Written by Megan Nichols-Judge (Year 9)
On the 10th of December, five other students and I, who are Brighton Girls Faith Council, were given the privilege of interviewing and listening to the story of Holocaust Survivor, Sheindi Perez. This was in preparation for Brighton Girls Holocaust Memorial Day Assembly and ‘Latest TV’; recorded in advance this year due to Covid. Sheindi Perez had been taken initially from her home in Hungary when she was 15 years old and then to Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp.
She told us about her story, and we listened in a combination of amazement and horror as she told us about the suffering she endured, the starvation, the dehumanization, and how she got through it. We were each given the opportunity to ask her a question, and her answers were memorable.
The first thing we asked was if she could tell us about her experience; to hear her story. We listened, utterly awestruck as she told us about the years she’d spent in prison camps; how she stuck with her aunts throughout all five of the camps they were in. How she’d lost her grandmother within minutes of arriving at the first death camp as she saved Sheindi and her aunts’ lives by pushing them into a different queue.
Next, we heard about how she found the resilience to carry on. She talked about how in the camps there was nothing, no hope, or life or joy. It was like all of the days blurred into one. All they were given each day was a slice of bread and a cup of coffee. All she had to wear was the thin dress they had issued her with. However, she found resilience and after the camps were liberated, found hope in the bleakest position. Sheindi was taken to Sweden where they looked after survivors; giving food, and doctors treated them. It was so upsetting to hear how human decency had become a stranger to Sheindi yet she found resilience in her family , and in herself to keep living, and hence had has this amazing story to tell us. It was incredible to us that despite what she went through, at 91 years old, she had the resilience even then to keep telling her story for nearly two hours.
However, the next question was about boldness – a key value which our school is teaching to young women to be bold. Sheindi told us that in the camps there was no boldness, there was no joy or energy or ability to be bold. Her advice to young women was that we’re lucky to be able to grow up in a time when we don’t have to fear being bold or being ourselves. This experience really made me think about how lucky I am to be growing up in a time where it is celebrated to be outspoken and where our difference is encouraged.
My favourite answer she gave was when she was asked about kindness. In response to this, she talked about two incidents, one during the war and one almost 50 years afterwards. The first was about a man who hid her from the Nazis when they were looking for them. He offered to dress her up as a man or hide her in the cellar. He gave her bread and water, and this stuck with her for over 70 years. I found this story beautiful, an example of how even the smallest act of kindness can affect someone so positively; how people should treat each other as equals. He endangered himself to help her, and I found it to be a beacon light amongst her grave descriptions of the rest of this time.
The second story she told was about a woman she had met at a synagogue decades after the war. She asked for money for a loaf of bread, and Sheindi gave her, her dollar. Sheindi told us it horrified her, that people still lived like this, that all the woman had wanted was money for bread, and how awful it was that she couldn’t afford it. This, once again, really made me check my privilege, and how I’ve never really had to worry about where my next meal came from.
The final question asked was what her happiest memory was since surviving the Holocaust? Her answer made me cry at home later, whilst eating a packet of Tesco’s meringues in my kitchen. Sheindi talked about how raising her daughters had been the joy of her life; how amazing it was getting to watch them grow up, and lead happy, normal lives. What struck me was, whereas the pain of the past was still alive within Sheindi, it was something her children would never have to experience.
As I said, hearing about Sheindi’s experiences was incredible. I’ve only studied the war at school but hearing about the years of trauma from a first-person perspective was truly inspirational. What I found most inspiring was the fact that she still led a life afterwards; that despite everything she went through, she raised two daughters (one became a lawyer and the other a nurse) and she still talks to her family daily; truly an incredible woman.
I will always remember this opportunity and just how awful people can be, but also how inspirational her story is, and how touching the acts of kindness she both received and gave were.
With great thanks to Brighton Girls Faith Committee: Grace Rummery (Yr 7), Jen Diab (Yr 8), Megan Nichols-Judge (Yr 9), Lydia Dowglass yr 10, Ruby Welch Nicol Year 11 & Phoebe Dowglass (Yr 12)