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27 January 2022

What I learned from my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor

His resilience and activism showed me that to live in fulfilment is to question authority and do the right thing.

By Zoë Grünewald

Often, we treat the living survivors of the Holocaust as memorials: we pay our respects, we ask them to speak to us. When they die, so too do their memories and then only recorded history remains. It might seem that events cease to exist except in physical monuments, museums and books, but they do persist in other ways. Trauma is inherited and values are shaped; forced migration, violence and persecution live on in families for generations. 

My grandfather grew up in south-east Germany. In 1939, aged 13, he was placed on the Kindertransport and found himself in London, where he was befriended by a Jewish charity. He never saw his parents again. Records indicate that they were taken to Auschwitz, but as with millions of victims of the Holocaust we can only guess at the horror of how they died.

The world that my grandfather grew up in is almost beyond my understanding. He spent his formative years as an orphan in a foreign country that was hostile to his existence and suspicious of his motives. Yet he survived losing his home and family, made new friends – some kinder than others – and tamed his anxiety and depression. Unable to return to Germany, he learned English, finished his education, found a job, married and created a new life for himself. Rather than surrendering to misfortune he trained as an engineer, met my gentile grandmother and raised a gentile family.

His early experiences guided his understanding of his place in the world and encouraged his political activism. He was a member of Jewish Labour and a vehement campaigner to protect the NHS. As a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, he was arrested for a sitting down protest in Parliament Square. He wrote fierce letters to MPs in defence of the rights of Palestinians. He wrote memoirs for his family and still, at the age of 95, will not let you leave his house without a stomach full of food and a head filled with choice words about this government.

Growing up in South Yorkshire, some sixty years after my grandfather’s lonely arrival to the UK, my surname stood out like a sore thumb. The bitter resentment of everything German, a prominent feature for the post-war generation, had dissipated by then so my German name was not an embarrassment for me. But no one, not even my German teacher, could pronounce it. It was significant – a reminder of where I came from and how lucky my family and I were to be here.

Other families of Holocaust survivors may have different inheritances. I can only write of mine. I am immensely grateful for the magnificent sacrifice that my great-grandparents made in ensuring my grandfather had a safe passage to the UK. My grandfather’s resilience, strong principles and activism showed me that to live in fulfilment is to live with purpose, question authority and do the right thing. 

When I was at school the immigration debate was loud and irate. In my town the British National Party received 9 per cent of the vote during the 2010 election. I couldn’t understand why people believed that the privilege of being born in a place of safety gave them authority over its borders, or why they thought that race or religion had any bearing on an individual’s value. Knowing and loving my grandfather as I do, it was almost unthinkable that anyone could see immigration as anything other than wonderful.

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Though we often talked politics at the kitchen table, I did not need it explained to me how or why we should open our doors to refugees. What my grandfather did help me to understand, in his great wisdom and empathy, was why extremism grows – how dangerous individuals may harness poisonous narratives to justify their own prejudices and make sense of the confusing world around them. He wrote in his memoirs: “People of different religions and ethnic backgrounds may live peaceably side by side for centuries. Then in times of stress, they turn on each other with deadly hatred like dormant volcanoes springing back to life.”

After studying politics at university my first job was in parliament, assisting MPs in holding the government to account. After three years I could no longer stand the deference to impartiality of being a public servant, so I moved into journalism. I am my grandfather’s granddaughter, after all.

My grandfather is a survivor: wise, loved and strong. From his experience came a desire to take a stand – to write, campaign and protest. My identity and values were shaped by the atrocity of Nazism, just as it shaped him. His experiences made him an advocate for others, a strength which could have so easily been smothered by misery and hopelessness. The life I have is a gift from my ancestors, and in their memory, in my gratitude, it is incumbent on me to live with these values. Who am I if not a part of the legacy? My identity is my grandfather’s life.

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