We spoke with Henry Schachter about his story.
Can you share with us your personal story of the Holocaust – where were you? How did you survive?
Henry’s parents grew up in Poland but because of rising anti-semitism, Henry’s grandparents were forced to leave and they moved to Germany where Jewish people were very much part of German society. His father’s side of the family went to Berlin, his mother’s side to Frankfurt. The situation deteriorated after the First World War with the rise of the Nazis. The Jewish community had become the scapegoats for the defeat in the war, so they had to move again. In April 1939 Henry’s family moved to Poland, but Henry’s father knew that Hitler had intentions in Poland so went in Belgium to get a visa for his family. While there, the Nazis invaded Poland. It was necessary for Henry’s mother to get them out because the Einsatzgruppen were moving in to murder Jews. She found people who forged papers, and was able to reunite the family in Belgium.
Just months later the Nazis invaded Belgium, it was impossible to get out, so the family went into hiding in a warehouse with other Jewish families. Henry was only one year old, he was crying all the time and his mother didn’t want to risk everybody else getting caught, so the family moved into a house and lived amongst the community risking exposure at any moment. At the age of three Henry was sent to an old Christian couple and it was this informal arrangement that saved his life. His parents were captured on the 19th April 1942. His mother died of typhoid three days before the liberation of the camp by the British forces and his father was killed whilst trying to escape.
Henry grew up in Belgium, he didn’t go to school and he didn’t mix with other children, also he didn’t know he was Jewish. After liberation his family in England managed to find him and his family in Palestine did the same. He travelled to England in December 1945, where he has lived to this day.
How did the Holocaust impact your family?
The Holocaust had a huge impact on Henry’s family, as well as losing both his parents, his grandparents and two of his aunts who escaped to Poland were then sent to Belzec, a death camp. His surviving grandparents lost everything, leaving property and business behind when they moved. Henry said that whilst the Holocaust did impact him greatly, he considers himself lucky because at least some of his family survived, many others lost everyone.
How does it feel to have survived the Holocaust?
Henry’s memories of the time are very faint due to his young age, he had no real understanding of what was happening at the time. Whilst he remembers his parents, his memories of the elderly Christian couple who adopted him are very clear. He remembers being shunted from ‘pillar to post’, and he felt different due to his upbringing and language. Henry describes finding a happy home at his boarding school where he formed friendships and where he felt part of the school family. Henry explained that he felt extremely lucky to have survived.
How has the Holocaust impacted your life today?
Henry did not really talk about his story until seven years ago. On a coach journey to parliament, someone heard his story and suggested he join the Holocaust Education Trust. Since then he has been giving talks to schools in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and in Germany. He shares his story to extend understanding of the Holocaust to new generations.
Why is it important that we study the Holocaust and other genocides today? And what message would you like us to carry forwards to share with other people?
Henry’s message is that it is not just about antisemitism, but the persecution of any minority. Whilst there is a long history of antisemitism, other minorities have also experienced persecution. He said that it is important to look at the suspicion of others in general. He reminded us that there is always going to be someone who tries to incite others and that it is important for us to think critically about what others are doing and saying. He encouraged us to challenge the narrative and explore and seek out the truth, to keep our minds open and alert.
The interview with Henry really opened our eyes to how dev- astating the Holocaust was for him and others. We were shocked to hear about the conditions in which people were trying to survive and that even though he was so young at the time, the events still have an impact on his life today. We were inspired by Henry’s courage in spreading awareness of genocide and educating others in the hope that awareness will lead to prevention. He was very passionate about the dangerous idea of blame; people in power looking for scape- goats, and minority groups being the first to be blamed and used as scapegoats. He encouraged us to learn from this, to understand that everyone’s unique qualities should be em- braced rather than discriminated against, that whatever your personal beliefs are, everyone should be accepted as equals.