…Old people

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Young people have their place in the world, I suppose, I like them well enough. Some of them look nice, in their scruffy way. I like it when they’re enthusiastic about stuff, even if they don’t know much about it. I can bear it when they’re healthily sceptical, even when they know next to nothing about the stuff they’re being healthily sceptical about. I think it’s hilarious when they go all world-weary. What do they have to be so miserable about? Why do they take themselves so seriously?

The over seventies, on the other hand, know that sometimes there are reasons to be unhappy and that happy is better. Old people are the ones you’d prefer to talk to. The over seventies have seen things and know about stuff, maybe things you don’t want to know.

I went to a do on Sunday. It was organised by the 45 Aid Society, which is a charity formed by concentration camp survivors. It’s held every year around the anniversary of their liberation. This year was the seventieth since they found freedom. They hug each other, happy to meet again. There is a bond between them. They laugh because they know how serious life can be. Here they were; smart, beautifully groomed, well-dressed, their families around them, two and three more generations. They survived the Second World War to have good lives after childhoods filled with blood, bones and ashes. My father, who I wrote about here, was one of them.

In 1945 Britain agreed to allow a thousand children to come here from the camps. Only 732 could be found to make the journey. Many have since moved elsewhere, but they all love Britain for this. They called themselves The Boys. The girls were also Boys. On Sunday there were only fifty-two of the original group left. When they were children they survived cholera and typhus, starvation and savage beatings, and don’t ask what else. They had to be strong to survive and surviving made them stronger. They had luck, too, if you think that seeing the things those children saw makes them lucky. They are, even in their mid eighties, unruly. They know what it is to be herded into dark places you don’t want to think about. The day my father arrived in the Buchenwald concentration camp, in 1944, he was paralysed by fear for twenty-four hours. Even fifty years later he was brought to tears when he thought of it.

My mother wants me to write about what it’s like to be the child of a concentration camp survivor, but I don’t want to. The shadow doesn’t just fall over my father, we’re all touched by that darkness. I’ve known about what happened for most of my life and you can tell by the way I skirt around details that I can’t bear to think about them. On Sunday I spoke to my brother about therapy. I’ve started a short course with a career counsellor. This is small beer, Martin has had many years of intense psychotherapy. He told me that more than two of them were spent discussing what it’s like to be the son of a survivor. I don’t know if I can tell you what it’s like, not without two years of therapy, anyway. It’s always with you, with me, anyway. I will never have to endure what my father endured. Which, believe me, is a relief to us both. It’s what he spent over sixty years working for.

Stephen approached me. We were at school together, friends in the same group, went to the same places on Saturday nights. Group, not ‘gang’. Heavens. We shook hands. Actually, he did that odd thumb-shake thing that some people think is, what’s the word, street? Urban? Stephen has three children at uni, is a lawyer with an international reputation and lives in a large detached house in Hampstead Garden Suburbs. Maybe Stephen thinks I’m street and urban. Maybe he thinks I’m cool. I am not. We didn’t see each other for thirty-five years, but now we bump into each other at these occasions. He’s my solicitor if ever I have the need of one, which I don’t. We fell into talking about being the children of camp survivors. I remember his father well, he was one of my father’s group (not gang) – sallow, thin, balding, quiet. He was a nice man. I may be reading too much into my memory of him, but he seemed infinitely sad. Stephen and I talked about the robustness of the survivors. His father, he said, never really recovered from his experiences, never forgot them for an hour. Stephen, 56, is a year older than his father was when he died. Not all the survivors were robust.

When the Boys arrived in Britain in 1945 people would ask what the war had been like for them. At first they would tell their hosts all about it. They were met with either disbelief or tears of sadness and horror. The Boys made a pact between themselves; they would only speak of their experiences during the war when they were together. But the release of Schindler’s List over forty-five years later changed this. Here was an illustration of the terrible things they’d experienced, for the World to see. Slowly they began to tell their stories. First to the Spielberg Shoah Foundation, then to Martin Gilbert for his book about them, The Boys. It was a relief to them to be able to talk openly about what they had been through. Some started giving talks to schools and universities. Zigi even told the England football squad about what he’d gone through. I’ve included a short clip of it – and Stephen Gerrard talking about it – at the bottom of this post.

On Sunday we were treated to some long and worthy speeches. There were presentations and an unveiling of a wall hanging. The band was too loud and there was an endless dinner. There were over six hundred people there. Most of them were under sixty, but the fifty-two survivors who have lived for another seventy years stood out. My father died four years ago, but many of his great friends were there; Yan, Ben, Zigi, Cushi and Big Harry. Little Harry died ten years ago. What they want to do is talk, make each other laugh, catch up, check how each others’ families are doing. It’s not really necessary, they all keep in touch. They know. They know. And that’s why I love old people.

Photo by Simon Wilder

Survivors of concentration camps in 2013. Photo by Simon Wilder

Survivors of concentration camps, 2015. Photo by Simon Wilder

Survivors of concentration camps, 2015. Photo by Simon Wilder

Survivors of concentration camps, 2013. Photo by Simon Wilder

Survivors of concentration camps, 2013. Photo by Simon Wilder

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Photographer, writer, graphic designer, Londoner, blogger, tweeter, cakeboy.

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