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“Every day is Holocaust Day to me”: concentration camp survivor Ed Mosberg on reliving trauma

After giving testimony in the film Destination Unknown 72 years after liberation, one of the last Holocaust survivors discusses why he never really left.

A 92-year-old man is sitting at a café terrace on London’s Southbank, munching resolutely on sugar lumps. Bright morning sunshine bounces off the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, whose bells you can hear across the river where he sits.

As he sips black coffee, his checked blazer sleeve rides up to reveal a bracelet bearing the number 85454. It is the original prison number plate, about the size of a razor blade, he was forced to wear on a wire around his wrist by the Nazis at Mauthausen concentration camp.

“That was my name,” he says, when he catches me looking. He had it fixed to a gold chain, so that whenever someone asks him what it is, he can tell his story.

His real name is Ed Mosberg, and he is one of the handful of Holocaust survivors still fit and willing to recount what they experienced. Nimble for his age – he bounces up to help me with my jacket – and smartly turned out, his white hair is swept back, and he wears a shirt and diamond-patterned tie. He even does 100 press-ups and ten minutes on a treadmill every morning.

“Touch my muscles!” he cries, in a thick Polish accent, clenching his right bicep. His pale blue eyes flash with mischief – but they soon fill with rage. He is in London for the opening of a docu-film called Destination Unknown, in which 12 Holocaust survivors tell their stories. He is one of them.


Ed Mosberg carrying the Torah at the 2017 March of the Living. Photo: Destination Unknown

Fourteen years in the making, the film recounts how the Jews suffered in the Second World War, and the ensuing trauma, through the voices of those who were there, with no other narration.

Their stories are difficult to hear. The sadistic commandant Amon Goeth ordering his dog to attack and tear a prisoner apart, children and mothers with babies in their arms in line for the gas chamber, the inmate taken in for an “operation” to crack open his skull – without anaesthesia.

It is 72 years since Mosberg was liberated but, as his wife says in the film, it’s like he “never left”.

“I always talk about it, you understand?” he says, leaning across the table towards me, the Star of David and Polish flag brooches glinting on his lapel. “When I talk about it, I go through pain. But I have to do it. Because if I stop, no one talks.”

And there is so much to tell. As a 13-year-old boy in Krakow, Mosberg was excited that he didn’t have to go to school when the Nazis began moving him and his extended family into one cramped apartment in the ghetto. “I was still happy when I could see my grandparents and everybody together,” he smiles. “And then they slowly start eliminating – taking away my grandparents, my aunt, my uncle, everybody.”


Ed Mosberg at Birkenau. Photo: Destination Unknown

Mosberg lost all 16 members of his family. His mother was killed in a gas chamber in Auschwitz, his two sisters machine-gunned into the Baltic Sea on the day of liberation. Uncertain of their fate, he was moved from camp to camp – Plaszow in Poland to Mauthausen then Linz in Austria – keeping hold of their photographs.

Arriving at Mauthausen when he had to undress, he somehow got hold of a paper bag – “I don’t know anybody else who did!” – and kept his photos in it, cutting the larger ones into small squares so that they would fit in his uniform pocket. “I had them all the time; I never was without them,” he says.

Glued back together, his family now smile down on him 72 years later from his bedroom wall in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and fellow Holocaust survivor Cesia. Marrying in Belgium at the age of 21 shortly after the end of the war, they moved in 1951 to the US, where he works as a property developer.

He has three daughters, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and proudly shows me pictures of them – all smiles at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.

Mosberg has taken his children and grandchildren to the camps, which he has returned to “many, many times”. It was 50 years ago when he first went back, to Mauthausen, and carried one of his children up its “Stairs of Death”– 186 stone steps up which inmates had to carry large boulders on their shoulders.

If an exhausted prisoner fell or dropped his boulder, those behind him would fall or be crushed in a domino effect. The Nazis would then make them push each other off the top of the stairs to their death. “It was like a game for them,” Mosberg recalls, grimly.


Ed Mosberg wearing his original prison uniform. Photo: Destination Unknown

Unlike him, Mosberg’s wife is unable to talk about what she suffered. She was in multiple concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and on several death marches. “But she don’t talk,” Mosberg says. She does dream, though. “Many times in the night, she wakes up, and she asks ‘drown me’, the way her sister together with my sisters were shot and thrown into the Baltic Sea. And she calls for her mother in the middle of the night.”

Mosberg himself has nightmares, but not as often. “I can hear the cries of the people who were murdered there, and my family: ‘Don't forget us,’” he says. “How can we forget and forgive the murder? Because to forgive would mean to kill them a second time.

“May they never be forgotten, the horror, and the barbarians, what they did. The United Nations made 27 January Holocaust Day. As far as I am concerned, no. To me, Holocaust Day is on Monday,” he begins banging the table steadily with his fist. “And on Tuesday, and on Wednesday and on Thursday, and every day is a Holocaust Day to me.”

Destination Unknown is in cinemas from 16 June. Find out more at destinationunknownmovie.com.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist