Unification from Horror: Holocaust Ancestors Speak Across the Divide
The Heap Lecture Theater was left stunned on Wednesday afternoon, as the grandson of an SS Officer and the daughter of a victim of the Holocaust spoke together regarding how the Holocaust has impact upon their lives.
Students, staff and members of the public found themselves deeply moved by the words of Derek Niemann and Noemie Lopian, as the stories of both sides of a now infamous, phantasmagorical nightmare were told with intimate care. Noemie Lopian spoke about her father, Dr Ernst Israel Bornstein, and his experience of persecution. She spent 5 years translating her father’s memoirs into a book called The Long Night. The audience was transfixed as she recited passages from the book, including a description of how one felt during a death march, knowing that you are weakening and may soon have to share the same fate as those being shot around you. She then asked the immortal question: how could normal people carry out these extraordinary deeds?
Having grown up in Scotland, Derek Niemann only discovered his family’s dark past very recently. He spoke about his Grandfather’s route into Himmler’s SS, his father’s war and post-war experience, and his own discovery of his family’s past. He used a small but effective sample of the 500 photos from his family’s archives to great effect, which had remained hidden from him for over 70 years. They provided an extremely vivid personal insight into the world of the Nazi Party in the 1930s and 40s, as well as life for the family after the war had ended. A photo of his father wearing the helmet of an American soldier, an early Nazi rally held in the communist city of Dortmund, a literal Nazi Party, and a family portrait featuring the photo of a missing son who was killed in action were especially moving.
After the talk and mad rush to grab a signed copy of both of their books had concluded, I managed to have a chat with Derek and Noemie and asked them a couple questions.
How concerned are you about the rise in anti-Semitism across Europe?
Derek: It would have been inconceivable ten years ago, and it’s just rising more and more. And the political leaders are emboldening people to take more radical action.
Noemie: Poland is also re-writing its’ Holocaust history, abdicating responsibility and… even here in Britain, if the Imperial War Museum says that Poland was directly involved, the Polish Ambassador will be up in arms saying it wasn’t. SO, we have to be vigilant.
What do you think of dramatisations of the Holocaust? Are they crucial ways to illustrate what actually happened, or do they blur the lines of fact and fiction too much?
Derek: In some cases they acted as a catalyst. So, when an American series called Holocaust was shown in Germany, that triggered an outpouring of people wanting to know what happened. And it actually helped convict some Nazi war criminals, because people started to speak out. I think, for me, the danger is when somebody produces something that’s fictional, and is dangerously incorrect… something like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The fiction there is that the child of a concentration camp [commandant], not only didn’t know that they were living next door to a concentration camp, but that anyone persecuted Jews. In the book, and probably in the film, I’ve not seen the film, the book was bad enough, but in the book he apparently doesn’t know what a Jew is… It’s a dreadful travesty… It doesn’t help people’s understanding.
Noemie: I think a film like Schindler’s List, that’s based on a true story, that was again an excellent catalyst for telling people about The Holocaust. And, like Derek, I mean The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, it’s sad because it’s one of the most used stories in schools. And I think we’ve mentioned so many books and so many excellent sources and memoirs that people can use. It’s not necessary to use fiction. Also, subconsciously, it makes something that was the truth a real thing that happened, children are learning that from a fictional tale, subconsciously they think it’s fiction. And that’s what I want to avoid about The Holocaust.
The audience were also fascinated, eager to learn more as they also asked questions. These were regarding
- The overall rise in anti-Semitism – Derek was particularly critical of the Labour Party and the way they handled the spread of anti-Semitism within party ranks – which society is currently witnessing.
- Whether Derek and his father ever reconciled with his father and what he was involved with – his father did not and eventually convinced himself that it had never happened.
- The idea of a relationship between the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and the rise in anti-Semitism.
- How to two speakers met – it was via supposed Facebook ‘stalking’.
- And the process of translating Dr Bornstein’s memoirs – Tricky and draining, but it brought Noemie closer to her father.
Overall, the University should consider itself extremely lucky to have hosted this event. These troubled socio-political times have made sure that spreading knowledge about the worst crime ever perpetrated by humanity upon humanity has become more imperative than perhaps at any other time in living memory.