Vera’s Story

In my post about International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2012 I referred to the opening in Parliament of the children’s poster exhibition inspired by the theme ‘Keeping the Memory Alive’.  The posters can be seen at Yad Vashem International School for Holocaust Studies. Closing the exhibition on Friday 16 March, my friend Vera Egermayer, who organised the exhibition, gave personal meaning to the art works, and to the day itself, in the context of her own story:

I was startled to realize that today is the 16th of March. On that very date 67 years ago – the 16 of March 1945 – I was transported to the concentration camp Terezin.  Then, I was one of the youngest victims of Nazi persecution; now, I am one of the last witnesses of the Holocaust. A new identity born from fragments of memory strung into narrative.

When I visited Yad Vashem and discovered these posters I felt an instant emotional connection and a resurgence of memory. Yes, they are works of art – beautifully designed-original-arresting. Yet their immediate appeal to me personally was more emotional than aesthetic. They brought my own experience back to me in images. An experience that I have been struggling to shape and put into words for many years  (both for myself and for others) had been translated into a visual dimension – and this by young artists of today who have managed to capture the essence of something that they did not live through themselves. That is the power of the artistic imagination. It is perhaps paradoxical that I will now have to resort to words, which are my way of telling, to talk about some of my memories which have been triggered by these posters.

In this poster we see a child-a little girl – probably my age at the time- standing at the end of a railway track. She is standing there alone. No one is holding her hand. She is carrying a large suitcase and wearing lace-up shoes.  Separated from both my parents, I was transported to Terezin on 16 March 1945 in transport AE9 – the last train carrying  Jews from Prague to Terezin. The last round-up. By that time Auschwitz had already been liberated – it was clear that the war would soon be over, yet the infernal machine could not be stopped, it had its own blind momentum, and Jewish children were still being sent towards death. I don’t recall what was in my suitcase or who packed it for me but when I look at this little girl’s shoes I remember how I had to struggle to do up my shoe laces.

The Nazis murdered one and a half million children. Of the fifteen thousand who went from Terezin to death camps, only one hundred survived.

In another of the posters we see a child being thrown in the air by her father – it is a game – the child is joyful, laughing expecting to be caught, but her father will not be able to catch her because his own legs have disappeared in smoke. I can now see why my mother and father were not able to do what parents are supposed to do – look after their children, keep them safe from fear. The ground had been cut from under their feet too. They were disempowered and living in fear and degradation. My father, who was not Jewish, suddenly disappeared one day. I kept asking where he was and no one could tell me. . He was sent to a forced labour camp for refusing to divorce my Jewish mother. Divorce would have spared him persecution but removed from us the relative protection a mixed marriage provided. His resistance to Nazi pressure delayed our transportation and saved our lives. When my mother was called up for a transport, she asked my non-Jewish relatives to take me in. I now understand why they said “no”.  The ground had been cut from under their feet too – they were simply terrified and who can blame them for not putting their own families in danger.

Trust in the adult world shattered in childhood is not easily restored, even in a lifetime. That, too, is the legacy of the Holocaust and those are the memories that this poster brings back to me.

I look at the poster with the hopscotch and the Jewish star and it makes me remember how I watched other children play and I was not allowed to join them because playgrounds were forbidden to Jewish children. I was too young to be branded with a star but my mother had to have one. Once, she managed to persuade a playground attendant to let me in to play and I can still see her standing on the other side of the wire fence, looking in, with her yellow star sown on her winter coat. Little by little, the Nazis passed wide-ranging discriminatory laws designed to make Jews outcasts- pariahs in countries where they believed they were citizens. I remember how our neighbours in Prague looked the other way when my mother passed by with me at her side.

The poster with the shirts neatly stacked up with the striped and numbered one on the bottom – the object kept – strikes a cord. I had no toys to take with me to Terezin but my mother made me one by folding a handkerchief into a mouse – with big ears and a long tail. I still have that pink mouse. It is my equivalent of the shirt at the bottom of the stack in the poster, a remnant which brings back memories of a lost childhood.

There will always be such a remnant. Nothing ever disappears completely – there will always be a fragment, a thread left somewhere. Even if all the letters in a text are deleted, the punctuation marks will remain, as one of the posters displayed here today reminds us. Even if a life is extinguished, someone may want to pick up a person’s story or his photo and keep his memory alive.

Acts of kindness during hard times are never forgotten either. A Dutch couple who emigrated to New Zealand often spoke to their family about a little Jewish girl they had sheltered during the war. Sixty-five years later they found her living in Brazil. We have just learned that Yad Vashem, which provided these posters, has posthumously awarded the rescuers the title of Righteous and the ceremony will soon be conducted in Wellington by Ambassador Shemi Tzur who we have here with us today.

The past is not the past. The past does not go away. Our personal memories are etched inside us and when released, they add to the collective memory of things we must never forget as human beings. I believe that this exhibition has succeeded in its mission of Keeping the Memory alive.

In conclusion let me thank Michelle Janse and her assistant Casimar Larkin for hanging these works so effectively in this space and for attaching the accompanying texts to help our understanding. Finally sincere thanks once again to Chris Finlayson for hosting this exhibition in Parliament and for his ongoing support.