In my job I’m incredibly lucky to be able to meet and interview some truly inspirational people. Inspiration can be bandied about a little too frequently, however it’s a title that Arek Hersh, the author of this book, more than deserves.
I meet Arek at the Low Wood hotel in the Lake District five days before the 75thanniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, one of the many concentration camps he survived as a child. I’m there to interview him about what he endured during the holocaust and how he ended up in Windermere.
Arek was one of three hundred children who’d survived and were chosen to be sent to England to rehabilitate, it’s a relatively unknown story but one that’s been turned into a film ‘The Windermere Children’. After the horrors of what they endured at the hands of the Nazis arriving in Cumbria to start new lives, the children renamed Windermere, Wondermere. After meeting and spending time with Arek, I wanted to know more about what happened before he arrived in England and so looked for his book, ‘A detail of history’. It became book four of this blog and a story that will stay with me forever.
It is heart breaking, difficult and uncomfortable to read but it must be read if we are to ever learn from the past.
Arek starts by giving us an insight into his life before Germany invaded Poland. Like any little boy he’s mischievous, gets himself into scrapes, is playful and innocent. Reading the first chapter about a little Jewish boy growing up in Poland and being introduced to his family is unsettling, we know what is coming, we know he’s about to have his world ripped apart, we know he’s about to endure the very worst of humanity.
Before Arek’s even a teenager, he’s witnessed the most unimaginable horrors, he’s been beaten, separated from his family and sent to Otoschno. Against all odds Arek was sent home from Otoschno, the camp started with 2,500 men and boys, 18 months later there were just 11 survivors, Arek was one of them. Upon his return to Sieradz, people beg him for news of their loved ones, unable to tell them the truth, he simply says everybody is working. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like for a child to feel as though he needs to protect others from the horrors he’s seen and suffered.
Two weeks after arriving back in Sieradz and being reunited with his family, they are sent to a church to be ‘resettled’. The snap decision to go outside to try find some water for his family, saves Arek’s life. Sadly, that’s the last time he ever saw of his mum, brother and sister; from here he’s alone in a terrifying world, where death is part of daily life.
“Why was I chosen for this? I did not see myself as chosen to survive, but simply to exist on my own with no one in the world to care about me”, writes Arek, let that sink. Imagine being a child and having no one to care for you, no one to protect you. It is one of many quotes in this book that haunted me.
Arek was taken to the Lodz ghetto, he lived in an orphanage, there were 185 children in the orphanage all who’d suffered loss and brutality like Arek. When the ghetto was liquidated in 1944, they were taken to Auschwitz. Arek knew that being sent into the left-hand queue would mean certain death, he managed to take advantage of disturbance and switched to the right-hand side and was sent to work. Again, it’s hard to imagine being a child, knowing your life depends on the whim of someone deciding whether or not you are fit to work.
This book deals with different types of loss, the loss of freedom, loved ones, hopes and dreams for the future; “My parents had such high hopes for me, they had planned a higher education and hoped I would one day go to university. Now all these hopes were just an illusion. My only concern now was to survive”.
In the face of this there is a resilience in Arek, where many would have given up (I include myself in this) he carries on, determined to survive. He comes close to being liberated throughout 1945 as the Russian armies advance in a cruel twist of fate, he’s one of those chosen to be moved and is taken on the death marches across Europe before eventually being freed in Thereienstadt.
The desperation in Arek towards the end of the war is painful to read, his hope often crushed by fate and the constant fear of death; “All at once the hopelessness of the situation overwhelmed me, ‘I thought I am only 15 years old, I want to be free to go to school and play with other children, I don’t want to die yet’”, it reminds you that this is a child we’re reading about, desperate for freedom and to be able once again enjoy the simple of things of childhood.
What struck me most about Arek’s story is his decision to turn his back on hate. Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment; how many of us having lost everything, witnessed mass murder, suffered endless beatings and years of torture would be able to do the same? I’m not sure could, I think I’d quite easily be consumed by hatred, but I know that by turning to hate we learn nothing and that’s what I came away from this book with.
I’m not naïve, mankind has a long way to go; when the horrors of the holocaust came to light world leaders lined up to say, “never again”. Genocide has happened again look at Cambodia, Rwanda and Kosovo, we don’t even need to trawl that far back in history to see examples of the very worst in humanity, in fact we only need to go back four years and learn about the treatment and murder of the Rohingya People in Myanmar. We still haven’t learnt to accept other people’s differences. I hope that one day we will and it will be because of people like Arek.
Arek’s is one of millions of horrific stories from the holocaust, having it documented is precious, soon there won’t be any survivors left to speak out. It is down to us to ensure what happened is never forgotten and that these stories of brutality, loss and survival are shared so that it can’t happen again, it is why Arek speaks out and shares his story, one of the reasons he wrote this book and the reason you should read it. Thank you Arek.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm