Saskia Tepe is travelling to Scotland as Interfaith Scotland’s guest to join speakers at various Holocaust Memorial Day events – read her story in her own words…
When Interfaith Scotland invited me to speak as part of the 2017 National Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) events they are organising over the week beginning 22nd January, I was absolutely delighted.
I have been talking about my mother Brigitte’s remarkable survival of the Holocaust and the aftermath of war ever since I can remember. I try to bear witness and in paying tribute to her experiences and the choices she was forced to make, I also hope that what I tell my unsuspecting victims will make them reconsider their preconceptions!
Which is also the point of HMD.
HMD is a time when we seek to learn the lessons of the past and to recognise that genocide does not just take place on its own, it’s a steady process which can begin if discrimination, racism and hatred are not checked and prevented. The aim of Interfaith Scotland to promote peace through dialogue between people of all faiths, is part of the process that should prevent a genocide from taking place on these shores. The United Nations is trying to ensure that this same process of dialogue takes place across the world, and has designated the 27th January a worldwide time of remembrance, bearing witness, and education. Most of my week long schedule of bearing witness will be held in schools. I believe, hearing a first hand testimony from a live witness makes all the difference to young people with little life experience. And given that most actual Holocaust survivors are now in the autumn of their lives, it behoves the children of survivors to carry on bearing that witness.
My mum was a Catholic Sudeten German, whom the Nazis labelled “Mischling” (mixed race Jew) because of her Jewish heritage. As such, she experienced the tribulations of WWII during the Holocaust and again during the ethnic cleansing of German Nationals that occurred in the former Sudetenland between 1945 and 1947. She told me some of her experiences – but most of her story I had to learn from documents she left after she died, and research. Which of course would make my story simply a second hand account.
But the HMD theme this year – “how can life go on” allows me to talk a little more about how her life continued after the war, and how the legacy of a war ravaged Europe directly affected me…
Born in 1954, I spent my early childhood in a Refugee (DP) Camp in Nurnberg, Germany. After being fostered by families in Switzerland and Belgium, I emigrated with my mother and stepfather to the UK when I was 7 years old, as part of the 1959 UN’s World Refugee Year initiative. Contrary to common belief, many displaced people continue to languish in camps across Germany and other European countries until well into the 1960’s. Life did not suddenly improve for those caught up in war because the bombs stopped falling. How can life go on, when you cannot return to your home because it no longer exists or has been appropriated by strangers or an aggressive regime? How can you build up a new life in a country that is still struggling to rebuild itself?
We spent much of our lives being aided by charities… the Red Cross, the British Refugee Council, the Catholic Church, a teacher’s Association, and countless individuals who offered my family friendship and understanding as we struggled with ill health, low paid work, hindered by a lack of language skills. In those days, adoptive countries took no account of foreign based qualifications. War is a great equaliser. However, it also makes you realise that kindness exists in abundance and is not to be taken for granted.
Then of course, there is the not so small matter of the mental scars that are left. Painful memories deliberately buried deep so that you don’t give up hope, and can face looking forward and plan for a new life. And to do that, you must come to terms with the worst in mankind, your personal losses, choose whether to forgive or blame, and learn to trust again.
My mother was able to do all of those things. It was me, the second generation survivor, as we are sometimes called, that found things more difficult. Because the children of survivors of genocide have their own cross to bear. They carry their parents’ pain, whilst trying to assuage it and protect them from more. They try extra hard to fulfill their parents’ ambitions for their futures, whilst being the go between with strangers and the sometimes incomprehensible cultural norms and traditions and expectations of their new foreign homes.
And the children become the voice that their parents – the survivors – lost. They are the ones left with a specific burden. Angry at the injustice their parents encountered, they encourage their parents to tell their stories if they can, or else they take on the responsibility themselves to shout out the message, that a great sin against humanity was committed. And that those stories of survival, during the genocide and afterwards, must become a lesson for new generations to learn.
Read more about Holocaust Memorial Day 2017
Follow Saskia’s journey via her Twitter account.