Where was God? - Holocaust survivor speaks about his life sentence of memories

Holocaust survivor Issy Hahn

Holocaust survivor Issy Hahn - Credit: Archant

Tomorrow, Ilford’s Holocaust Memorial Garden will be a bustle of activity before young and old alike fall silent to remember the millions murdered in the Nazi genocide.

Execution of two hostages, a Christian and a Jew, in Konin on September 22 1939: Issy's first experi

Execution of two hostages, a Christian and a Jew, in Konin on September 22 1939: Issy's first experience of the Holocaust - Credit: Archant

Eleven days before, the paved site – its plant boxes covered in fabric to ward off the frost – is a scene of tranquillity, with just one figure standing in front of its two memorial stones.

He is a frequent visitor and he can all too readily conjure his own memories of the Holocaust, having survived six concentration camps and two death marches.

The title of Issy Hahn’s book, A Life Sentence of Memories, perhaps says it best, and trudging back over the hard ground through a chilly Valentines Park, recalling his ordeal isn’t difficult.

He said: “Would you like to be walking in minus-28/minus-30 degrees in a linen shirt? Eating snow and not hot soup. It happened.”

The father of three and grandfather of five, who made his life in Redbridge in the 1960s, risked execution in Auschwitz-Birkenau; was chosen to go to the coal mines of Jaworzno by the Angel of Death, SS doctor Josef Mengele, and was forced on a three-week death march in the dead of winter.

The Nazis’ genocidal assault on Europe’s Jews claimed the lives of his father Simon, mother Helena, brother Zigmund and sister Marie – all deported to the Treblinka extermination camp.

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And once he and his brother Karol escaped that fate and came to London in 1946, he began a second struggle, to make sure the world didn’t forget what happened.

Describing the permanent Ilford memorial, he said: “It’s to understand. The memorial is proof of the things that a lot of people don’t believe today, that it existed.

“They’re the worst people to deal with. They’re the ones looking for publicity and they put in books that it never existed.

“Why don’t they speak to people who’ve been there?”

One of the memorial stones remembers the late Leon Greenman, a fellow Auschwitz survivor, also of Ilford, and all survivors in Britain of the Nazi death camps.

After becoming friends with Leon, Issy designed the emblem on the stone, erected following a Recorder appeal, and he still cares deeply about how the garden is maintained.

He bemoans that a few months ago it was littered with beer cans.

He said: “If it’s not kept well I speak to Chris Carter [the Recorder’s editor] or the council.”

Back in the Clayhall home he shares with his wife, in a cabinet alongside family photos, sits his book, published in 2001, and other works on the Holocaust by historian Martin Gilbert and author Theo Richmond, who wrote the foreword to Issy’s own testimony.

Photos provide further prompts, such as one showing a 1939 execution in Issy’s hometown of Konin, which he witnessed and which marked his first encounter with the Holocaust.

Now in his 80s, with a fine head of white hair and a strong build, he can still recall how when he was 11 his Polish birthplace was occupied by German soldiers.

And how unprepared the townspeople were.

He said: “Everyone knew nothing. They remembered the Germans from the 1914-18 war, when they would invite them into their houses.”

After being split from the rest of their family, he and Karol were sent to Auschwitz where they were put to work and lived with the daily knowledge they could be killed.

Issy said: “We could see the gas chambers. We were watching what was going on. The SS guards shouted at you, but you’d look with one eye. We saw SS leading hundreds of kids into the gas chambers.

“It’s heads or tails. Sometimes you had to use your head, what queue to go to – you had to think what’s the best way to go.”

Never acknowledging their relationship to anyone else, Issy and his brother, who died in 1993, stayed together, including an escape from Auschwitz.

Using brooms and a barrel, the pair got under the camp’s electrical fencing, but their flight to freedom ended on a Warsaw-bound train when they were stopped by the Gestapo.

Only the benevolence of an SS officer, who helped them to escape in the first place, prevented their execution.

For the brothers, the war ended in the Landshut slave labour camp and on being freed, they faced a future without their family and eventually in a foreign country.

Issy knew some fellow survivors preferred to shut out the memories, such as a friend, who worked so hard to forget that he could no longer recall his own mother.

Issy said: “I remembered her better.”

He has been more willing to recount the horrors, including school talks, though he prefers to share his knowledge with older children who have a better chance of understanding.

One such visit prompted a question from a parent which Issy is still struggling with today.

Whether, after all he had been through, he could believe in God?

Remembering his reply, but going further then he did in front of the school audience, he said: “There was no God to punish anyone for what they did. Jesus could make a blind man see. That was a miracle. He made a cripple throw away his crutches and that was a miracle.

“Why didn’t God do something to the Germans when they were gassing and killing?

“In my opinion, God was an accessory to murder.”

It’s a conclusion that won’t make comfortable reading for many, but then there’s nothing simple or easy about Issy’s own experiences.

For all those willing to listen though, his and the testimony of the other survivors, still represent our best chance of understanding one of humanity’s darkest hours.