Professor Ladislaus Löb: No Ordinary Train Passenger...

Today, myself and Rachel, the current intern at the Holocaust Educational Trust, travelled to a school in Faversham, Kent, to listen to the testimony of Professor Ladislaus Löb. The Professor only began speaking about his experiences this year, after some inspiration from fellow survivor Rudi Oppenheimer, and I'm incredibly pleased that he took this brave decision - his story is certainly worth hearing.

Professor Löb was born in 1933 and lived in Marghita, Transylvania, until he was 10. He was an only child. Sadly, Löb's mother contracted TB when he was young, and died in 1942.
The real danger for Löb and his family began in 1944, when they were rounded up and sent to the Kolozsvár Ghetto in what was then part of Hungary. Of all his relatives, only he and his father managed to escape the ghetto and join the 'Kasztner group' in Budapest, Hungary. Rudolf Kasztner was a Zionist leader who was in communication with SS officer Adolf Eichmann, who was largely responsible for deportations of the Jews. Eichmann agreed to let a transport of 1,700 Hungarian Jews travel to Palestine in a ransom deal between himself and Kasztner. Many Jews on this transport were exceedingly rich, for many had to pay extortionate prices to get a seat, and many others were Kasztner's relatives and friends. Löb described the trains today; they, too, were cattle wagons, as were used to transport people to Auschwitz, but, "they were better than the ones going to Auschwitz. In the wagons going to Auschwitz, there might be 150 people in one wagon, which was sealed, and there was no food. Many, many died on the way there. But for us, there were only 60 or 70 of us in one wagon...the door was not sealed so we could have fresh air." However, cruelly, Eichmann directed the train to go to Bergen-Belsen instead.
This transport, being the 'ransom' prisoners, were treated better than ordinary prisoners, despite being Jewish. They were allowed to wear their own clothes and were not shaved; they had more food and were, amazingly, allowed to keep Jewish and cultural practices. "There were about 300 children and 30 teachers among us," Löb said. "The teachers thought it would be great to teach the children...but, of course, the children did not think this was such a great idea. Not much could be taught, anyway, because there were no materials for that. Adults, too, held seminars, discussions, lectures...There were many cultural activities going on in our part of the camp." When you think of the footage released by British soldiers in 1945 of the thousands of dead and dying prisoners, this contrast is almost beyond belief.
After five months in the camp, Eichmann agreed to let these Jews go to netural Switzerland. It was there that Löb and his father found themselves liberated, and they stayed in the country for some years afterwards.
During the 1950s, it was alleged that Rudolf Kasztner had collaborated with the Nazis, and he took his accusator to court for criminal libel. During the course of proceedings, however, Kasztner was assassinated. In his case, the judge told Kasztner that he had "sold his soul to Satan". Professor Löb has since written a book detailing his story but also that of Kasztner's, which I will most likely comment on in a later blog once I get myself a copy.
After the war, Löb studied at the University of Zurich before coming to England in 1963 and taking up a post at the University of Sussex. He later became an Emeritus Professor in - and I expressed my surprise about this to him today - German. ("Yes, but after the war I saw a culture in Germany that the Nazis did not have," he replied. When I made the point that many schoolchildren ask survivors if they still 'hate the Germans' when it certainly wasn't all of them, he said, "No, I do like Germany, very much. If I had to hate anyone, I would hate the Hungarians, for how they helped.") He retired some years ago and still lives in Brighton with his wife.

After his talk, there was time for questions. It was great to see how attentive and engaged the students were, with many hands going up in the air for a good 15 minutes or so.

Rachel and I ended up taking a train back to London with the Professor. We talked about many different things - the apparent 'high speed' of our service, the Welsh language, the recent appalling weather etc. It struck me that many people must want to sit with a survivor and only talk about their past, without focusing so much on their present, so it felt good to be able to sit and talk with him about everyday things. He was a lovely, friendly gentleman with a good sense of humour and, more often than not, he had a smile on his face. When we parted ways, he said that he hoped very much that he would see us again at some point (which I certainly hope too!)
As I sat on the Tube on my way home afterwards, I wondered to myself: No one else sitting in that carriage would have known that they were so near to a Holocaust survivor. A man who survived Bergen-Belsen and its awful epidemics; who, at times, stared death in the face and said, 'It's not my turn just yet'. How many people like that may we have sitting among us on a normal day without even realising it, not just in the U.K. either? Or, I thought, in a darker moment, how many may be sat among us that were once war criminals; that have seen things no person should see, but even worse, done things no person should ever do?