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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

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia