‘Silenced voices’ live on in Holocaust survivors
Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day. Yet every year, fewer and fewer people survive who remember the atrocities of World War Two. Here, we recount the story of one of them.
‘I swore on my brother’s grave that if I lived, I would be his silenced voice.’ When she first made this promise, Alicia Appleman-Jurman was just eleven years old. Yet on that day, as she watched her beloved brother Zachary swinging by his neck in front of her local police station, he was already the fourth member of her close family to be brutally killed.
Alicia was born in 1930 in the Polish town of Buczacz. Her family, like a third of those in the region, were Jewish; but her childhood was happy and untarnished by antisemitism.
In 1939 Poland was invaded and partitioned between Germany and the USSR. Buczacz was occupied by Soviet troops, and the peaceful life of the Jurman family gave way to hardship. One of her brothers was imprisoned, and died within days.
In 1941, Germany broke its pact with the USSR and invaded Eastern Poland. Alicia remembers her lack of fear as the first ragged group of troops in Nazi uniforms marched through her town.
Three weeks later these same soldiers rounded up the 500 heads of Buczacs’s Jewish households for ‘registration’. Among the men was Alicia’s father. Alicia wandered the forest in search of him, until her older brother found her asleep. ‘Father is not coming home, he told me,’ remembers Alicia. ‘At that moment my childhood ended.’
Worse was to come. One brother was killed as part of a group punishment, while another was hanged as a resistance fighter. Alicia herself was herded onto a train; if a stranger had not flung her tiny body from the window, it would have carried her to a Nazi death camp.
But in Buczacz, the slaughter intensified. One day the Germans brought Jews to an open grave and began to shoot; Alicia only escaped because the soldier assigned to kill her ran out of bullets. Her mother was not so lucky.
Alicia evaded the murder and fled to the countryside. Despite all the horrors she suffered, one of her most enduring memories is the kindness of the Ukrainians who sheltered her for a year in a dog house. In 1944, when Buczacz was liberated, she could count no more than seven Jews left alive. In 1939, there had been 18,000.
Alicia’s experiences were horrific beyond imagination. Yet instead of fleeing them, she has spent her life ‘bearing witness’ to the hellish terror of Nazi-led genocide. She has kept her promise to her brother; and in the process, she hopes, shown many young people examples of not only tragedy but also ‘courage, dignity, love and self-worth’.
Other Holocaust survivors, determined to leave these unspeakable wartime traumas behind them, have never told their stories – even to their most intimate friends. Though forgetting is of course impossible, some felt that the only way to recover and forge a new life after surviving such horror was to purge as much as they could from their thoughts.
- Is it always helpful to talk about difficult experiences? Or is the best answer sometimes to try to forget?
- Is remembrance about trying to learn from the past, or simply about paying respect to those who have suffered?
- Research the story of another Holocaust survivor and present a brief account of their experiences to the class.
- Write a poem or song on the subject of ‘memory’.
Some People Say...
“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.’Anne Frank”
What do you think?
Q & A
- The Holocaust seems like long ago history now. Can anybody really ‘remember’?
- Alicia Appleman-Jurman does: now aged 82, she lives with her husband in California and still occasionally gives talks relating her experiences. But she is one of a dwindling number: of the 3.5 million European Jews who escaped death in the Holocaust, under 500,000 are thought to be living today. In the UK there are just 5,000.
- What will become of Holocaust Remembrance Day when they are gone?
- Holocaust Memorial Day was invented to ensure that the Nazi crimes against humanity are ‘never forgotten’: in other words, that memories of the Holocaust will not die along with the surviving victims. Many would say that as the Holocaust recedes into history, remembrance becomes not less important but more so.
- Anti-Jewish racism was extremely widespread in Europe in the 20th Century, as it had been for centuries before: during the war, George Orwell wrote an essay exposing antisemitism at every level of society. Without this latent prejudice against Jewish people, the Holocaust could never have killed as many Jews as it did.
- Group punishment
- In the ghettoes where Jewish people were forced to live, Nazi enforcers would deter disobedience by punishing random members of the community for a crime. This arbitrary and brutal method of social control has a long history: the Ancient Romans practiced similar tactics against anybody who rebelled.
- Resistance fighter
- The Nazis generally prevented their Jewish captives from rebelling by enslaving them in horrible, weakening conditions, but pockets of resistance did sometimes spring up. The most famous was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in which malnourished and poorly-equipped Jews held out against their oppressors for four weeks.
- In the loosest sense of the word, since Poland then became a satellite of Soviet Russia. Some of the worst wartime atrocities against Poles (including Jews) were committed by Stalin’s troops rather than Hitler’s. Alicia Appleman-Jurman fled Poland at the end of the war and ultimately married an American man.