Tuesday, 6 March, 2012
For International Women’s Day 2012 we are looking at the life and achievements of our inspiring trustee Agnes Grunwald-Spier.
Born into a time of chaos and uncertainty, Agnes Grunwald-Spier has found that unexpected experiences have gone on to influence her life positively and allowed her to make a difference to the lives of those around her.
In 2010 Agnes published The Other Schindlers, a book which explores the motivation of those individuals who rescued, hid, saved or assisted Jews facing Nazi persecution. In considering the moral choices made by these rescuers, we are given pause to consider the choices we make today. The book contains 30 stories of rescue by individuals, such as Christine Denner, an Austrian who helped her Jewish friend Edith Hahn-Beer by providing Edith with her own official documents; and the Lithuanian, Stefanija Ladigiene, who hid and cared for Irena Veisaite as if she were her own daughter. Both of these women risked their own lives and the lives of their families in order to save others.
These stories of rescue have particular relevance to Agnes and her family history. Born in Budapest in 1944, just after the Nazi invasion of Hungary, Agnes’ mother was forced to live in an area designated for Jewish women of the city and her father been taken as a forced labourer to Poland. When Agnes was a baby her mother was ordered to report to a particular point the next day, presumably for deportation. When they arrived the Nazi officer in charge told all the women with children to return home. She has never known why this officer acted in this way, growing up with the knowledge from her mother that ‘the man who was in charge sent us home’. Looking back, had this officer acted differently Agnes and her mother would have probably been sent to Auschwitz where 450,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered that summer.
One man’s seemingly small decision had such a far-reaching positive impact on the women he saved and is an act that has had a lasting impact on Agnes’ life. This is what led her to find out more about other rescuers and record these stories for future generations.
Agnes and her mother were sent to the Jewish Ghetto in November 1944 and were there until the liberation in January 1944. Agnes’ father returned home to meet his daughter for the first time in March 1945. Deeply affected by his experiences, he refused to have any more children – saying that this wasn’t a world to bring children into – and sadly 10 years later he committed suicide.
In her later life, juggling work and three sons, Agnes has dedicated much of her life to voluntary work. She has invested her time into the positive development of society, and to making the world a safer place to live in for future generations. After working as a civil servant and running her own business, she chaired a committee at a Women’s shelter. She has acted on panels for the South Yorkshire Police and is a Justice of the Peace (volunteer magistrate) working to preserve the fundamental protective function of the criminal justice system. She was inspired to become part of public life in part to ensure that the events of the Nazi Occupation would never be repeated, and innocent people would never again be arrested and tried based on their race or religion and not because they were criminals. Agnes became a Trustee at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust in 2004. Agnes involvement with HMDT is part of her contribution towards creating an environment free from the dangers of persecution and hatred.
On International Women’s Day 2012 we can use Agnes’ story to reflect on our own actions, big and small, and the effect that these can have on other people’s lives. We can draw motivation and learn from the lives of those rescuers whose selfless courage reminds us of the importance to stand up for what we believe to be right in our society. Agnes’ story can inspire us to take an active role within our own communities; to use experiences that have that affected our own lives to make a positive difference and help create a safer, better future for us all.