Holocaust Survior

Holocaust Survivor Talk

April 20, 2015

As part of the GCSE History course we teach about the Holocaust. To support student’s learning of this tragic subject, the History department arranged for a Holocaust survivor, called Henry Schachter, to visit Noadswood on Monday 20th April to speak about his experience of this event. The talk was designed to give students a greater understanding of the individual stories of those involved in the Holocaust. Survivor testimony forms a key component of effective Holocaust education by putting a human face to history.  Henry spent two hours with our students today and shared his fascinating story.

Henry was originally born Ariel Schechter on 6th March 1939.  His parents Rubin and Pesel, were Polish, from Tarnów in south-eastern Poland, having moved there after the First World War.  However, they were not keen to stay there because of a strong anti-Semitic element within Polish society, and so they moved to Germany, thinking to find a more liberal attitude towards Jews there.  The family felt very German and strongly assimilated, even though they had to hold Polish passports.  In 1939, Henry’s father looked at leaving Germany, to go to either Palestine or England, but this was becoming increasingly difficult with obstructive attitudes from the Nazis, and visas becoming impossible to procure.  He started to feel trapped with nowhere to escape to. Eventually, via contact with Henry’s aunt in Antwerp, a smuggler was found to take Pesel (and her new baby) through the Ardennes into Belgium.  However, the man initially refused to take them because of fears that the baby’s crying would give them away.  He returned with a pill to keep the baby quiet, they crossed the border and got to Brussels, where they were re-joined by Henry’s father, who had travelled to Poland to try to encourage his two sisters to leave.

The family had false papers, and were settled in for a few months before the Nazis invaded Belgium and Holland.  Jews in those countries tried to flee, and Henry’s family headed for the coast towards a small port near Dunkirk.  Along the way, their group was strafed in the road by Nazi fighter planes.  His father was wounded, and returned to Brussels.  Near Dunkirk, the Jews sought hiding places, and Pesel hid in a flat in a ruined building, but she could not stand the stress and terror of their situation alongside some 12 others crammed into one room.  So she took Henry, and found another flat to rent, the first of many as they moved frequently to avoid being discovered by the Nazis.  With the danger all around them, Pesel found an elderly couple, M. and Mme. Deffet, to foster Henry in their rural home. Henry remembers the last time he saw his mother was when she visited him there, bringing a cake for him to eat. His father was arrested when Nazi guards came looking for Jews in his block and as he went out onto his balcony, someone in the street betrayed him by pointing at him there.  He was taken to Malines (Mechelen) transit camp.

Both of his parents were deported to Auschwitz on May 19 1944. There they both survived, possibly in part because they spoke German, Pesel working in the camp kitchen, Rubin doing other work.  With the approach of the Russians, they were then sent on a death march, Henry’s father was shot dead on the way to Flossenberg and his mother to Bergen-Belsen, where she died of typhus perhaps three days before liberation

Henry was brought up by the Deffets in a Catholic tradition, and remembers the cobbled streets of the town, and the dim streetlights.  Although nobody knew exactly where he was, Henry does remember calling out “la guerre est finie” when liberation came to Belgium, and he relates a fateful incident when he was in the street one day.  An uncle of his had caught a tram in Brussels to go somewhere, but realised he was heading in the wrong direction.  So he alighted and crossed the street to catch a tram going the right way.  At that moment, Henry saw him and thought it was his father and called out to him “Papa”.  Henry was recognised and this chance meeting led, some 9 months after the liberation of Belgium, and with much paperwork filled in, to Henry’s being given passage to England.