Thank you to Arek Hersh MBE and his wife Jean for coming to Brooksbank and sharing their experiences of life under the brutal Nazi regime of the early 1940s.
Arek’s talk has been hugely beneficial to developing Year 9 students’ understanding of their Nazi Germany History topic and was arranged by Mr Mills. It was a riveting reality check about the horrors of the holocaust, and students listened intently to 90-year-old Arek and 85-year-old Jean, as they recounted life in the death camps when Arek was just a boy.
Arek, who was born in Sieradz Poland, was just 11 years old when he experience the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp. Following the Nazi Germany invasion of his home country, he was taken to a camp called Otoschno, near Poznan, which was run by the SS. After 18 months in the camp, there were just 11 of the original 2,500 men left alive. “I survived because I worked for the camp commander, he must have taken pity over me as he’d leave bread for me when I went to his house,” said Arek. “It was a tough camp, people were being beaten up around me, others were being hung and I was terrified, but I got used to it.”
After two years in Otoschno, Arek was sent home to his family. “I was [reunited] with my mother, sisters and brother, my father had already been sent to a concentration camp and we never saw him again.” In August 1942, the Nazis decided to liquidate the ghetto. 4,000 people were made to assemble in the church, then taken to Chelmno death camp where they were gassed and buried in mass graves. Arek escaped on pretence of getting some water and joined a group of people who had been selected to work.
In 1944 he was rounded up again, put on a goods train and transported to Auschwitz. Within hours of arriving, he was given a shower (his first in six months), his hair was shaven off and was he was given a new name – B7608 – which was tattooed on his arm. “I remember the size of the place, it was enormous,” said Arek, who was 14 at the time.
Arek told students of the lessons he had learned whilst in the previous concentration camp; it was this knowledge of what to do and how that increased his chances of survival.
Arek was one of the lucky ones who were eventually liberated, by the Soviet Army, after the collapse of the Nazi regime at the end of the war. He was among a fortunate group of 300 Holocaust-surviving girls and boys who were evacuated to the Lake District. Arek and Jean are now proud grandparents who live in Yorkshire.
Arek didn’t speak about his experiences for fifty years then, in 1995, he wrote a book called A Detail of History. Today Arek goes to schools, universities and other organisations to talk about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. He hopes that by doing this he can help young people to build a better world. Says Arek, “I was desperate to survive, I wanted to know what life was all about.”
We would like to thank Arek and Jean Hersh for coming into Brooksbank to share their harrowing story.