‘Carry our stories forward’: Holocaust survivors share powerful testimonies at UN

UN Photo/Manuel Elias A candle lighting ceremony takes place at the United Nations Holocaust Memorial Ceremony

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


When the Nazis invaded Poland, overnight, nine-year-old Theodor Meron became “a refugee, out of school, out of childhood and constantly in clear and present danger”, the man who would later become a Judge for International Criminal Tribunals told the United Nations Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony on Monday.

While Judge Meron noted that the events of the Holocaust may seem far away for many, separated by “decades of progress”, he stressed that “for those of us who lived through them, as I did as a boy in occupied Poland, they are all too real”.

“What followed was the ghettos, work camps and most of my family falling victim to the Holocaust,” he said.

The keynote speaker at the UN’s ceremony in New York, pointed out that while one-third of the Jewish people were murdered in the Holocaust, “it is often forgotten how millions of Russians and Poles also fell victim to the Nazi killing machine”.

Today, he said, we remember those whom we lost so many years ago, but we also “honour those who took invaluable steps to prevent even greater losses.”

Even while describing “those apocalyptic times”, Judge Meron spoke eloquently of the many who risked their lives to protect Jews, and he paid tribute to “those who were saved, and those who took courageous action to save their neighbours from certain death”.

“That we pause to reflect upon the Holocaust and remember those lost is vitally important,” he said. “That we learn from all that has taken place is imperative, and it is all the more vital that we take every opportunity…to learn from the general that survived, from those who lived through the chaos and calamities of those years”.

Too many were lost, “and soon we too will be gone”, he continued, “leaving those of you gathered here to carry our stories forward in the future, [especially] that most essential lesson: Never again”.

Hitler did not win

“I stand today in front of you to tell you, Hitler did not win”, Holocaust survivor Irene Shashar told those assembled. “I remember.”

Ms. Shashar was born in Poland in 1937 and was not quite two-years old when the Nazis invaded. By the time she turned two, she would be starving in the Warsaw Ghetto.

As she and her family were forcibly moved into the ghetto, Ms. Shashar noted that “the seeds of genocide had been planted” and “survival was the only thing that mattered”.

While she’d hoped “someone would say it was all a big mistake”, of course, that was not the case. “The move to the ghetto was only the beginning of our suffering.”

Ms. Shashar recalled one afternoon as she and her mother were out searching for food in the streets, they’d heard “bloodcurdling screams”.

“Mother yanked my little arm and took off in the direction of our cramped living quarters we knew of as ‘home’”, she said.

They’d dashed up the stairway, to their open door where, “lying in the kitchen was my father… limp, bleeding from a gash on the side of his throat”.

“My mother threw herself on top of him. She let out a wail that could have be heard on the other side of the planet”, she continued, “that was the last time I ever saw my father”.

One day as they hunted for scraps of food, she was “tossed down a sewer”.

“It was wet, dirty…we were crossing the sewer for the whole ghetto area,” she recalled.  “All these years later, I can still smell the stench of that seemingly endless passage [as] rats skittered past me”.

This was how they escaped to the so-called Aryan side of Warsaw.

A hidden child

For the remainder of the war, Ms. Shashar remained hidden.

Her mother would say, “If you don’t cry and are a good girl, this will be over soon”, she remembered.

Both survived the Holocaust, but her mother died in 1948, leaving her a 10-year-old orphan in the care of a family in Peru. There she was able to start a new life.

Ms. Shashar credited her mother’s “overwhelming sacrifice, a priceless, selfless act of courage”, that gave her the chance to survive and to thrive in adulthood.

“Thanks to her, I was blessed with the opportunity to have children and grandchildren,” she said. “Because I sowed my family tree, Hitler did not win. I did the very thing he tried so hard to prevent”.

“I was victorious over Hitler”, Ms. Shashar concluded with a plea that the UN, which rose from the ashes of WWII, raise its voice, “because silence is indifference”.

Living in ‘constant fear’

Shraga Milstein was only six years old when the war broke out.

“The switch from a free and comfortable life to being closed up in a room at the age of six with the constant fear of what the next hour will bring” was Mr. Milstein earliest memory of the Holocaust.

He recalled that in the ghetto his parents tried to prevent him from seeing blood or dead bodies in the street, “which were a common sight”.

Mr. Milstein told how one day everyone was assembled in an open square to walk past a ranking SS Officer, who divided them into two groups.

One group was told to walk under guard to the railway station and the other to return home.

“I still do not understand why and how my father, mother, brother and I were not separated and ordered to return home”, he stated, adding that other family members “were not so lucky”.

Those that remained in the ghetto were sent to labour camps. At age 11, he worked eight to ten hours a day as an apprentice wood cutter.

And in 1944, was shipped by cattle car with his father and brother to Buchenwald while his mother was sent to Ravensbrück, “it was the last time I saw her”, Mr. Milstein lamented.

Upon their arrival, Mr. Milstein’s father hugged them to say goodbye and reminded the boys that they had family in Palestine. His father was killed the next day at the age of 43.

Several weeks later, Mr. Milstein was transferred with others to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where “there were no executions, but people died there from severe hunger” and cold, he explained.

From 1943 until liberation, some 140,000 men, women and children were imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen where about 50,000 died after “prolonged suffering,” he said.

‘Site of hell’

He painted a disturbing picture of the state of the camp when the soldiers arrived to liberate the prisoners, calling it a “site of hell [with] piles of corpses” scattered everywhere and in the barracks, “living people were lying next to dead corpses” without hygiene or water.

The camp was liberated by British soldiers on 15 April 1945 and took them from the squalor of the concentration camp” to proper housing with a clean bed in a military facility.

That day “my world changed from complete neglect and apathy to human compassion and a true effort to help the scared, hungry and sick”, he said.

“The Bergen-Belsen camp was burned and in it, are today mass graves,” a memorial site and museum that keeps “the memory of the atrocities alive” and presents visitors “a world of human understanding, tolerance, freedom and democracy based on the equality of every human being”.

“It is our duty to condemn and prevent any intolerance against people based on ethnic origin or religion”, he concluded.

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