Gena Turgel MBE, 01/02/1923 - 07/06/2018

Working in the field of Holocaust Studies, there are - as one might expect - a number of challenges to face. Reading about the deliberate gassing, starving, shooting and torture of millions of people, including infants and children. Visiting the sites where these crimes took place and witnessing tourists engaging in (what one might consider) inappropriate behaviour, such as posing for selfies or smoking. Being targeted by anti-Semites, and/or those who claim such events never took place, despite the overwhelming evidence one sifts through day after day which attests to humankind's capability to hurt any 'Other', not just those identified as Jewish.
But by far the most difficult inevitability with which to contend is the death of the survivors, especially those you know and have worked alongside.

So my heart sank this morning when I learned of the death of Gena Turgel, MBE. I had met Gena on a number of occasions over the last few years and felt I had formed a real bond with her.

Gena was born in 1923 in Kraków, the youngest of nine children. She and her family lived comfortably until 1 September 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and bombed the city. From then on, life became increasingly difficult as Gena and her family were denied entry to the United States, where they had relatives. Gena, her mother and four of her siblings were eventually herded into the Kraków Ghetto. One brother was shot whilst living in the ghetto; another escaped and was never seen or heard from again.
During the liquidation of the ghetto, Gena and her remaining relatives were sent to the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp. Her sister, Miriam, and her husband were forced to dig their own graves and shot into them after being caught smuggling food into the camp by the SS. I shall always remember Gena saying Miriam would sleep on her left side and, after her death, she always felt a chill against her left arm in bed, a lasting reminder of the sister that had been so cruelly murdered. Once Płaszów had been shut down, Gena and her family were forced to walk to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In the final months of the war, Gena and her mother were sent on a death march, eventually arriving at Bergen-Belsen, where Gena assisted in the 'hospital' (read: an isolated barrack with no medical equipment). It was in Belsen that Gena was liberated on 15 April 1945. One of her liberators - a British Jewish soldier named Norman Turgel - would soon become her husband.

I was always amused at Gena recalling their engagement. Whilst still in Belsen, she was invited into the canteen that the British Army had occupied, which was laid out with proper cutlery and beautiful white tablecloths. "What's all this?" she asked Norman. "Why, it's our engagement party!" he replied. Having been brought up in a generation of numerous taboo subjects, and surviving six years of Nazi terror with no experience of relationships, Gena was even afraid to kiss Norman as she feared becoming pregnant!
Gena and Norman were soon married, the 'Bride of Belsen' (as the British media called her) wearing a dress made of parachute silk that now lives in London's Imperial War Museum. They were happily married until Norman's death in 1995, just two months short of their golden wedding anniversary. Gena published a memoir, I Light a Candle, in 1987.

When I think of Gena, two words spring to mind: grace and elegance. Even in her 90s, mostly confined to a wheelchair, she was one of the most sharply-dressed women I shall ever meet, hair perfectly set and make-up neatly applied. Gena certainly put a lot of younger women to shame in that respect! Her time in the camps obviously made her conscious about the presence of food, too; when I saw her at events, she was most concerned that I had had enough to eat and took advantage of whatever was served! It also goes without saying that hearing her share her testimony was a profoundly moving experience. I heard Gena's story in full once, during a special Holocaust Educational Trust Regional Ambassador session at the House of Commons. For an hour and a half, you could have heard a pin drop. Although Gena had shared her story many times, to many different audiences, reliving such horrific experiences was clearly still very painful.

The last time I saw Gena was at a special survivors' consultation in September 2017, regarding designs for the UK's new Holocaust memorial and learning centre. As we looked through a booklet of the designs together and I explained each designers' concept to her, she said nothing but took my hand and occasionally nodded approvingly. It was a very special moment, full of affection and a mutual sense of excitement about the possibilities for the new memorial. We can only hope, of course, that the end result does justice to survivors like Gena.

I feel incredibly privileged to have known Gena Turgel, and shall miss her terribly. Through our sadness, we can only hope to carry on her legacy and memory, just as she wanted.

May she rest in peace.