Radio

What happened to the children who survived the Holocaust?

Plus: on the trail of the Anglo-Indians who’ve lived all their lives on the subcontinent but still feel British and what’s it like inside Grayson Perry’s head?

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

‘I call Zelma Cacik who may be living in London,’ says the announcer, in the clipped RP accent of the BBC in the 1940s. ‘I call her on behalf of her 16-year-old cousin…’ The voice betrays no emotion, no feeling, it’s so matter-of-fact, but the script spares no punches as it tells the cousin’s story in blunt statements of fact. She was born in Poland, separated from her family when she was 12 and made to work in a munitions factory while her parents, her sisters and brother were sent to Treblinka extermination camp.

Twelve names in all are called out on the archive radio programme from 1946, one of several that were made on behalf of children who had been Nazi captives and were waiting in displaced persons camps on the continent with nowhere to go, nothing left, no family, no home, no possessions. Would the contact named by the announcer come forward to rescue them? A 15-year-old boy survived the ghetto at Riga and five concentration camps. A 16-year-old girl watched her two brothers and her aunt being cremated and then lost her mother and her father. Listen again to the announcer and you can hear a bitter anger barely disguised beneath that cool restraint.

Alex Last came across the archive and was haunted by the bleak outlines of those stories. How did the children become separated from their families, and were they ever rescued? On Lost Children of the Holocaust on the World Service (Thursday), we joined Last on his quest to find out. He meets with Gary (formerly Gunther) Wolff, who at 13 was rounded up and sent with his parents to the ghetto at Lodz. His parents could not cope. ‘The fear factor is something you can’t transmit into words. You have to feel it,’ he explained. ‘All of a sudden I became their eyes and ears and their brain. They couldn’t think quickly enough.’ When the ghetto was liquidated by the SS in 1944 they were all sent to Auschwitz but Wolff never saw his mother again. His father died within a week. ‘To be honest I was relieved,’ Wolff told us. He knew that having to care for his father made him vulnerable. ‘It was a matter of life and death.’


His relative, a cousin of his father, did make contact (Wolff’s parents had urged him to memorise the name) but when they met at Waterloo station, Wolff was told, ‘Your father and I never got on.’ Of the 11 children Last managed to trace, most had to make new lives on their own, either because no one came forward or because if they did they were unwilling to take them on.

Teatime at Peggy’s, on Radio 4 (Friday), also took us right inside the lives of others. Peggy has lived in Jhansi all her life, one of 30 Anglo-Indian families still remaining in this railway town in India (the inspiration for John Masters’s novel Bhowani Junction). Clare Jenkins has been taking tea with her for 20 years, feeling each time that she is ‘falling down a rabbit hole’ because of the strange people she encounters there, such as Captain Roy Abbott, born and bred in India ‘but as British as you come’. You could almost hear his handlebar moustache in his big, booming voice flecked with the up-and-down lilt of Hindi.

They’re dying out, the Anglo-Indians, those whose mother tongue is English and one of whose parents was of European descent but who have lived in India all their lives. They teach their cooks to make plum cake and toad-in-the-hole, but also eat pilaus and curry. ‘What does it mean to be Anglo-Indian?’ Jenkins asked Peggy’s friend Gwendoline whose father was from Berkshire. ‘If you ask me in my heart I feel Britain’s my home’ — and yet she’s never left India.

Radio 4’s new series The Thought Chamber was another pure listening experience, not an image to be seen except in the imagination. Sian Williams’s guests are invited to sit down, make themselves comfortable. The heavy door is shut and the light switched off. They’re now sealed off in an anechoic chamber, somewhere in central London, with no noise from outside, not a single speck of light, a complete absence of stimuli. A conveniently placed microphone ensures that we can eavesdrop on their thoughts as they talk through what they’re experiencing, minute by minute.

Grayson Perry, the artist and potter, is anxious: ‘It’s just me accompanied by my dawn chorus of tinnitus… It’s dominating my thoughts. I can’t take my ears off it.’ Philip Selway (of Radiohead) felt it was like waking up at 3 a.m. when it’s dark but your mind lights up and ‘it’s very difficult to find the dimmer switch’. Irvine Welsh could not hold on to any coherent thought. Only the scientist, Sky at Night presenter Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, took us on a journey into her imagination — to the far reaches of the cosmos, down beneath the deepest sea, and inside her body, travelling through her veins and arteries. ‘My eyes are generating colours,’ she said. ‘A swathe of colour. Pinks and purples. Almost like the Milky Way.’

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Show comments
  • Barba Rossa

    One wonders if those who survived every gave proper thanks to those who saved them… i.e… who gives thanks to the Red Army from saving perhaps thousands. maybe 100s of thousands and more from the fires of Auschwitz…but we do know.. many want, and do get their property back..

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      In January 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz … and then promptly demolished the so-called gas chambers and crematoria. Which the Poles rebuilt in 1948. Why the change of plan? Let me offer as a clue one word: Katyn.

      • Tom M

        I’m puzzling over the connection you’re making between Katyn (the massacre presumably) and the rebuilding of Auschwitz by the Poles.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          See my posting under War crimes — and a president’s dilemma
          I’m not going to dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s for you, so you’ll have to do a bit independent thinking.
          “The actual number of polish officers, police officers and intellectuals is still hotly debated. Somewhere between 4,000 and 22,000. Bodies were buried at Katyn and Vinnylsya. Acquired wisdom; buried bodies can be exhumed. Soviets murdered the poles, Nazis exhumed and reburied, Soviets re-exhumed. Next time try cremation. Auschwitz strike a chord? But then along came ground penetrating radar. The Soviets kept their crime a secret insisting that the Nazis had done it. Not until 1989 were Communist documents released documenting the fact that the Soviet NKVD (later the KGB) carried out the Katyn Massacre. In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev publicly admitted that the Soviets were responsible for the Katyn Forest massacre of Polish officers.
          But rather than let sleeping dog lie, at Nuremberg the Soviets pushed for charging the Nazis with the Katyn Forest massacres, and the US, Britain and France went along for the ride knowing full well it was a bare-faced lie. Hypocrisy writ large. Don’t you sometimes feel you are being bombarded with lies and deception?”
          Jack, Japan Alps

          • Tom M

            Thanks for the reply. I am aware of the Katyn story but not in detail. I am better acquainted with the Nazis’ “KL” project of which Auschwitz was one but still cannot follow your connection between the two events. What did Auswchwitz have to do with the Katyn massacre?

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Indicator rather than proof positive. Facing the prospect of conviction for the Katyn massacre, the Soviet Union set about muddying the waters. But as we all should know, you don’t establish your own innocence by pointing out the greater guilt of others. Burying the bodies rather than cremation was the error, but making thousands of corpses disappear is not that easy. So when the Red Army liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, was this how the gas-chamber myth got started. And all those millions of the bodies couldn’t be found, “Well they must have been cremated”. However, this threw up myriad logistical problems.
            If you have the free time and the inclination to take this further, examine the testimony of Rudolf Hoess, former Auschwitz commandant, at the Nuremberg War Crimes trial. Realising he is facing the rope, he deliberately exaggerates his crimes to the point of absurdity.
            The same with Adolf Eichmann. What about that, “We stopped the car where millions of Jews were buried and saw fountains of blood spurting up from the ground”? That was a complete $iss take. And who said the Germans haven’t a sense of humour?

    • Mc

      The lack of thanks had something to do with the fact that the Soviets were deeply unpleasant themselves. But that seems to have escaped your notice in, what appears to be, your eagerness to make an anti-Semitic point.

      Somehow, I suspect you too would be keen to reclaim your property if it was stolen – if I’m wrong, I’ll be most grateful if you could provide your address and bank account details so that I can strip your assets.

      • Dogandcat

        Excellent comment. It’s never just about “my” property, but my history and my family heritage. It’s shallow to think property is just a dollar amount. It represents all of my past family and who they were.

        • Mc

          Agreed. The loss of material wealth pales in comparison with the trauma of having one’s family, community and culture wiped out.

    • ‘ere we go

      I have read somewhere that in early days in power the Nazis allowed Jews to leave Germany. And many did, making new lives elsewhere. When the Nazis deprived them of all wealth however asylum was no longer an option as doors were closed to them. Including UK doors.

      All survivors of the camps were therefore penniless. What was taken from them should be returned.

      • Barba Rossa

        And does the Zionist Entity compensate the …”Dispossed” of Palestine…?

    • Dogandcat

      What do you mean gratitude? Should they they day bump their heads in thanks that they survived and then survived? How should they be grateful? These were children swept into hell……..now damaged adults. Does “one” wonderr? I don’t.

  • Alex Williamson

    They spent the next seventy years using it to deflect all criticism and as an excuse for any misdeeds they committed.

    • Mc

      “They” is a rather sweeping term for this topic. I assume you’re referring to Jews, or hopefully more specifically, to some Zionists who sometimes deflect criticism of Israeli government actions by labeling such criticism as anti-Semitic. Admittedly, if I were a Jew or Arab / Palestinian, I’d prefer to live under the very imperfect Israeli state than under any other Middle Eastern regime (Hamas and PLO included). One of the delights of living in Israel is that one can criticise the Israeli state and live to tell the tale, contrasting with the lynchings etc. suffered by dissidents in Arab states.

    • Barba Rossa

      Indeed they have…what’s more avoided thanks of any kind to those who paid the greatest price in liberating them. But by all means call me antisemite.

  • Hard Little Machine

    And in the present, Europe and most Europeans bitterly regret that Hitler failed. They’re itching for another go at it.

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