Just One Example of Why I Study the Holocaust

On Thursday 30th January, I attended a lecture at the Wiener Library entitled 'The Triumph and Tragedy of Raoul Wallenberg'. The lecture was given by Bengt Jangfeldt, a Swedish scholar whose latest book, 'The Hero of Budapest: The Triumph and Tragedy of Raoul Wallenberg', was released in the UK last autumn. Jangfeldt gave a comprehensive overview of Raoul Wallenberg's early life and family, as well as the mysterious circumstances surrounding his disappearance in early 1945. Jangfeldt was granted permission to access the Soviet archives as well as the Wallenberg family archives, so his research into the life - and death - of Wallenberg is certainly a breath of fresh air. If you are not familiar with Raoul Wallenberg, you may want to read this short article from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website about him and his rescue of thousands of Hungarian Jews.

Whilst the lecture itself was certainly fascinating, it was something that happened towards the end of the evening that left the deepest impression on me. After Jangfeldt's talk, the floor was opened up for questions. As the official end of the programme approached, a staff member of the Library permitted one final question. A white-haired woman sitting two rows in front of me took the microphone that was handed to her. This, roughly, is what she said:

"I would like to thank you for your very interesting talk, but this is not a question per se. I was a young girl at the end of the war, living in Budapest, and I am here today, in my 80s, because I was able to obtain a Schutz-Pass from Raoul Wallenberg. I never got to meet him personally to thank him, but really, he saved my life. I felt I should come to this lecture to learn a bit more about him, and also to pay my respects to the man whom I owe my life to."

The woman also briefly went on to speak about the situation when the Soviet Army entered Budapest, and the stories of their treatment of the residents of Budapest being just as cruel as the Nazis. "I was lucky enough to have both my parents with me," she said, "and I remember walking down the street, in between my parents, holding their hands. The scene around us was chaos, and my parents kept trying to shield me away from things that were happening at either side of the street. "Don't look," they kept saying, "don't look.""
Once the woman had finished speaking, the entire room burst into spontaneous applause; a friend of the woman's, sat nearby, beamed at her, and I think we all felt rather emotional about what we had just heard.

Leaving the Library, I reflected on the evening, and the woman's admission kept coming back to mind. When studying the Holocaust - or, indeed, for anyone who may read up on it or watch documentaries about it - the grim reality cannot be escaped. Millions of innocent people lost their lives for no reason other than being born Jewish, whilst many others also perished for being homosexual, Jehovah's Witness, of different political stance to the Nazis, Slavic, Polish, and so on. We will never know how many brilliant minds we lost in total over those horrific years during the Second World War, and in some ways, the more I study the subject, the less I understand how a cultured, civilised, modern society could commit mass murder as though it was the product of any standard industrial establishment.
Sometimes, however, you do hear these stories - stories of hope, of rescue, of survival. The fact that this woman, who undoubtedly saw and experienced so much in Budapest during the war, and who herself was at risk of death for being Jewish, was sat in a public lecture in London almost 70 years later, really brought a smile to my face. It is the same with other Holocaust survivors that I have met, and the amazing stories they have to give, not just about the Holocaust but about their lives in Britain since that time. No matter how hard the reality of the Holocaust may be to comprehend, we owe it to those who survived, as much as we owe it to those who did not, to educate people of all ages about the Holocaust, in the hope that such an atrocity may never take place again.