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So Trude, thank you for joining us here today, could you tell us a little bit about your life before the Holocaust?
Yes, basically I was born in 1929 in and the Holocaust of course really doesn’t start until 1942, so we’ve got to fill in that period of time. I had obviously a father, a mother, a brother who was seven years older than myself and a sister five years older than myself. And we lived in a nice flat, we were a happy family, middle class; did all the usual things that people of that type did, I had a nanny whom I adored, I eventually went to nursery, then I attended a Jewish school at the age of six, and I come of course, which I haven’t said yet, I come from Bratislava, which at that time was a town in Czechoslovakia. Now today, it is in fact the capital of Slovakia. But all I can tell you about the family is we were happy, as a nuclear family but also we had a very large extended family, and my mother’s family basically also lived in Bratislava, and we visited her sisters and her mother very, very regularly and everything was fine. My father’s mother and some of his family lived in the country because they were farmers and some of his other family – two of his sisters lived in Vienna – now Vienna of course is Austria, perhaps this needs explaining, that Nazis of course arose in Germany and between ’39 and ’38 the persecution of the Jews was of course in Germany, and during that stage, we were only affected in as much as I can remember my father listening to the radio, and hearing Hitler’s speeches and things of that sort, but directly we weren’t involved. But then, in 1938, in March when the Germans went into Austria, that of course affected my two aunts in the families who were living in Austria and therefore we started getting news how they were being persecuted. And interestingly enough, at that time, my father was very worried for the safety of his family, and we therefore moved from Bratislava for two or three weeks, to the country, to my Grandmother’s, [un]til things quietened down, and then we came back to Bratislava. We were aware of the persecution, and then we had another scare, when my father once again moved us to my Grandmother’s in Vrobove, that was in the Autumn of 1938 when Mr. Chamberlain who then was the Prime Minister of England, came to negotiate with Hitler, because he wanted to have part of Czechoslovakia; the Sudetenland. And that again was a very tense period in Czechoslovakia, because in the end Mr. Chamberlain allowed this to be done, and we now had Hitler having taken away part of Czechoslovakia, if you like, he was part on Czech soil. My parents were very, very keen at that stage to see how they could save the children, and just in case the Germans overrun the whole country and like many other people had been trying to contact relations who lived in America or in England or anywhere in the world, to see whether they could get the people out. While my father was doing all this, and by December 1938, the Germans hadn’t invaded yet, but by ’38, we knew things were bad, and my sister came as a Refugee, to England, and then one day I was at school, in March, and our school master said to the whole class, about 50 odd of us there, go and get your coats and go home as quickly as possible, and when we looked out, we could see tanks in the streets. After that day, I never went back to school again, I stayed in the flat with my parents and my brother for about the next two or three weeks, being very, very much afraid, that there would this terrible knock on the door and we would be taken away or my father would be taken away, so there we were now, actually physically in contact with the Nazis. Now in my case, within the 2-3 weeks, my father was able to get a secure placement for me with a family in England, and an aunt of mine with my cousin, she was coming into domestic service within London, so I travelled with my aunt and cousin, leaving home on March 28, in 1939. I assume it was such a traumatic event for me, that I cannot remember at all saying goodbye to my parents or brother and all I know is I got in the taxi, with my aunt and cousin, and eventually, four days later, we arrived in England. And now I consider myself I presume a child refugee, because my aunt went to her place in Knightsbridge to be a domestic, and I actually, somehow, rather again I don’t remember how, end up with an English family, in Wallsend-on-Tyne.
So this is now April 1939, and to me I have a very peculiar recollection, of that period of time, because a) I was not quite ten years old, I didn’t speak English, I was now with an English speaking family in a typically English drafty house, I was cold, they had two large dogs, I’d never lived with dogs, so I was afraid of them, I had never eaten English food, even such things as marmalade and toast were quite alien to me, and then of course, if you think about it, I was desperately homesick. So I had an absolute miserable six weeks, as I presume this poor family did likewise, they were doing their best for me, but after six weeks, the Czech Refugee Committee realised I wasn’t settling and by chance another aunt and uncle were in London in transit to America, and the Czech Refugee Committee decided I should go and live with them for the time being, and that actually was a very good decision I think on their part, because I went to little Primary school in London, learnt to speak English, and at least during this transition period, I was able to speak and converse with my relations, I had food which I had been used to, and all this helped to settle me in, but obviously I was still desperately homesick, and missing my family. Although my sister was in London, we really had very, very little contact. She was with a Jewish family, in Kew Gardens, and I was in Hampstead with my aunt and uncle.
So really the next thing is in my own experience, is now as a refugee, there is no direct persecution of me by the Nazis, but the persecution of course involves my parents and even my brother, because my brother did not come out [un]til the end of May 1939. But at least my father had achieved what he set out; he had saved his three children. Now, my story can really be quite abbreviated. I learn English, and go to school, I’m quite happy, and then we have the summer holidays, I find myself in a hostel for children somewhere in the south of London, again, very little memory of that. But the next thing which happens is that on 1 April, many of the schools in London and the country were evacuated, and I’m evacuated, with my school, go to a place called Rickmansworth where once again I am placed with a very nice family, but this time I’m able to cope. Now, I spent almost a year during the phoney war part with this family, there was no bombing or anything at this time, but then the bombing started in May-June 1940, and by 1940, my aunt and uncle, at long last got their visa to go to the States and they were living in London, and I came to see them, and to say goodbye to them because they were going off to America, and in this case, I could have gone with them, but my brother who said no, we three children should stay in England. So the Czech Refugee Committee actually found a boarding school for me, where they took five refugees, without any payment, I had a wonderful education, and in essence I spent the major part of the war in this school, and the things which are worthwhile mentioning apropos, my parents and family who were left behind, at this stage, there were still the occasional letter, mainly in the form of a Red Cross letter, which was only 25 words. But from my own emotional feelings there wasn’t a single night when I didn’t say a silent prayer in the hopes that my parents and family were all right, and that we would meet in due course. Now, I’m not going to describe to you the things or the live of the evacuee, because many people have that experience, and I was therefore both a refugee and an evacuee, but after four years at this wonderful boarding school where we did actually a great deal to help with the war effort, I worked on farms, milking cows, and planting potatoes, doing all sorts of things. But I then was at the stage where I needed to make a decision what I wanted to do, and I wanted to study Science, I wanted to become a doctor or something like that. And this was an evacuated school, we didn’t have the facilities, so I moved another couple of times to different schools, before I end up in Surrey, in Reigate, where I eventually take my higher school certificate, and get a County Major Scholarship eventually to Leeds University.
So that’s my basic history, but coming back to my parents, my immediate family; my father was deported on 19 April 1942, from Bratislava to Auschwitz, where he died or was killed on 8 May 1942, so within three weeks of arrival, he was already dead. This information of course, I only received, well after the end of the war, on checking records and things. My mother’s fate is much more complicated. She is alive in 1942, because I have letters from her, but then I lose touch, and she actually survives – I think – because I don’t know the end of the story; one of the unfinished ones. But she does marry another person, and I didn’t discover that until a few years ago, that was when I was searching for records for her, I didn’t realise she had another name, so it took a lot of finding. Anyway, she gets remarried, to somebody whom she must have known from the town where she was born, and he was about 25 years her senior, and eventually I found from the records that the two of them were taken to a transit camp called Sered near Bratislava in December 1944. The man who I presume is my step-father, the records eventually show that he died in Sachsenhausen. There was no other further indication of what happened to my mother, but I’m still on the trail, and I think I am almost sure that she was on a Death March, and she may be one of the people who was in a mass grave of which was opened up, and the people were reburied, in individual graves. Now, there is one grave, which has a name which could be that of my mother, but I’m depressed, I’ve not been able to prove that, because there is no further detail except the name and I’m still looking.
So my experience of the Holocaust is indirect, it is an emotional, it’s a sad period for me, because I miss the family, always hoping that we would be reunited. Unfortunately that never happened. But myself, my sister and my brother, we all managed to have good educations, we had good jobs, and looking back, we were very fortunate, due to the foresight of my father, and the good luck that people and strangers helped us to go as far as we’ve gone.
I have actually a photograph, of my class, which shows about 55 of us, and if you now look at that photograph, and look at some statistics, the statistics say that only 10% of Jewish children survived. Now if we say that there were 50 there – at the most, statistically only five should have survived. I’m one of them; I’m aware of one other person, who survived from there, I don’t know what happened to the other possible three, but if you think if you’d seen the photograph, and you can imagine all these people and faces looking at you, even if five had survived, that is such a small proportion, and this is how innocent children were just murdered.
The only way to finish my story is that eventually I get married to Norman Silman who was a Leeds Jewish man, we were happily married for 56 years before he died, I have two daughters and five grandchildren, so I am a lucky survivor, in as much as not direct persecution, but indirect which also had the consequences that I was orphaned by the age of about nine.
Trude, what do you hope that people will do, or learn from hearing your story?
This is a very, very difficult and in fact, it’s an extremely complex question to answer. Basically, I would want people to accept each other, be tolerant, and treat each other as we like to be treated ourselves. Unfortunately that’s far too simplistic. It means every religion, every race, everybody has to respect each other. But the problem is that if you live in poverty, and people don’t have work, these are all situations which lead to conflict, and the ordinary person, however good they are and want to be kind and all the rest, have the problem to resolve conflict, you’ve got to have nations who want to resolve conflict, and to do that the economy of the countries have to be right, we’ve got to remove poverty, and it becomes such a complicated question that one can’t really answer it in depth. Very, very simply, I want people to be decent to each other, I want people to be able to live in basic dignity, food, a home, love, those are the sort of things which are essential, but to achieve those, requires very, very much more than at the moment seems to be happening.
Trude, you work very closely with the Leeds based Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association, and you’ve been a real driving force for that, could you tell us a bit about the work you do, and why you chose to be involved?
Well if you want to go to the very beginning, when I retired, or I was about to retire, I was looking around for doing charitable work, but somebody had spotted in the local press a little advert saying that there was a meeting – people were invited to, who were refugees or Holocaust survivors. Now, when that advert appeared, I didn’t react to it at all. But eventually a few months later it was put in again, and there was a second meeting, and I reacted to it this time, and I hadn’t been in the room two minutes before Heinz Skyte, who was one of the originators and involved in this work, came up to me and said, ‘Well we need a secretary, will you do it?’ So I hesitantly said ‘well I’ll do it but if I don’t like it I’ll say so and I’ll leave it.’ And I’m still involved; god knows how many years, 14 years after it began. And the first point was just to be a social group, to be a support to people who had similar backgrounds, because most of us didn’t really fit in to the general population, but we very soon found out that we really needed to do more than that. We needed to be involved with education, and that is where the drive came from. I had been in education myself for many years, and from that we established, first of all, just trying to go and speak to people in schools or wherever we were invited. So we put on a little training course, there were about 15 of us who decided we would do this, and from that nucleus, over many years, we have now run three different projects – the basis being (a) to record our stories, from there we went a little further, so that we could use those stories for teaching purposes, and in the last project we were actually aiming at depositing not just the materials at the University, but putting it onto a website, so that the material could be used. We are now hopefully looking for some more money to expand this work, because of course the Holocaust is a very unique and most dastardly thing that ever happened in the world and unfortunately we still live in a world where there is a lot of very similar killings and genocides going on. And therefore we want to broaden the work so that the basis of the Holocaust work can be used in the greater sense.
Thank you for listening to this podcast by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. You can find out more information at www.hmd.org.uk.
You can also find out more about Trude and her story from the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association