Today marks Holocaust Memorial Day and a reminder of one of the world’s darkest moments in history.
The Holocaust was the genocide of European Jews during World War II.
Between 1941 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its collaborators systematically killed approximately six million Jews across German-occupied Europe, around two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population.
While the horrors of the Holocaust may be in the past, for those who survived and their family members, it is an experience that is still very much part of their present.
One of these families is that of Oliver Sears, whose mother and grandmother narrowly escaped dying in one of the Nazi-run concentration camps in Poland.
After the murder of her husband by Nazi officers, Oliver’s grandmother changed her appearance and used forged documents so that no one would know she was Jewish and she could keep her daughter safe.
Oliver still has his grandmother’s forged papers (which are currently on display at Dublin Castle).
“These forged wartime identity papers show a passport sized photograph of my grandmother Kryszia with freshly dyed blond hair staring straight ahead.
A new and necessary look to heighten her Aryan credentials, along with her acquired, nondescript Polish name and unlikely declared profession of ‘typist’.
How to measure the fear and desperation in those eyes, hiding from a regime programmed to turn you, your family and your culture into ash.”
Using her forged documents Oliver’s grandmother was able to gain employment at a household that would keep her safe, but she could not let them know she had a child.
Because of this, her young daughter Monika had to stay hidden under a table in their room during the hours that her mother was working;
“She was warned to never come out and never to cry. She was told if she did a big German monster would come for her.
She received two sweets each day for being good.”
Unfortunately, their safety could not last and like millions of other Jews they were eventually rounded up and brought to a train station, headed to one of the many Nazi-run concentration camps.
While lined up to board the train, several people were shot and killed by Nazi soldiers, including Monika’s childhood friend;
“My mother was walking hand in hand with her little friend Bolek, when he fell to the ground, shot dead.
My mother, only a child and not understanding, bent down and tried to put Bolek’s intestines back in his body. In her mind she thought she could put him back together.
My grandmother screamed and dragged my mother away.”
Once boarded onto the train Oliver’s grandmother knew that they would not survive wherever they were being taken to. She knew she would have to do whatever it took to save her child.
She managed to bribe the guard into opening the window and without a second thought flung her daughter Monika through the open window;
“She threw my mother out of the window and then jumped out after her.
They lay on the ground as machine gunfire flew over them. They survived and were never recaptured.
Very few children survived the concentration camps. If they hadn’t jumped from that train I wouldn’t be here today.”
After the war ended Oliver’s grandmother and mother moved to the United Kingdom. During their time there Kryszia met and married a man who had also lost his spouse in the Holocaust.
Oliver was raised in the UK but moved to Ireland in the 1980s. It wasn’t until he met his wife that he realised how little his mother actually spoke about surviving the Holocaust;
“It was something that was never spoken about in our home. We knew it had happened but we didn’t mention it.
When I said this to my wife she was shocked. She told me that you can’t go through something that traumatic and not talk about it.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that my mother really opened up about everything she had experienced in those years. It was during these conversations that she came to the conclusion that she had to go back to Poland.
She had not returned to Poland since she was a child. I accompanied her on an extremely emotional journey as she visited where she once lived and where her family business had been.
During that trip we visited Auschwitz.
It’s hard to describe the conflicting emotions of grief, anger and triumph.
For my mother to walk through the gates of Auschwitz with her son and walk back out again freely was a moment impossible to describe.”
Speaking on his role when it comes to the history of the Holocaust, Oliver says that it is important for his generation and the generations to follow, to not let it be forgotten;
“Soon enough, the atrocities of the Holocaust will be out of living memory so it is more important than ever that we keep talking about it.
There are already people who deny the Holocaust happened and when all the survivors are gone it will be the job of people like me to say no it did happen, I have the proof.”
Oliver is currently hosting the Objects of Love exhibition at Dublin Castle with many of his families photos and possessions on display.
Oliver is also the founder of Holocaust Awareness Ireland.