‘Everybody is equal. Nobody should have to be afraid’

As Amnesty International reports that the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place for refugees and migrants – and extremist groups in the UK attempt to exploit the appalling events in Woolwich – it seems timely to remind ourselves that the rights of people fleeing conflict and persecution deserve to be protected – and need to be defended. This is an interview I did with Holocaust survivor Paul Oppenheimer a few years before his death from cancer in 2007, aged 78.

Paul Oppenheimer was four years old, about to start school in Berlin, when Hitler came to power in 1933. In 1936, like many other Jewish refugees, he fled Germany, moving, with his mother and younger brother, to London. They later rejoined their father in Holland, where Anne Frank’s family were to be near-neighbours. In May 1940, the Germans invaded, and Paul and his family were sent, first, to a transit camp, and, then, to the extermination camp Bergen-Belsen, where both his parents died. Forty years passed before he was ready to tell his story and to lend his energies to supporting the work of the Beth Shalom Holocaust education centre.

In the 40 years that followed his liberation from Belsen, Paul Oppenheimer kept his experiences to himself. But meeting other survivors of the Nazi concentration camp where both his parents died prompted him to tell his story. After 10 years of educational work, he is convinced that it is only by learning the lessons of the Holocaust that we can hope to prevent it happening again.

He was born in Berlin in 1928, to middle-class parents, Hans and Rita. ‘My parents were Germans and I was also German,’ Paul says, ‘my parents were Jewish, and I was also Jewish. All the troubles that we encountered subsequently with the Nazis were entirely due to the fact that we were Jewish. If we had not been Jewish, we would have had a very different life.’

Paul and his family were what were called ‘assimilated Jews’, non-observant Jews who took no part in Jewish religious life. Once the Nazis had achieved power, life became gradually more difficult for them and for all other Jewish people in Germany: ‘Most wanted to get out. The biggest problem was to find another country that would take in these “refugees” from Germany – nowadays they would be called “asylum seekers”.

‘We were fortunate. We had an uncle and aunt who lived in London. They offered to take us in. So, in March 1936, when I was seven-years-old, we left Germany and we came to England. My father stayed behind in Berlin. We’ve never been able to find out why he didn’t come with us.’

While in London, Paul’s sister Eve was born, and her British citizenship turned out to be of the utmost importance to his story, almost certainly saving her life and the lives of Paul and younger brother Rudi. In September 1936, Paul’s father left Germany, to work at the Amsterdam branch of Mendelssohn’s Bank. Once established, he wrote to his family in London suggesting they join him.

‘We went to live in Holland. Those were the best days of my youth. But, on 10 May 1940, the Germans invaded. Once they had taken over, they started to persecute the Jews in Holland as they had in Germany. We were segregated into citizens and subjects, we had to go to a Jewish school, we had to wear the yellow star, we were not allowed on the tram or the bus, we had a curfew in the evening, we had to live in Amsterdam, we had to hand in our bicycles, our money, our stocks and shares. It just got worse and worse. Once all the Jews in Holland lived in Amsterdam, they started the deportations, to what turned out to be Poland.’

In June 1943, Paul and his family were deported to a Dutch transit camp, called Westerbork, from which weekly transports to the extermination camps Auschwitz and Sobibor departed. Of 100,000 deportees, less than 1,000 survived. ‘We remained at Westerbork for a long time and the reason was our sister Eve, because she was British. The Germans had a plan whereby they wanted to do an exchange. They knew there were Germans living in England during the war and wanted to get these Germans from England back to Germany to help with the war effort. In return they offered the British Government British nationals and their immediate relatives. We became know as “exchange Jews”.’

Because of Eve’s British citizenship, Paul and his family remained at Westerbork much longer than was usual and when, finally, they were transported to Bergen-Belsen, it was not by cattle truck but by passenger train. They lived in Belsen as ‘privileged prisoners’, not required to wear the black and white striped uniforms the other prisoners wore. Instead, they wore civilian clothes with a yellow star, though they slept in barracks like the others, and ate the same rations. Their part of the camp became known as the ‘Star Camp’.

Given only a cup of ersatz coffee, a bowl of turnip soup and a piece of bread a day, starving and exhausted prisoners succumbed to illness. Dysentery, pneumonia, TB and, worst of all, typhus were rife. In January 1945, Paul’s mother fell ill and, without doctors, nurses or extra food, died shortly after. She was 42 years old. Two months later, his father, 43, died from typhus, just one month short of liberation. At the time, 600 people were dying in Belsen every day, including Anne Frank and her sister Margot. Paul, Rudi and Eve spent more than six months in the camp, emerging from it as ‘starving, exhausted skeletons’.

After liberation, Paul and Rudi returned to Holland with Eve who, as a British citizen, was able to return to London with her uncle. Paul and Rudi spent six months in an orphanage before receiving their visas to come to England.

During the next 40 years, Paul made a new life in England, but spoke little of his experiences, even to his three children. Putting his experiences to the back of his mind, he forged his new life. ‘Nobody ever asked us about it, nobody seemed to be interested in it, we didn’t particularly want to talk about it, so we forgot about it. But, for a variety of reasons, in the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve come back to remember the story.’

The catalyst was the award of an MBE, for his work on road safety for the motor industry. ‘All these reporters from the Solihull News and the Solihull Times came to the house. They wanted to know where I had been during the war. When I told them that I had been at Belsen, they forgot about the MBE. One of the photographers told me that there would be a reunion in Belsen that year. He asked me whether I would like to attend and, after speaking with my family, we decided to go.’

Meeting with other survivors of Belsen brought a lot of old memories back to the surface, and, when he returned to England, Paul took the opportunity of becoming involved in educational work, talking to schools and adult groups and working with the Beth Shalom Holocaust Education Centre. Unlike most survivors working in education, he does much of his work with adult groups. ‘Other survivors do schools, because there are organisations to set that up. I’m not aware that any of them do adult groups, but this is something I have done right from the beginning. A rotary club first asked me to give a talk, now, whenever I speak, two more people ask me to give another talk.’

Many of those attending the talks are older people, with their own stories: ‘People don’t talk about what happened to them. A lot of people have very interesting stories, people who lived through the Blitz, who were evacuated, all sorts of things happened to them. But they don’t talk about it.’

‘The message is that we should never let this happen again,’ Paul says, ‘I finish off by telling the students why we go around telling this story. It’s because people haven’t learned anything from our experiences. And the same sorts of things are happening again, or have been happening all the time, in Cambodia, Rwanda, in Bosnia and Kosovo, in East Timor, where people are being hunted down just because there is something different about them, their religion, the colour of their skin.

‘We want people to learn that everyone should be equal, that nobody should have to be afraid. I end [my talks] with the quote: “He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.” I say that I hope you will learn the lessons of history so that you and your children will not have to repeat our experiences.’

This interview was first published in Adults LearningFor more information about Beth Shalom and its educational work visit www.bethshalom.com. The centre publishes Paul Oppenheimer’s book, From Belsen to Buckingham Palace.

Crossing to safety


Frankie Quinn's picture of a peace line dividing residents from different communities in east Belfast
Frankie Quinn’s picture of a peace line dividing residents from different communities in east Belfast

When the Workers’ Educational Association Northern Ireland set up its first anti-sectarian education programme in the early 1990s the image it chose to illustrate its course materials was a photograph of one of east Belfast’s ‘peace lines’ – the walls erected to keep Protestant and Catholic communities apart.

The image (by Belfast photographer Frankie Quinn) neatly summed up what the course – called Us and Them – was all about, as well saying something about the reality of life for many in Northern Ireland, which was, in many cases, one of extreme segregation. A lot, of course, has changed since then. And a lot hasn’t.

When the course began, more than 20 years ago, ceasefire was still some years off. It is now 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, yet the peace lines remain (the number of peace lines has in fact increased since the agreement)  and the divisions they represent are, in many cases, as real as ever. And, while the dismantling of the divides is up for discussion – the shared future plans, trailed today by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, include the dismantling of all peace walls within 10 years – many of those who live in the shadow of the walls are not ready to see them go. They wouldn’t feel safe without them. Some, indeed, as was reported this week, would like them to be even higher.

The peace lines may have become a part of Belfast’s tourism industry but they tell us as much about the present as they do about the past. The peace walls help people feel safe; apart, within their own communities, on their side of the wall. But how do you get people from different communities to begin to feel safe together? That is a question WEA NI has been grappling with for the past two decades. Its work, which is not much known outside Northern Ireland, is, nevertheless, remarkable, and has made a real contribution to the peace process. Nobody would suggest that adult education is all of the answer to this, but it has become evident over the last 20 years that it is at least part of the answer – and a pretty significant part at that.

I went to Belfast a couple of weeks ago and met the Director of WEA NI, Colin Neilands, and some of the partners the WEA works with in delivering what has become a core part of its offer: peace building. Colin was hired by the WEA in 1991 to develop and deliver its first anti-sectarian education programme. His appointment coincided both with the first influx of European money in support of peace-building work and the growing recognition by politicians that they needed to work closely with voluntary and community sector partners – many of whom, like the WEA, had earned a reputation as non-sectarian – to have any chance of creating a shared society.

The WEA NI was conscious of ‘putting its head above the parapet’ but, given its commitment to equality, democracy and community empowerment, it was obvious, Colin told me, that the organisation wouldn’t be able to hold its head up if it didn’t at least try to make a difference. From the start, the programme involved complex negotiation – about venues, tutors, times of classes, and so on – but the course content was not up for grabs, and even where the programme was, of necessity, delivered to ‘single-identity’ groups, tutors worked to ensure people were challenged by the content.

Those early classes were remarkable, for various reasons. Colin recalls one teenager, asked to find an object from home that said something about his identity, bringing into class a gun he had found in his dad’s wardrobe. But the most amazing thing was the stories people told; stories, often, that had been kept bottled up for years – incredibly moving, sometimes horrifying, stories, that, Colin says, it was a privilege to hear. There were victims, on both sides, but there were also ex-paramilitaries of both persuasions, as well as ex-army and police officers.

It took a while. The classes didn’t take off straight away; people didn’t just open up. But once they felt safe, once they knew they could speak without fear, it became clear that there was a real desire for talk, a desire to understand and, crucially, a willingness to listen. Creating a space for people to talk to each other, about things they would be reluctant to bring up outside the classroom, became the defining feature of the work, a challenge to the well-worn maxim: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’.

Since then, the work has grown, to include courses on diversity, Irish history, conflict management, negotiation skills and ‘leadership in a shared society’ – all designed to encourage and facilitate learning and dialogue at community level. Adult education in the community is now recognised as a key dimension of Northern Ireland’s peace building and community relations infrastructure. The work, however, remains fragile, both in terms of funding and in terms of the still volatile situation in some communities. Incidents like the recent flag protests – following the decision to restrict the flying of the union flag from Belfast City Hall – can set the process of confidence building and community integration back a way, making people reluctant to leave their communities and to discuss issues to do with conflict.

At the best of times, people’s home community environments can reinforce sectarian feeling, but it becomes particularly acute in times of crisis. Progress is hard-won and difficult to sustain. Frustration is one of the hallmarks of the work. The long-awaited strategy for a shared future in Northern Ireland gives some support to community development work, stressing that the target of bringing down the peace walls by 2023 can only be accomplished with the active involvement of communities (who will be invited to agree a phased plan to remove them) and setting out plans or a ‘united youth programme’, with components in good relations, good citizenship and steps into work.

The proposals are unapologetically focused on young people. No-one would doubt that this is important but, as the community educators I met would tell you, the good they will do will be limited if there is not parallel activity aimed at parents and other adults in the communities in which these young people live. As former WEA NI tutor and community development worker Mary McCusker told me: ‘If you don’t go into the community and educate people, it’s no good for the kids when they come home … Who is the primary influence? It’s the parents. And if they are sectarian and put their views into their children, integrated education is finished. You have to change that. Whatever they do during the say, they have to live in their community, so you mustn’t ever leave the communities out.’ The challenge for the work, as ever, is to sustain it so that lasting relationships are built that are strong enough to survive and to make a long-term difference. When the all-party group meets to discuss the shared future strategy proposals in the next few weeks, education for adults should be high on the agenda.

My article on WEA NI’s peace-building programme is published in the spring 2013 issue of Adults Learning.