Recalling horrors that can never be forgotten

Holocaust survivor Stephen Breuer.
Holocaust survivor Stephen Breuer.

Memories and personal experiences of Holocaust survivor Stephen Breuer help to ensure that future generations have an understanding of what happened.

Holocaust survivor Stephen Breuer is helping to ensure future generations never forget the horror that he and thousands of others went through at the hands of Nazi Germany.

At the age of six, Stephen – along with his mum, brother, uncle, aunt and grandma – escaped being sent to Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland in June 1944 when they were among just 51 people from five families put on a different train.

However, his father Paul was sent away and later died in Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany just three months before it was liberated.

It’s a life many people today can easily fail to imagine, but Stephen’s stark memories are going a small way to keeping the memory alive.

Stephen’s dad, who ran his own business making washing powders and glues, was sent to a labour camp in the early 1940s by an anti-semitic Hungarian government which supported the Nazis.

Apart from occasional visits home, Stephen would not see his father again.

In the meantime, Stephen and the rest of his family had been moved into a walled ghetto, with their every movement controlled.

From there they were among 3,000 Hungarian Jews rounded up and taken to the railway station at Pápa, Stephen’s home town, in Hungary.

By pure luck, they ended up being sent to Budapest, rather than Auschwitz, where they lived in holding camps and ghettos, with the threat of being sent to a German camp constantly hanging over them.

Ghetto life continued until January 18 1945, when the Russian army reached the Pest side of the city.

Stephen’s father died, aged 41, at Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, on January 26 1945, three months before the camp was liberated. Many more family members also perished at Auschwitz.

However, having been so young when war broke out meant Stephen’s own memories are incomplete.

He said: “Very few days go by without my thinking about my father.

“It is different at this time of year because I need to stand up and talk about him.

“What is a disappointment is that I don’t have many memories of my father.

“I would ask my mother and my uncle what he was like but I don’t feel that I have a real picture of him.

“My own recollections are a mix of things I remember and also things I have been told by other family members.

“I was protected as much as possible.

“Obviously if you are leaving home and pushed onto a train without your things you know something is happening.

“I knew something nasty was happening because of things I heard.

“If you don’t have enough to eat or you are cold then it’s very hard to conceal those things.

“But the full magnitude and the implications came much later. It’s still coming.

“I still come across things that I didn’t know were happening.

“To understand the magnitude and to understand that this was done by people to other people – to people like themselves.

“The danger of it happening again hasn’t disappeared – not necessarily to Jews but to other minorities.”

Four years ago, Stephen and his brother Eli, a retired academic who lives in Israel, dedicated a plaque to their dad at Buchenwald.

Stephen eventually left Hungary in 1956 at the age of 19, studying at university in the UK before going travelling.

In 1966 he got a job at the newly built Lancaster University on a chemistry research fellowship, and then took a lecturing job.

He now lives in Meadowside, Lancaster, with his second wife Betsy. He has three children - sons Paul, 51, and Alex, 47, and daughter Susie, 45 – and the couple have nine grandchildren between them.

And to Stephen, Lancaster is well and truly home.

He said: “The Government in Hungary is quite anti-semitic and dictatorial.

“I last visted in 2008 and I have no plans to go back.

“In Hungary I was not Hungarian, I was Jewish.

“It hasn’t been my country for a long time. I was visiting once and I realised it was not my home – the place names seemed funny in a way that place names here don’t.

“This is the country where my children and grandchildren were born.

“I have lived in England for 58 years. This is home.”

Stephen taught chemistry at Lancaster University until 2002, and has since concentrated on his main hobby, pottery.

He also gives talks on the Holocaust to schoolchildren, and will be lighting a candle at the Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations next week.

Stephen, now 77, said: “I became involved with the commemorations in 2006, when I was invited to light a candle in honour of the survivors. I was then asked if I would be willing to talk to students in schools.

“I do a series of school visits, usually with fifth or sixth formers.

“They will already have done the subject in history and are hopefully old enough not to have too many nightmares.

“What I try to do is enhance their understanding, which I do in two ways: I try to give them some kind of handle of the scale of what happened, which some people find difficult to comprehend.

“How can you understand what it means to have X million people die?

“The example I find people find helpful is that when someone dies it is customary to have a minute’s silence.

“The number of people who died [in the Holocaust] is estimated to be 11 million – the question is how long would you have to remain silent for, and the answer is 21 years. For Jews alone it would be 11 and a half years.

“The other way I try to enhance their understanding is to get away from the statistics, because these are not just numbers, they are names and faces and families. That’s where my personal experience comes in.

“I tell them a list of the restrictions which were put in place on people – a total separation of the Jewish community.

“That started long before the mass deportation to the extermination camps.”

Over the years Stephen has visited Morecambe High, Carnforth High, Heysham High, both grammar schools and, for the first time this year, Ripley St Thomas.

Stephen has also given talks at both universities and at Lancaster Farms Young Offenders’ Institution.

And his view is perhaps best summed up by Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

He said: “In some ways it’s an effort for me because some of the pictures I show are of my family.

“Doing the talks time and time again gives a degree of detachment, but looking at the pictures is not an easy experience for me.

“But I think it’s important to help the next generation to understand what identifying a group and deciding that they are bad can lead to.

“We haven’t learned the lessons. Humans are still doing this in different parts of the world.

“Perhaps if we can help the next generation appreciate what happened in the past it might be less likely that they will repeat it.

“I have no illusions about changing the world but if we can help a few people to think differently about other people then I don’t mind sharing experiences.”