MILLIONS of people who died in the Holocaust and subsequent genocides worldwide were honoured at a memorial evening in Sunderland.
Auschwitz survivor Arek Hersh was guest speaker at the event held in St Aidan’s Catholic Academy, which also featured readings, music and dance, as well as short talks on the Cambodian genocide and the life of Carmelite friar Pere Jacques de Jesus, who risked his life to save Jewish children in occupied France.
Arek Hersh was born in Sieradz, Poland, and was taken to his first concentration camp when he was just 11 years old.
He told the audience he had already lost his parents and siblings by August 1944.
He said: “They came to the orphanage where I was staying and we were packed into cattle trucks. We huddled together, not knowing where we were going.
Where they were going was Auschwitz and it was here that the quick-thinking 14-year-old cheated death by minutes.
Arriving at the camp, prisoners were split into two lines, one of able-bodied adults and the other of the elderly, infirm and children.
“I had been in camps before, so I knew this was not a good situation,” Mr Hersh told the audience.
“The women, children and elderly people were being sent one way, the strong another way.”
While the guards were distracted, he and another boy slipped into the other line.
“As I stood there, I watched the children disappear. They were never seen again.”
As the Allies closed in on Auschwitz in the closing days of the war, the inmates were forced to march cross country to another camp.
He was finally liberated by the Russian Army from Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia on May 8, 1945.
“There was I, a small, emaciated uneducated child with no family, no friends, nothing to go back to and nothing to look forward to,” he said.
Arek was one of a group of Jewish boys who came to England and stayed in the Lake District, before being rehoused around the country.
It was not until writing his autobiography, A Detail of History, that he began to come to terms with what he had experienced.
Until then he had not even been able to share his experiences, not even with his wife Jean.
“She knew nothing,” he said.
Today he lives near Leeds and for more than a decade has dedicated himself to preserving the memory of those who died, working regularly with schools and even returning to Auschwitz to keep alive the memory of what happened.
“Arek Hersh is not a particularly significant name, but it is my name and even today, there are almost two million of my fellow Jews who do not have the dignity of a name even in death,” he said.
“I want you to know they were people just like me.
“The real challenge is to say ‘What can I do to make a difference?
“How can I play my part to make sure these sorts of monstrosities never happen again?
“I like to feel I am leaving my grandchildren a world where they and their children will never have to go through that again.”