When ‘Holocaust survivors’, are mentioned, it is the common thought that these are people who have endured the suffering of the concentration camps and have been scarred by the harsh conditions and consequent death surrounding them. This is exactly what I thought I would be listening to this afternoon when I was told that a Holocaust survivor would be speaking in school.
Harry Bibring is the Holocaust survivor whose story I had the privilege of listening to. He understands that it is important to reach out to the younger generations and tell these stories whilst there is still time, which is why at the age of 91 he travels around the country educating young people on his experiences of the Holocaust in association with the Holocaust Educational Trust (the organisers of the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen trips I attended last year.
Harry was born in Vienna, Austria, in Decemeber 1925, and straight away joked about his birthday being overshadowed by Christmas, uplifting the tone of the subject in a delightful way which he continued throughout his talk. He explained that there were 175,000 Jewish people in Vienna before the Holocaust, accounting for 10% of the population, which was reduced to 300 individuals in hiding subsequently.
During Harry’s early years, his family would have been considered privileged, with his father owning a menswear store which allowed them to take a holiday every year. He joked about how school got in the way of the enjoyment he found in swimming and ice skating, and admitted to not being particularly academic or well behaved. Despite this he attended a grammar school where he had a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish friends until the Anschluss in March 1938 where Hitler annexed Austria to Germany. At this point he questioned his parents about what would happen to them, but initially there was no need to worry as there was no immediate effect and the belief was that the Anti-Semitism would blow over in a few weeks.
However, after seeing the excitement of the march past at the weekend, Harry innocently asked his friends at school whether they too had seen it. His Jewish friends ignored the question and hastily left the scene. Returning home, Harry again questioned his parents on the matter. Their response was that the children had been told not to mix with Jews by their parents. This was the worst they could imagine the Anti-Semitism getting.
In April 1938, Harry believed his live was ruined when the Ice Rink was closed to Jews, but he didn’t understand why, joking that he didn’t skate in a Jewish way. This was the start of many changes to Harry’s life. His grammar school was closed to Jews shortly after, so he was transferred to a secondary school where he along with the other Jewish children were made to sit at the back of the class on the floor; the teachers communicated very little with the Jewish children as they were afraid of being labelled teachers of Jews when applying for another job or promotion.
There would be no holiday that year for the Bibring family was they no longer had any income. His father’s shop was not in a Jewish area, and had to be labelled as Jewish which resulted in a dramatic loss of trade. The park and swimming pool were also closed to Jews, in addition to cinemas. The ban on cinemas he thought, affected his sister Gerty as much as the closure of the ice rink and swimming pool had affected him. However she laughed this off saying that whilst he had a season pass that belonged to him by name, she could get her non-Jewish friends to buy tickets for her. Harry was shocked that his sister still had non-Jewish friends after the abandonment of his own. Soon after this however his parents discovered what was happening and warned them that neither of them were to do such a thing as this would result in them being not only thrown out of the cinema, but thrown into concentration camps.
On a broader note, Harry explained Kristallnacht – the night of the broken glass in November 1938 in which synagogues and Jewish shops were vandalised and set alight in supposedly in retaliation to a shooting in France involving a Jew. Harry argued that this was not actually spontaneous retaliation, but rather a planned event which had now been given a reason to gather momentum. There are two reasons for this: 1) The event was perfectly organised. Out of the 37 synagogues in Vienna, 36 were burned. The only exception was the synagogue in the centre, surrounded by narrow streets, as to burn this would burn everything. More importantly, the building next door held the records (names and addresses) of ALL Jews across Austria, which were essential to fulfilling the Holocaust; for this reason guards even protected the synagogue that night to ensure that it was not accidentally set alight by people who thought it had been accidentally missed. 2) Posters appeared everywhere the next day saying things like “the Jews are our misfortune” and “Germans protect yourselves”. The efficiency of this would be impossible at this time, when the likes of computers and modern printers did not exist. Therefore it is most likely that this propaganda was prepared before the event, with the knowledge that it would happen at some point.
The day after, Harry’s father set out for work as usual. However their mother received a phone call from the last existing employee of the shop (others had to be let go due to the lack of income), saying that the shop was shut and he hadn’t turned up. His mother frantically called their family friends asking whether they had seen Harry’s father. This produced no information of the individual but found that they were all in similar situations – the adult male was missing. Shortly after a man turned up at the house, told the family to get an overnight bag and leave the flat which was now out of bounds. They were taken to another flat full of Jewish people and were told not to move from here.
Between the families, they had money. What they didn’t have was food or a safe way of retrieving food as they couldn’t rely on anyone non-Jewish to purchase it for them. Gerty volunteered to dress up as a child (she was quite short and youthful) and travel to the local shop. This she managed to do successfully. The families were kept like this for about a week before being told that they could go back to their homes. On arriving to their flat they stumbled across Harry’s father who had apparently been in jail with other Jews. This was no coincidence – it was the intention that all these Jewish people were to be deported to concentration camps. However the Nazis had not yet worked out how to transport the people they had gathered and so decided to release them, with only 10% having been sent. Sadly, the family were in the midst of a financial struggle as the shop was no longer in existence after severe looting and vandalism.
As I mentioned at the start, I thought this would be a talk from a survivor of the concentration camps. However, there are different types of survival which I hadn’t considered.
The Bibring family first attempted to emigrate to Shanghai, as this country required no verified visa (they didn’t need family members to vouch for them), they could be easily bought. In order to secure these, Mr. Bibring sold all of the family’s valuable goods and went to buy the visas, but returned saying that when he got there his pockets were empty. The exact story here is still a bit of a mystery.
Plan B was to send the children to England on the Kindertransport which relied on volunteers providing temporary homes for under 17s. Harry and Gerty left for England on the 13th March 1939, arriving on the 15th, escaping and surviving the Holocaust. Whilst the family were happy enough to look after them, there were a few catches. They only had one spare room for Gerty, and she would have to look after their baby and do the housework, as they only had this spare room because they had fired their maid. Meanwhile Harry would be passed round other members of the family each week.
Through letters corresponding with their parents, the children discovered that they had been thrown out of their flat. At the time their mother said that their father wasn’t in the house and therefore couldn’t contribute to the letter, however they later discovered that he had been arrested and was to be taken to a concentration camp, but his weak heart had given out during the journey in the van. Eventually no more letters were received so it was assumed that their mother too had been taken to the camps.
Harry ended his talk by summing up the “fantastic life” he has created for himself after moving to England, but stresses the importance of telling the story of his childhood as he believes that we have learnt nothing from the Holocaust, with conflicts still occurring in the world as a result of prejudice which creates discrimination, which creates hatred and results in genocide. He concluded by saying that there is only one race. The Human Race.