Mar 2014 Journal

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Gathering the Voices

My role as a solicitor requires me to be particularly mindful of human rights in the legal context. Needless to say, this area attracts strong views. Recent criticism of the influence of the European Convention on Human Rights and the jurisprudence of the Strasbourg Court on UK law has come from high-profile politicians, senior judges and sections of the press.
At times, the human context behind the abstract legal concepts has been misrepresented, or even neglected, in the ongoing debate. This is why I think projects such as Gathering the Voices - a project collecting, contextualising and digitising oral testimony from men and women who sought sanctuary in Scotland to escape Nazi-dominated Europe - are so valuable.
For over three years, the Gathering the Voices Association has been collecting the stories of survivors based throughout Scotland. There are now about 20 testimonies available to access for free at More interviews will be placed on the website shortly as the interview team has carried out more than 30 interviews.
The website is intended to provide an educational resource for schools and individuals. The Gathering the Voices Association is proceeding with a number of other projects. In particular, they are working with teachers to prepare two teaching packs, for primary and secondary schools, based on the testimonies. These will go to every school in Scotland. Another project, the creation of a travelling exhibition based on the testimonies, should be completed by autumn 2014. It will then be a permanent resource which can be displayed in museums or libraries or other venues throughout Scotland.

One of the most striking things demonstrated by the testimonies collected by Gathering the Voices is that for survivors there could be life beyond the Holocaust. The project focuses not on the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis but on the strength and enduring spirit of the survivors. It has been said that to write poetry after Auschwitz is ‘barbaric’ - that there can be no art after Auschwitz. While I understand this attitude, I don’t think it’s true and, most disturbingly, I think it does survivors yet another injustice by interring them in a state of perpetual victimhood. On the contrary, the testimonies gathered by this project show the valuable contribution Holocaust survivors have made to the Scottish communities in which they found sanctuary after the war.
The project is particularly important to me personally as my grandmother, Susan Singerman, is one of the survivors whose testimony is featured on the website. She was born Susan Gerofi in Székesfehérvár, Hungary, a small town about 40 miles south-west of Budapest. She had a happy upbringing in an orthodox Jewish family and performed outstandingly at her local school, graduating as dux in 1943. She hoped to go to university to study medicine. However, on 19 March 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary and just weeks later 19-year-old Susan was sent to Auschwitz, along with her mother, father, nine-year-old sister Marta, grandmothers and many aunts, uncles and cousins. She endured a five-day journey in a cattle truck with 100 other people and only one bucket of drinking water and one bucket for sanitation between them. A sign on the truck said: ‘20 horses or 25 cows’. On arrival at Auschwitz, Dr Joseph Mengele, known as the ‘Angel of Death,’ told her to go to the left but sent her little sister, mother, aunt, cousin and grandmothers to the right. It was not until after the liberation that she found out they had all been gassed half an hour later. In that same week, she learned that her father had died of pneumonia in Dachau two weeks before it was liberated. Susan always attributed her determination to ‘grit her teeth and keep going’ to her belief, up to that point, that somewhere out there her family were doing the same and one day they would all meet again.
Susan said that the cruellest psychological torture devised in the concentration camps was being treated as less than human. She was determined not to let the Nazis destroy her humanity and devised strategies to try to preserve her sense of self and basic human dignity. For example, she was fluent in five languages so she made herself think in a different language every day. Prisoners were given a small piece of bread each evening and most devoured it immediately, but Susan divided hers into three tiny pieces, eating one at breakfast, one at lunch and one at dinner. These stories impressed on me from a very early age just how precious, and fragile, basic human rights can be.
By the time my grandmother was deported, more than 10,000 people a day were being gassed at Auschwitz. Even she, witness to this, recognised how impossible it is to comprehend the meaning of numbers of that magnitude. On hearing of the murder of a child, for example, a person might feel sadness or shock - but the murder of over one million children by the Nazis? Such loss goes beyond any kind of imagining and is why it is so important instead to listen to the testimonies of people who lived through those unimaginable times.
Susan was acutely aware of this. She spoke of surviving the camps in order to ‘tell the tale’, feeling a duty to the six million dead who could never tell theirs. She believed that any hope for a better future lay in education. After retiring as a teacher in Glasgow, she began speaking to young people in schools about her experiences. She received hundreds of letters from schoolchildren saying how moved they had been by hearing her story. In 1996 she was made an MBE for services to the understanding of the Holocaust.
Having been given the chance to live, my grandmother lived - fully, ferociously, indomitably. She devoted herself to doing all she could for her family and the wider Scottish community. My own view is that it would be irresponsible and dangerous to forget her story or to lose any of the stories gathered by this project. They force us to recognise and remember the wickedness of which mankind is ever capable. They also show us that, even after such incomprehensible horror as the Holocaust, there is still the possibility of hope.

Jen Singerman, Third Generation survivor
(grandmother, Auschwitz survivor; grandfather, Kindertransport survivor)

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