HARRY BIBRING was just 13 years old when he waved goodbye to his parents and boarded one of the Kindertransport trains out of German-occupied Austria to a new life in England.
He was never to see them again.
Now 85-years-old, the Viennese-born Holocaust survivor spends his days touring the UK and talking to children about his experiences.
He is tireless in his work and this year alone has already appeared at more than 20 schools, with bookings for many, many more.
He knows that time is running out. Soon there will be no survivors left and their stories still need to be heard.
It was my privilege to be in the audience this week when Harry spoke at my daughter’s secondary school.
Although the former engineer and lecturer tells his tale from the perspective of a small Jewish boy, bewildered by the rising anti-semitism of his homeland, I listened with the ears of a mother.
Harry says he now understands that his parents were trying to protect him when they told him that the closure of his beloved ice rink to Jews was ‘just a little thing’. Even when the cinema closed its door to Jews and his school expelled him because he was Jewish they did what most parents would do and tried to play down the drama unfolding before them.
But the events of Kristallnacht (November 9/10, 1938), when synagogues throughout what the Nazis called Greater Germany were burned and desecrated, signalled the end of Harry’s childhood.
The next day, when he discovered that his father had gone missing on the way to work, his confusion turned to fear.
“That was the day, if not the hour, when Harry Bibring grew up,” he told us.
Tragically, Harry’s story is not unusual. Tales such as his have been recounted. published and broadcast for more than 70 years. All GCSE students learn about the Holocaust as part of the National Curriculum. Most of us know what happened, or we should.
But it is one thing to read about the breathtaking evil of Nazi rule, and the way they masterminded the Holocaust, and quite another to hear a first-person account.
Harry’s father had a heart attack on the way to a concentration camp, his mother was later murdered in the Sobibor death camp in Poland. Because of the hatred of one race for another he and his sister had to grow up without parents and spend the rest of their lives coming to terms with this terrible truth.
They were among the 10,000 children transported across Europe to escape the Nazis.
It’s deeply painful to imagine how Harry’s mother and father must have felt as they realised the only chance for their children to survive was to send them to an uncertain fate in an unknown country; to pack their little suitcases with clothes and mementoes; to know that there was every chance they’d never see them again.
Harry tells his story with dignity and unexpected humour. When describing the journey through Holland on his way to England he recalls that at one station hundreds of Dutch people had turned up to throw toys and sweets into the carriages.
“It was such a pleasure,” he said. “For a year I hadn’t seen a person who really wanted to know me.”
For a short while Harry and his sister communicated with their parents through Red Cross letters - he has them still and allows those at his talks to handle and read them. The short 25-word communiques tell their own story. The last one to arrive from his mother bids them: “Good luck for life.”
“She knew what was going to happen to her,” says Harry. “Those are not the words of someone who expects to survive.”
Although his mother never lived to see her son grow into a man, there was a happy ending for Harry who, after finding his feet in London and securing a job, went on to become a chartered engineer and lecturer at Middlesex University. He was married for 61 years, has a son a two grandchildren.
“After that,” he says, referring to the loss of his parents, “I had a blessed life.”
Harry tours under the auspices of the Holocaust Educational Trust, which was established in 1988 with the aim of raising awareness among young people. Central to its work is the desire to motivate future generations to speak out against intolerance.
Sadly there is still widespread intolerance of someone or something in almost every country of the world, including, it has to be said, in Palestine.
It’s often said that we need to study history in order to refrain from making the same mistakes again.
But for this to work everyone needs to learn the lessons of tolerance and it needs to be taught in schools at a very early age because, unfortunately, some parents simply can’t be relied upon. The Holocaust as well as Stalin’s purging of millions of Russians should be on the curriculum for every schoolchild, whether they take history or not. And while people like Harry still live they need to be invited to tell their stories.
One suspects that Harry Bibring’s non-Jewish neighbours and schoolfriends were mostly ordinary people who were caught up in a tidal wave of propaganda and hatred. We all like to think we wouldn’t behave that way, that we wouldn’t lose our humanity, but, as has been pointed out many times before, civilisation is but a thin veneer. Without empathy for our fellow humans, without truly understanding that we share the same DNA, feelings and capacity for joy and pain, we will be doomed to forever repeat our mistakes.
l The Holocaust Educational Trust has asked me to say that the organisation’s outreach programme offers schools the chance for students to hear a survivor’s testimony first hand. To find out more contact www.het.org.uk