

In Barnsley, a display will be held at the Town Hall featuring museum and archive collections telling the stories of two Polish men - John Jakob Mendelson and Stanislaw Zasada - who survived Nazi persecution and came to live and work the rest of their lives in Barnsley.

Coun Roy Miller, Barnsley Council’s cabinet spokesperson for development, environment and culture, said: “On Holocaust Memorial Day, we can honour the survivors of these regimes and challenge ourselves to use the lessons of their experience to inform our lives today.”

The collections will be on display throughout February in the Town Hall entrance and in the Experience Barnsley Discovery Centre.