Today is Holocaust Memorial Day and now more than ever it is crucial we continue to remember these horrifying events and the cost of racism, anti-semitism and far right extremism.
In 2021 people still deny the Holocaust happened, or even wear things like ‘Camp Auschwitz’ t-shirts as seen in the recent domestic terrorist attack on the US Capitol earlier this month. It’s a stark reminder that many have still not understood or learned from the Holocaust.
The Holocaust “was the attempt by the Nazis and their collaborators to murder all the Jews in Europe”. It is estimated that around 6 million Jewish people were murdered which was “two thirds of the Jewish population of Europe”. A staggering statistic. Alongside the Jewish population other groups were targeted as well and tragically a further estimated 5 million people were murdered “including Roma and Sinti people, Soviet prisoners of war and people they [the Nazis] considered ‘asocial’”.
11 million people were killed. How do you process the extent of this loss?
A number of years ago now, I was given to the opportunity to participate in the Lessons From Auschwitz project conducted by the Holocaust Educational Trust, which included seminars, listening to a Holocaust survivor speak about their experience and a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I learnt a lot from this project, and realised a statistic can be difficult to fully comprehend but an individual story was a powerful way to learn and understand.
There are millions of stories out there, of those who died and those who survived.
Today I would like to focus on the story of Vilma Grunwald.
Vilma Eisenstein was born in around 1900 in Prague. She married a doctor called Kurt Grunwald and they had two children John (b. 1928) and Misa (later known as Frank b.1932). As the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia they implemented anti-semitic legislation which barred John and Misa from attending school and the family had to wear the Star of David. In 1942 the family were taken to Theresienstadt Ghetto. The next year in 1943 they were taken to Auschwitz, to a section called the Czech Family Camp. They resided there until 1944 when this section was separated. Kurt was taken with the other able-bodied men, and Misa was pushed by a friend Willy Brachman into the line of older children, which undoubtedly saved his life. Vilma and John, who walked with a limp, remained. The family was never to be fully reunited. Vilma knew what was coming and decided to stay with John so he wouldn’t be alone, she wrote the following letter to Kurt…
“You, my only one, dearest, in isolation we are waiting for darkness. We considered the possibility of hiding but decided not to do it since we felt it would be hopeless. The famous trucks are already here and we are waiting for it to begin. I am completely calm. You – my only and dearest one, do not blame yourself for what happened, it was our destiny. We did what we could. Stay healthy and remember my words that time will heal – if not completely – then- at least partially. Take care of the little golden boy and don’t spoil him too much with your love. Both of you – stay healthy, my dear ones. I will be thinking of you and Misa. Have a fabulous life, we must board the trucks. Into eternity, Vilma.”
Vilma and John Grunwald died on the 11th July 1944. Her letter is one of the only letters to have been written in a concentration camp and survived. It is powerful and poignant and tells us so much about Vilma and who she was. She was a loving wife who only wanted the best for Kurt and wished him “a fabulous life” as her own was about to end. She was a loving mother, refusing to let John die alone and wishing Misa the chance to survive and thrive once this horror ended. This letter shows her strength and courage in the face of unspeakable hardship. She faced the end with bravery.
Kurt and Misa survived and were reunited at the war’s end, they returned to Prague but when Czechosolvakia became Communist they emigrated to America. Misa, now known as Frank, found his mother Vilma’s letter on his father’s death in 1967. In 2012 he donated the letter to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
So today, on a day where we take a moment to remember, please remember the Grunwald family. Of the life they could have had together, if anti-Semitism and far right extremism hadn’t insidiously bloomed in so many hearts and minds. It’s easy to blame one evil dictator for these horrors, but thousands of people were involved in the Holocaust and allowed these events to occur.
If you would like to learn more about the Holocaust and its impact, please look at my sources list below for links to reliable websites like Holocaust Memorial Day and The National Holocaust Centre and Museum.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: https://www.ushmm.org/ & https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn47282#?rsc=169478&cv=1&c=0&m=0&s=0&xywh=759%2C535%2C4038%2C2645
Holocaust Memorial Day: https://www.hmd.org.uk/learn-about-the-holocaust-and-genocides/the-holocaust/
The National Holocaust Centre and Museum: https://www.holocaust.org.uk/holocaust-exhibition
Holocaust Education Trust: https://www.het.org.uk/lessons-from-auschwitz-programme
Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre: The Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names: https://yvng.yadvashem.org/nameDetails.html?language=en&itemId=13238265&ind=1
Written in History: Letters that Changed the World by Simon Sebag Montefiore
New York Times “Amid the Rampage at the U.S. Capitol, a Sweatshirt Stirs Troubling Memories” by Melissa Eddy: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/08/world/europe/us-capitol-rampage-camp-auschwitz.html