A HOLOCAUST survivor has spoken out at a poignant service to remind people to do better, to respect differences and to never again accept discrimination and hate.
Dozens of members of the local community gathered at St Michael’s Catholic Academy, Billingham, at a special Holocaust Memorial service organised by the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle Department for Interreligious Relations.
The event, held to mark the atrocities of the Holocaust and other genocides worldwide, included a poignant address by survivor Joanna Millan.
“We need to get away from the idea that people who knew what was going on were mere bystanders,” she said.
“People made a conscious decision not to get involved but it is possible to stand up and be counted, so something like this never happens again – it is really, really important.
“Crime and discrimination are getting worse; people don’t tolerate difference; but we should respect differences. It’s good to be different, we need to think about it and we need to do better.”
Joanna, was born Bela Rosenthal, into a Jewish family in Berlin in August 1942. In 1943 her father was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and killed, just months later she and her mother were sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto in Prague.
“I was separated from my mother and was sent to live with other children,” said Joanna.
“My mother contracted TB and died leaving me orphaned and alone. Some of the women in the kitchens would take pity on the orphans and bring us food but no one really looked after us, all we had was each other.”
In 1945 The Red Cross took over control of the camp and Bela was liberated by the Russians. She was flown to England with five other orphans and was eventually adopted by a Jewish couple living in London. Her name was changed to Joanna and she was brought up with a new identity and urged not to talk about the past.
“It has taken me most of my adult life to piece together my early years,” she said. “If it’s one thing I am grateful to the Germans for it was their meticulous record keeping and through the internet I have managed to trace surviving relatives on both my mothers and fathers side of the family.
“History gets distorted, but history is important, we must continue to talk about what happened and we must never forget.”
The memorial service opened with a welcome from St Michael’s head of school Andrew Ramsey and a reading of the poem ‘First They Came’, from head boy and girl Gareth Drysdale, and Elin Gittus.
Mrs Deanna Van Der Velde, from The Anne Frank Trust read the poem ‘Leaving’ by Jane Spiro with Mrs Kim Johnson on the harp.
Former St Michael’s pupil Niamh Casey-Burnett gave a vocal performance of Oyfen Pripetshik, sung in Yiddish, before candles were lit to symbolize the millions murdered in the Holocaust and other genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and Darfur along with those affected by the on-going conflict in Syria.
Candles and painted pebbles, with the name of Holocaust victims, were then laid at a specially commissioned corten metal sculpture of The Star of David, in the school’s memorial garden, created by North Yorkshire artist Eddie Roberts. The surrounding wall and base for the sculpture was funded by the generosity of two year 11 parents.
Assistant principal Marc Scott said: “The sculpture, which was kindly donated to our school, will be a lasting legacy and reminder of the Holocaust for the whole community. It was truly an honour to be chosen to host this year’s memorial.”