27 January 2006

Survivors with a message lest we forget Nazi genocide

Stephen Bates in Cardiff
Friday January 27, 2006
The Guardian

The memories do not get any less raw with age and distance. As they gathered yesterday in Cardiff for this year's Holocaust memorial day commemoration, the elderly survivors of the Nazis' genocide of the Jews had their stories to tell of the concentration camps they endured, or the kindertransports - child evacuations -that brought some of them to Britain. They all had their tales of miraculous escapes and the courage of relatives and strangers who had rescued them.

This year the annual event was held in Wales for the first time, and last night it culminated in a ceremony in Cardiff. Readings, poems and songs were interwoven with speeches by dignitaries including Tony Blair, who was harangued briefly by a heckler.

But it was earlier, at a gathering at city hall, that survivors and their families were able to share their memories more informally over cheese sandwiches, cherry cake, cups of tea and orange juice, with civic and national dignitaries on hand to pledge that the world would - in the words of Rhodri Morgan, the Welsh first minister - ensure that nothing similar would ever happen again. They had an important educational duty, he said, to ensure that the memory did not die. As proof of it, children in all Welsh schools recited a pledge yesterday written by Gwyneth Lewis, Wales's national poet.

One of those present in Cardiff yesterday was William Dieneman, 75, a former university librarian, who travelled with his wife, Marisa, from Aberystwyth. Mr Dieneman was evacuated on a kindertransport from Berlin to Bristol in 1939 and his parents escaped soon after.

"I think memorial day is a good thing because it reminds me of my past, which I utterly blacked out. We were lucky to get to England," he said.

At a nearby table, Paul Oppenheimer, 77, from Solihull, was telling the story that he has so often to schoolchildren across the country of how his family escaped Germany in 1936, came to England and then moved to Holland. They lived round the corner from Anne Frank and her family and suffered the same fate when they were rounded up in 1943 and sent ultimately to Belsen. There, his parents died of typhus, while his eight-year-old sister Eve - also present yesterday - was cared for by a Jewish family.

"I have given more than 700 talks and have written a book, called From Belsen to Buckingham Palace, when I got my MBE," he said. "I have got to get home tonight because I am speaking in Wolverhampton tomorrow. It is very therapeutic for me. I forget about my other problems when I am doing it."

The Holocaust memorial day ceremonials have been held since 2001, with events all over the country, but this was the first time the focus of commemoration had moved outside London.

Last night's event was held on the eve of today's Holocaust memorial day, to avoid clashing with the Jewish sabbath. It was directed by the founder of the English Shakespeare Company, Michael Bogdanov, and featured Welsh singers, actors and musicians. A memorial flame was lit at the end by Samuel Pfister, aged seven, great grandson of a Belgian rescuer of Jewish refugees.

Mr Blair told the audience: "Nothing compares to the Holocaust, not in the intensity of its evil, nor in the ghastly scope of its inhuman ambition ... acts of selfless endeavour gave us the will to work for a better life in a better world. We rededicate ourselves to fighting racism and embrace tolerance of difference." Shortly after he concluded his remarks, a man in the upper circle of the Millennium Centre began to harangue him, apparently about the persecution of Armenians during the first world war, one of the few 20th century genocides not specifically remembered in the evening's proceedings. Mr Blair quickly left the stage and a Welsh Jewish choir drowned the man's words. He subsequently left the auditorium voluntarily.

Among the elderly Jewish families was a much younger genocide survivor, Beata Uwazaninka-Smith, 25, a Tutsi Christian from Rwanda, now living in Nottingham, whose life was saved by a Hutu Muslim neighbour during the massacres in her country in 1994. She said: "I will never forget that man, who took me in when I banged on his gate because the man who had murdered all my relatives was after me. He just let me in before he arrived and he told the man he could kill everyone in the house but he would still be punished for what he did.

"When I saw the photographs of the Gestapo, I remembered that man who came after me. He called me a rat, a cockroach, and said we all deserved to die. My life was saved that day by the man who did not know me but who sheltered me."

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