Pupils at The Manchester Grammar School were privileged to hear from three survivors of the Holocaust.
Ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day later this month, Ruth Lachs and her husband Werner, from Prestwich, and Itzik Alteman, from Whitefield, spoke to Year 9 pupils about how they survived the Holocaust, and the importance of educating future generations about those horrific events so they are never forgotten.
Itzik has only recently been able to tell his story of how he survived four concentration camps, so heart-breaking are his memories of what he endured.
In an emotional speech to the boys, Itzik told how he is the sole survivor of his family, having seen his mother, sister and brother – and later, his father – taken away to be killed, and to this day he does not know where their remains are or if there are any, or the dates they died.
He spoke about the brutal conditions inside the camps and how he was forced onto a death march – aged just 13 – two days before his concentration camp was liberated by the Russian army.
Itzik survived freezing, snowy conditions, and Nazi guards who would shoot dead any Jews who could not keep up, and was just one of only a few hundred people out of the 6,000 who started the march who lived.
In an incredible act of bravery, Itzik, 90, also showed boys the infamous tattoo on his arm from the Birkenau camp, and told the audience why he is now telling his story.
He said: “For a long time I could only talk to other survivors. It was too raw, and myself and the other survivors could only talk to each other. We as survivors formed an unbreakable bond, having survived the worst example of what human beings are capable of.
“But now, as I am getting older, I want younger generations to hear about the atrocities we went through, and to impress upon them the need to make sure it never happens again, and to fight prejudice and hatred.”
Like Anne Frank, Ruth, 82, is known as one of the ‘hidden children of the Holocaust’ and, as a young child, spent the majority of the war in hiding and forced to disguise her identity, including being hidden away in the sandpit of an Amsterdam nursery.
Her husband Warner, now 92, was forced to flee Germany after the events of Kristallnacht in 1938, and it was not until the 1990s that he discovered he and his family were granted visas to leave Germany for Britain thanks to the heroic actions of M16 agent, Frank Foley.
Foley worked in the British Passport Office, and was so moved by the atrocities inflicted upon the Jews that he rubber-stamped thousands of visa requests and forged passports, enabling Jews to escape Germany.
Bravery and survival
Ruth’s story is also an incredible tale of bravery and survival. She and her parents emigrated to Amsterdam after the traumatic events of Kristallnacht, but after the Germans invaded Holland, her father was forced to take drastic action, hiding her in the family attic.
As conditions for Jews worsened and became more perilous, her parents sent Ruth – then aged just six – to live with a Dutch couple who offered her sanctuary, where she had no choice but to change her identity to that of a non-Jewish orphan so the Nazis would not discover she was Jewish.
In 1943, when someone tipped-off the Nazis that the couple were harbouring Jewish children, she was taken to a children’s centre where a nursery nurse kept her Jewish identity hidden, and during which time she had to hide in a sandpit when the SS called to round-up the children.
A non-Jewish student from the underground movement opposed to the Nazis then smuggled her on a train to a Christian family in Limburg, where she took refuge.
When she was hospitalised with polio, the doctor who treated her also kept her Jewish identity a secret, and was once again rescued by the underground movement who took her to a home for mentally and physically handicapped children in Amsterdam, where the matron hid in the Jewish children in a separate ward.
After the war ended, her parents were traced through the Red Cross and they were reunited when Ruth was nine. She moved to Manchester in 1962 where she met Werner, and the couple have been married for more than 55 years.
Ruth’s son later attended The Manchester Grammar School.
She said: “I often think: ‘Where would I have been?’ without the bravery of those people in the face of terror.
“Thanks to all the people who helped me, I stand here today a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother. My family are the legacy of all those – some of whom lost their lives – whose chose to do good when surrounded by evil.
“I speak about my experiences to impress upon young people the need to be good, not extreme or bad or violent.”
Dan Farr, a teacher at The Manchester Grammar School, said: “Our boys were incredibly privileged to hear from Ruth, Werner and Itzik, and I want to pass on my sincere thanks to them for speaking so powerfully, and for reliving such a traumatic time in their lives.
“We must never forget what happened during the Holocaust, and we must never let it happen again, so it is so important for younger generations to hear first-hand the experiences of survivors like Ruth, Werner and Itzik, so that not only are their stories never forgotten, but to inspire future generations to prevent it from happening again.”