On Thursday 20th February, Auschwitz survivor, Arek Hersh, delivered a talk at Newcastle University.
Taking place in the Hershel building, the event was originally planned to be held in Lecture Theatre 3, but after an unprecedented amount of interest was expressed, it was moved to the Curtis Auditorium, with the 400 seat lecture theatre reaching nearly full capacity. Both Newcastle University’s Jewish Society and the History Society were involved in the organisation of the event.
91 year old Arek, who in 2009 was awarded an MBE for voluntary service to Holocaust education, was also joined by his wife, Jean. The latter expressed her surprise at the size of the audience, explaining how they had been told only to expect around 25 students.
Born in Poland, Arek was 10 years old when the Germans attacked in 1939. After his father was taken in 1941, Arek too was sent to his first camp called Otoschono, near Poznan. Jean commented: “On that day, when Arek went into his first camp, he was ten and a half, and that day, he lost his childhood, he was no more going to be that little boy because he had to learn extremely quickly how to survive in this camp.”
Arek described being sent back home in 1941, however their ghetto was soon liquidated. Arek was then sent to another ghetto, called Łódź, where he spent two years in an orphanage; however this was liquidated as well.
In 1944, aged 14, Arek was sent to Auschwitz, along with the remaining residents of Łódź. Arek recounted how, upon arrival, he realised that they were split into two lines- one made up of the young, the elderly and the disabled, whilst the other included fitter and healthier people- with Arek belonging to the former line. Taking advantage of a disturbance, he was able to move to the other line; a move which saved his life. In Auschwitz, Arek pretended he was a 17 year old locksmith, something which later Arek declared his astonishment at, saying, “they would have killed me if they had asked me to change a lock!”.
Arek was also tattooed with the number B7608, which from that day onward replaced his name; he still has this tattoo today. Later, when an audience member asked if he had ever considered removing the tattoo, Arek replied in the negative, saying “I have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Nearing the end of the war, the Germans decided to clear Auschwitz camp. Arek recounted his forced undertaking of a 3-day death march, the prisoners wearing only their thin uniforms in minus 25-degree weather.
Arek was eventually liberated in Czechoslovakia in May 1945. And later, he was included in a group of 300 Holocaust-surviving children sent to Windemere, in the Lake District, as part of a rehabilitation plan. Airing in January 2020, a BBC film was made about their experiences at Windemere, called The Windermere Children, with both Arek and his wife urging the audience to watch it.
In the end, Arek lost 80 members of his family in the Holocaust, and only had one surviving elder sister. The siblings were reunited years later with the help of the Red Cross
Arek published a book, recounting his life story, called A Detail of History in 1998, with Jean describing the book as “saving” her husband. When asked to explain the reason behind the book’s title, Arek said it was a reference to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s dismissal of the Holocaust as merely “a detail of history.” Proceeds of the book go towards the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, which was founded in 1995 by brothers James and Stephen Smith. During their talk, the couple had acknowledged the Smith brothers and celebrated them for all they have done for the Jewish community, and to Holocaust education.
Following Arek and Jean’s speech, an hour of questions ensued, with multiple members of the audience keen to get involved; topics ranged from religion, to politics to personal stories about the couple’s lives.
Jake Hadden, the president of Newcastle University’s Jewish society, ended the event, saying “We cannot comprehend what happened in those days, but the main thing is the message that you can take away from this story.”
Eleanor Killner, Newcastle University’s Activities Officer commented: “Last Thursday evening with Arek Hersh was very moving and to still be able to hear his experience told in person was very special. The room was packed out with at least 300 people and everyone was fully engaged, which I think just shows how important the Holocaust still is in today’s society.”
Last modified: 27th February 2020