Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) on 27 January is the day we remember the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, the millions of people killed under Nazi persecution, and in other genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s theme this year is ‘Torn from home’, to encourage us to think about how the enforced loss of a safe place to call ‘home’ is part of the trauma faced by anyone experiencing persecution and genocide. This is always a poignant time for my family, as my Jewish grandmother, Mara, was a Holocaust survivor, and this year’s theme resonates strongly with us.
Mara lived in Zagreb, Croatia (then Yugoslavia) with her father, Ernst, and her mother, Hedda. Mara was very bright and, rather unusually for girls at that time, had lessons in all academic subjects, which Ernst insisted on. In 1941, anticipating that the Germans would invade Zagreb, Ernst told Hedda and Mara to go to Split, which was under the control of Italy’s less ruthless regime, but if nothing happened to return. The Germans did invade Zagreb and Ernst fought with the Yugoslav army, but they were quickly defeated. He made his way to Split, taking only what he could carry. Ernst tried to get other family members to do the same but they refused to leave, not believing the danger could actually be real. In Split, they did what they could to survive by selling their jewellery and making biscuits to sell to cafes. Ernst had sewn money into his clothes too, but that didn’t last long.
When Mara was 18, the Partisans, who Ernst supported, told him that the Germans were on their way to Split, so they escaped on a boat to Italy. This was a perilous crossing, with German planes bombing overhead. Machine guns fired at them and Ernst threw himself over Hedda and Mara to protect them. When they finally reached Bari, Italy, the Italians refused to allow them ashore, but luckily later that day the British troops arrived.
Mara worked as a translator for the British Army – her lessons had paid off as she could fluently speak seven languages. Mara met and started dating Bill, a British soldier. He was posted to the front near Rome, but they wrote to each other, and in February 1945 they married, a few months before the end of the war. Ernst and Hedda helped with the UN relief aid in Rome and then left Europe along with many other survivors for New York, though they had lost everything. Along with most Jewish people, their stolen homes and belongings were never returned to them. Mara and Bill had a long and happy marriage, and three daughters. They later settled in England, where Mara taught languages at a high school.
Like many Holocaust survivors, understandably my grandmother didn’t talk much about it. When she did want to talk, my mother pieced the information together over the years, to find out what had happened to other family members, including those who stayed behind. Hedda’s parents were captured and taken to a concentration camp, we believe it was Auschwitz. Hedda’s brother died in another concentration camp, just a few weeks before the end of the war. Some relatives escaped, but we still don’t know the fate of others.
Whether it was in spite of, or because of, surviving the Holocaust, Mara was one of the most positive, loving, enthusiastic people you could ever meet and was always so full of life. She was such an inspirational person to me that I named my daughter, Amy Mara, after her great-grandmother.
It’s important we don’t forget the experiences of Holocaust and genocide survivors. Their stories give us a unique insight into the lives of those who have endured persecution.