Agnes Grunwald-Spier is a former trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. In this podcast she talks about her book, The Other Schindlers, which recounts the stories of people who rescued Jews from the Holocaust.
Agnes, can you tell us about your book, The Other Schindlers?
The book is based on 30 different stories of rescue that I found by advertising and by looking in the newspapers and I had contact with the family or the people themselves, of these 30 people, and the rescues took place in 10 different countries. And they cover all sorts of rescues from individuals to diplomats saving thousands of people, and there’s a whole range of activity that it covers.
So what inspired you to write it?
Well, I was a baby in the Holocaust in Budapest and my mother and I narrowly escaped being sent to Auschwitz, and this is something that I’ve lived with all my life. And I really ignored the Holocaust for most of my life, I didn’t read about it, I didn’t watch TV programmes or films. I had my children quite late in life, so when I was in my 50s, I had three teenage sons, who to all intents and purposes, were ordinary English boys. But of course they weren’t, because I had this particular background. But I didn’t feel I had the knowledge to talk to them about it, so in 1996, I signed up for a new MA at Sheffield University in Holocaust Studies and as part of that I had to write a dissertation and I decided to write about a man called Varian Fry who for a long time was the only American recognised as a Righteous Among the Nations and he went to Marseilles from America and rescued a lot of Jews in Marseilles who were stuck there by the Vichy regime, and writing about him and the amazing work he did led me to have an interest in rescuers in general, and what it was that motivated rescuers, because obviously it was an incredibly risky thing to do. And I wondered what sort of people chose to do something so dangerous.
And how has the book been received?
Well, the book’s been remarkably well received; it’s quite a surprise because I was 65 when the book was first published and although I’ve written booklets and articles and things, this is my first proper book, published by a proper publisher, and the first print run was 2,000, and I thought oh gosh, will they sell them all? But in fact within a few months they had two extra print runs of 1,000 each, and now I suppose it’s about 16 months since the publication, it came out in June. As it stands today, there’s an e-book, it came out in paperback in this country in August, the paperback is now available in the States as well and it’s been translated into Danish, and this month it’s been launched in Brazil – a Brazilian-Portugese translation, and that was launched at the Rio de Janeiro Book Biennale and I’m getting these amazing press releases from Brazil and I keep telling them I will go to Brazil to promote the book if they send me an air ticket. And I’ve been quite overwhelmed at the response, and I expected the Jewish audience to be interested, but I think the thing that’s really surprised me is the response from the non-Jewish audience and my colleagues on various organisations that I’m involved with; people on the Sheffield bench, and other boards that I sit on have been incredibly supportive, and have bought it and said they think it’s really great. And of course I’ve got my fan in south California at the University there that says of the 400 books he’s read on the Holocaust, mine is by far the best! So I don’t think you can do much better than that, and obviously it was endorsed by Sir Martin Gilbert, who wrote the foreword and the Chief Rabbi’s been very kind, so it’s been overwhelming really.
And would you be able to tell us about some of the rescuers?
Yes, I’ve got a presentation that I do, and there’s three rescuers that I talk about in the presentation, and people often say to me which is your favourite story, but in fact it’s very difficult to have a favourite because all of them have their own special aspects and their own particular endearing qualities. You can’t qualify unique; I was going to say the most unique! But… amazing story is Charles Fawcett, who was a southern American gentleman, who as a young man found himself in Paris as an Art student at the time of the fall of France, and he ended up being in Marseilles, part of Varian Fry’s team, and the Resistance organised for him to marry six women who were in camps, and… because as soon as he married them, they got American nationality, so they had to be released. And he only died a couple of years ago; I’m still in contact with his widow, April who is a lovely lady, they lived in Chelsea – she still lives there, and he said to me, most people are very glad that Hitler didn’t get the atomic bomb. I’m very glad he didn’t get the computer, because if he had a computer, he’d have been able to work out that I was married to six women at the same time. So that’s Charles.
And there’s a wonderful man in Lithuania. And Lithuania is not known for its help for Jews, and he goes by the name of Vytautas Rinkevicius and he was a factory manager and he created a kind of sub-floor between two floors where three people hid for about a nine month period and he took them food and he looked after them, and he didn’t tell anyone what he was doing, he didn’t even tell his wife, and he only told her when she began to be really suspicious and accused him of having an affair because he was very preoccupied and he was never at home, and food was disappearing from the house so he had to tell her what he was doing. And she was very distressed at first because, I think at the time they had one daughter, although subsequently they had another daughter, and she said, you’re risking our child’s life, which was true, but in the end she came on board and in fact the people they hid survived and came to this country [the UK] and Margaret Kagan [was one of the rescuees], she was married to Lord Kagan, she only died at the beginning of the year  she was a wonderful woman and they were both nominated, the husband and wife to be Righteous Among the Nations. It was posthumous, the award was presented to their daughter who came over from Lithuania to the House of Lords, so that’s another one.
And I suppose the one I find particularly poignant is in France where there was a girl and a boy whose mother and baby brother had been taken by the Nazis and put on a transport and were never heard of again, and their father was so, so concerned to protect them, that somehow again, through the Resistance he managed to get them down to a village near Lyon where they were looked after by a peasant couple. Apparently, the man was in his fields, hoeing, or whatever it was – and someone from the Resistance approached him and said would he like to look after some children, and he and his wife didn’t have any children, and he said well he thought that would be very nice, but he’d have to ask Josephine. I think Josephine ran the show really, and they agreed to have the children, but they lived very modestly, they didn’t even have running water in the cottage, but the Resistance said that didn’t matter. So these two children were put with this couple and they were there for three years, and most of the information I got from the video she did for the Spielberg Foundation, and in that she describes – I can’t remember now how old she was – she wasn’t very old – she might have been about six or seven, something like that – that he used to go and work in the fields in the morning, and before she went to school, she used to take him his breakfast in a basket, and he used to sit under the trees and eat his breakfast and talk to her, and he used to talk to her about the trees and nature and the stars and the animals, and talk to her an enormous amount and she said that they were the happiest times until she was married and had her own children, and after about three years the war ended their father came to collect them. And as was common with many hidden children, they didn’t want to go because this person, a small child’s life – if you’ve been somewhere else for three years, that’s what you know, and obviously they’d grown to love Josephine and Victor Guicherd – those were their names, so when the father came, they had to walk down to the station which was quite a long way, and Josephine who was a very good cook – she’d been in service before she was married – and she made them up food for the journey and they all walked down to the station. By the time they’d got to the station, everybody was in tears except the father because they really didn’t want to go. And it was very poignant and I found that with a lot of the other stories as well. One girl who was hidden with a nun told me that when her parents came to collect her – she was the one who opened the door to them – and she saw them standing there and she just slammed the door in their face because she didn’t want to go with them. So it was very traumatic, traumatic for the children, and it was traumatic for the parents, who obviously, the thought of being reunited with their children was all that kept them going and obviously for the people who’d looked after them, because they’d created bonds with the child or the children. One woman that I spoke to, she was traumatised for the whole of her life by what had happened, it was incredibly badly handled when she was passed back to her parents. But in those days people were less sensitive really about these things, and it affected the whole of her life.
What do you hope people will learn from the stories in your book?
Well, there’s lots of aspects – in the book the first two thirds are the actual stories and the last third is the conclusions. And I tried to explain the relevance of the Holocaust and these stories to modern life today. And to discuss incidents that have happened in recent times which show how important it is for people to do what they know is right – that the stories of the rescuers show that these people were able to ignore the propaganda telling them that Jews were hateful people and that they mustn’t help them and they were inhuman and all the rest of it, and it’s very important I think particularly for young people to know that they must stand up for what they think is right, what they know is right, they mustn’t go with the crowd because obviously that’s really easy, and the theme for 2012, Speak Up, Speak Out is very important, it resonates with one we had a few years ago, that One Person Can Make a Difference. And I think that’s a very important message because people often say, well what can I do, I’m only one person. But one person can change the world. I think it’s also important on the personal level. I’ve got a quotation here, which I would like to read because this was very influential on me when I started on the work. It’s written by a Russian – Canadian historian of Russian extraction, his name’s Michael Ignatieff, and it always makes me sniff, so if you hear me sniffing, you know why. ‘There is no way of knowing what my children will make of ancestors from the age of dusty roads and long afternoons on the shaded veranda deep in the Russian countryside. But I want to leave the road marked and lighted so that they can travel into the darkness ahead as I do, sure of the road behind.’ And we need to know where we come from in order to move forward with confidence and I particularly – this takes me back to what I said before about my sons – I wanted them to know my story so that they would know what they came from and what we escaped from and never to forget that, because but for a whim of fate my mother and I would have been on the train to Auschwitz.
Thank you very much Agnes.
Agnes’ book, The Other Schindlers is available now and is published by the History Press. You can also find out more information about Agnes by visiting agnesgrunwaldspier.com.