As part of the Millthorpe Remembers Programme for Holocaust Memorial Day, the History department were invited to take a small number of Year 9 students to meet a Holocaust survivor and to watch the film ‘The Power of Good’.
Edith Jayne is a Holocaust survivor who spoke to our students about her family’s experience of fleeing from the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis. Her father was an Austrian Jewish doctor, working for the Austrian National Health Service and her mother was an Austrian Catholic.
One of the things that struck us is that initially, as the Nazi persecutions spread to Austria, her father was not worried. He believed that he was a ‘good Jew’ and that Hitler would not persecute them. Both of her parents saw their identity as Austrian first and religious persuasions came second. The family were surprised therefore, that the Nazis did not differentiate between ‘good or bad’ Jews and persecuted them all.
When Hitler annexed Austria on 11 March 1938, the family were able to secure a passage to Portugal. Luckily for her family, Edith’s father’s connections as a doctor meant that there were several Nazis that were prepared to help him and his family get out of the country. They had to pay a bribe for this. But it showed that some people in Germany were willing to help Jewish people to escape. Students were struck by how hard it was for people to escape and that if you didn’t have money you would be stuck under Nazi control and all that followed.
Edith Jayne showed lots of photos for her childhood. She recalled that she is wearing the same dress in most of them, which she came to hate. She explained that the reason for this is that when Jewish people left Germany and Austria, they were not allowed to take any money out of the country. So her mother had bought the same two dresses in every available size, so that they had clothes to wear as they grew up. Similarly in the film ‘the Power of Good’, children rescued by Nicholas Winter talked of how parents, who never saw their children again, had their children’s normal fillings replaced by gold fillings, so that they would have some wealth in their new country.
Edith’s family lived in Portugal until 1941, when fearing that Hitler would overrun this country too, they emigrated to the USA. Listening to Edith talk about her experiences as an immigrant was enlightening. The difficulty of having to learn a new language twice in 5 years, to learn new customs and the desire to fit in and become ‘Americanised’ reflected some of the issues relevant to some of our students today.
As Edith’s family were Jewish on her father’s side and Catholic on her mother’s side, they experienced the full consequence of Nazi Policies. On the one hand 42 members of her father’s family died in concentration camps and yet on the other, she had cousins in Austria who were forced to become members of the Hitler Youth, whether they liked it or not.
Edith has returned to Austria in recent years and a memorial has been established by her home town to remember victims of the Holocaust. She said that most people who fled did not want to return to their home town, because they felt betrayed by friends and neighbours. In school we are taught to try to forgive and to reconcile and so found this a little difficult to understand, but on further reflection, I realised that part of the message is that we all have a duty to stop this type of event from happening again. Her message was clear -as individuals we should take a stand against oppression, annihilation and genocide in the same way that Nicholas Winter did when he helped rescue hundreds of children from Czechoslovakia. Both the Czechs and the Austrians who suffered at the hands of Nazi persecution thought that their country was civilized, that they had a good quality of life and that this could not happen to them. Edith Jayne points out that it could happen anywhere.
Mrs Bowland, Joint Head of History, with contributions from Alex Fearn, Ruth Wilson and Rachel Walmsley.