Following on from blog on Arek Hersh’s book over the weekend, I’ve taken the opportunity to write up extracts from our interview. Here it it is, I hope you like it.
It’s Thursday the 23rdof January, I’ve made the journey from Manchester to Windermere, through thick fog, it’s what we in the North call a ‘pea souper’ kind of day.
I’ve spent the past few days researching Arek Hersh and The Windermere children ahead of our meeting at the Low Wood Hotel. We’ve been given space in an empty restaurant in the hotel, it sits in the hillside looking out over Windermere.
Even on a grey, dull, January afternoon, the view is stunning, atmospheric and peaceful. I wonder what view Arek was met with when he arrived here almost 75 years ago.
Actually, what is mainly going through mind, ‘what did this man have to witness as a child?’
I don’t have much time with Arek, I could sit here in the Lake District all afternoon and listen to his story:
“I was 11 years old when I went to my first camp, I went in 1941 to my first camp, I was there for about 18 months and out of 2,500 men only 11 were alive when I was finished”, this is how Arek begins his story.
“I was sent home in 1942 by the camp commander, it was very rare that anything like that ever happens. He was a brutal man and yet he had pity for me, I used to clean his officer and his house, and he somehow used to leave me pieces of bread.
“The other people were building a railway line for the attack on Russia and after the attack, after they’d finished the line, only 11 people were left alive. Me and another boy he sent home to our town; it had never been heard of in 1942. I was at home for two weeks and then they liquidated our town of all the Jews. They took us to a church and they sent 150 people to Lodz, a big textile place with a ghetto there and all the other people went to Chelmno. They gassed them and buried all the bodies, that’s where most of my family is buried.
I was liberated by the Rusaain army in 1945 in Theresienstadt and I came with the children to here, Windermere”.
Imagine being 11. Imagine having lost your family. Imagine suffering years of torture and starvation. Imagine being freed. You’re then put on plane to England, you don’t really trust that you’re safe. I ask Arek what it was like arriving in Windermere:
“We’ve seen mountains, we’ve seen lakes, we noticed our buildings, we each had a room and so on, it reminded me a bit of home before the war. It was very good, we thought it was a different enlightenment to us actually. We all were happy with it but we had no families, we had no parents, we’d lost everybody, it was very difficult for a years”.
At the Calgarth estate (pictured above from the Lake District Holocaust Project) Arek and the other children had to learn to settle in. The idea behind the programme was to help the survivors of the Holocaust rehabilitate. They were given English lessons and slowly taught how to live again. After four months Arek went to Liverpool with some of the other boys for eight months, he then spent time Manchester and eventually started a job as an electrician, before becoming a landlord in Leeds.
You said you were happy when you got here but still it must have been incredibly difficult to start again?
“Yes, I had nightmares, I couldn’t sleep, it was difficult for quite a few years but here we felt a little bit better, easier, we got food, we even had sixpence to go to the pictures here and it was wonderful, we sang, we had talks and all sorts of different things. It was a different life, to a certain extent it was a normal life, to a certain extent”.
Did you know what had happened to your family at that point?
“My family were all murdered. I only had one sister, she escaped to Russia, she did survive. I met her in 1947, she went to America and she died about 15 years ago but that was all my family I had. I lost 81 member of my family, cousins, uncles, everybody, they were called during the war.
“We met in Germany, she was waiting to go to America, it was wonderful. She said to me I should go with her and I was considering it and then the war broke out in Korea, if I went to America, they would have taken me to the army and sent me to Korea, so I decided not to go, I’d seen enough war”.
Arek now spends time visiting schools and universities. He gives talks to American forces and British soldiers sharing what he endured during the holocaust, all the proceeds from his book go to the Holocaust museum.
You’ve seen the very worst in humanity, how do you deal with that and keep sharing that story?
“’It took me a very long time; it took me about 30 years to get my life back to a certain extent. I had a lot of nightmares, that was terrible for about 30 years. Since I wrote my book, I stopped having bad dreams and I’ve got a normal life, as normal as I could have now.
“It’s very important to talk about it because many millions of people died for nothing only because they were a different religion. That’s why they died basically because they were Jewish or Gypsy’s or whatever the Germans didn’t like, they killed you. They gassed the people, burned the people and buried them and I remember coming to Auschwitz and seeing hundreds and hundreds of people coming in every day and most of them were sent straight to the gas chambers and crematoriums and they had no feeling at all, millions of people were killed that way, shot or gassed, they went through terrible things”.
Do you think humanity has learned lessons from Holocaust?
“Have we learned? No. There are still wars that goes on different countries, there’s still fighting that goes on, human beings still haven’t learnt really to settle down and be happy. Why fight and have wars. Thank goodness here in Britain we’re alright, we don’t have any wars or anything like that but in other countries there’s all sorts of things going, we don’t respect other people’s difference”.
Did being welcomed in Windermere help restore your faith in humanity?
“I always believed in my faith. Coming here it was a wonderful thing for us children because we lost everybody and here at least we started to live like human beings again.
“We did alright, the children all had professions, everything went alright ever since. I’m quite happy now, I’ve had a good life, I’m 91 years old. I did okay, I got married, had three children, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren. I hope I have a few more years to carry on”.
To find out more about Arek and the Lake District Holocaust project visit http://ldhp.org.uk
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm