One might be forgiven for thinking, as the world marks Holocaust Memorial Day on Saturday, that everything that could be said about the Shoah has already been said. There have been more than 400 films made and at least 18,000 books published. But eight decades on, there are still people discovering life-changing, and heart-breaking, revelations about the fate of their families.
Judy Simon, one of Britain’s youngest survivors, knew she was born Judith Auerbach in Vienna in 1942. She knew she had been adopted in Surrey aged five by a British-Jewish couple, Rosa and Arthur Gardner. Arthur had been part of the liberation forces at Bergen-Belsen and had made a commitment amid the depravity of the death camp that he would take in a refugee child. “And I was the lucky one,” Judy tells me from her bungalow in leafy Hertfordshire.
But she did not know who her biological father was or any detail about her birth family beyond her mother’s name.
The 81-year-old visited London’s Wiener Holocaust Library last summer, hoping to get some answers from the International Tracing Service (ITS).
It was established in the capital by the allies 80 years ago next month as an official registration service for millions of missing people. As they liberated Western Europe, they also paid particular attention to collecting the meticulous Nazi documents – including concentration camp lists, prisoner cards and death certificates.
“It is the most remarkable archive that I’ve ever come across,” says Elise Bath, who manages the only portal in the UK to what is now known as the Arolsen Archives, housed in Bad Arolsen, Germany. It stretches to 30 million documents relating the experiences of 17.5 million people, requires 16 miles of shelving and was only opened to researchers in 2007.
Bath found Judy’s mother’s name – Brandla – on a deportation list to Auschwitz in July 1942. She also came across even more shattering news.
Judy had a five-year-old brother, Kurt, and a three-year-old sister, Rifka. They were on the same deportation and, along with their mother, were gassed within a day of arrival.
“It happens sometimes that we will find children and the people who have asked us to look didn’t even know that they had ever been born, much less that they’d died,” says Bath. “So we have occasional cases of these –,” she pauses, a catch in her throat.
“Sorry, it’s always a bit emotional because the Nazis wanted to destroy these people physically and also destroy all memory of them, and they succeeded. So it’s wonderful to be able to use the archive to at least pull the names back,” says Bath.
Judy, meanwhile, was safely hidden in a Viennese children’s home – but not for long. At just four months old, she was transported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp later in 1942. “I’m amazed I survived, I really am,” says the former dental practice manager. Upon liberation in May 1945, she had lost her hair, was suffering from diphtheria and was temporarily blind.
From there, in August 1945, she was taken to the Lake District, among the first tranche of what would be more than 700 traumatised orphans. The group became known as the Windermere Children, whose story was told in a 2020 BBC drama of the same name (although Judy only learnt she was among their number a couple of years ago when she spotted herself in a black-and-white photo at a Holocaust memorial event).
In the 1990s, Judy had been told by the Austrian embassy in London that her birth father, Josef Auerbach, had survived the war. “I was shocked, I was in tears. I said, ‘Well how come he didn’t look for me?’”
Bath traced Josef, Brandla’s first husband, to South America in 1938. Michael Tobias, honorary research fellow for the genealogical studies programme at the University of Strathclyde, took up the search.
However, after cross referencing DNA results from Judy, combined with records in a Polish database and the ITS archive, it was revealed that her father was in fact Chaim Bernstein. He was on the same deportation to Auschwitz as the rest of her family and murdered too.
Tobias’s research also tracked down two first cousins, including one in Israel, Daniela, who last year gave Judy a photo of Brandla – the first time she can remember ever seeing her mother’s face. No picture survives of her brother and sister.
Judy says she feels no anger, just profound sorrow at all that has been lost. “It was a shock – to see that photograph and to know where I came from. And sadness. It’s very emotional, even though I’ve had the most wonderful life. I have been extremely lucky,” she says.
Bath says that in the past year the proportion of enquiries from survivors has increased from 9 to 15 per cent (the remainder come from subsequent generations and academic researchers). “We have people sometimes saying, ‘Oh, is this still relevant?’ I’m sure it feels pretty relevant to the survivors who are asking what happened to their immediate relatives. It feels like a very living archive,” she says.
I ask what advice Judy would give to anyone else in her position, unsure about delving into the past.
“Go for it,” says the mother of three and grandmother of six. “I never knew who I was. I did it for my children’s sake as well, that they should know their heritage. “If you’d interviewed me this time last year, I wouldn’t have known the truth. Everything changed in one year, it’s amazing.”
To access the ITS records, contact the Wiener Holocaust Library (wienerholocaustlibrary.org).