The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end when Lady Zahava Kohn showed me the bowls she had eaten from while incarcerated as a child in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. This, added to the poignancy of the photograph she carries with her of her baby brother Jehudi, which had been smuggled into the camp, was overwhelming. Barely bigger than a postage stamp, the picture brought hope that the 16-month-old was alive after her parents took the heartbreaking decision to place him in the care of the Dutch Resistance during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, where they had been living.
For decades these belongings were hidden at the back of a cupboard because her mother was unwilling to burden the family with reminders of their past. But when Zahava chanced upon a suitcase full of artefacts, she realised that her mother had kept them for a reason, and she felt driven to begin talking about what they had all been through.
In Zahava’s case this meant nine months in a transit camp and then a further year in Belsen. She was ten when she and her family were eventually transferred out, just a few months before liberation in 1945. She weighed just 3st 8lb (23kg). They all spent many months in hospital recovering from both the physical and mental trauma of their ordeal. But, having been reunited with Jehudi, they went on to experience great happiness.
Zahava is just one of the extraordinary people that I’ve had the privilege of meeting since I embarked on a project organised by the Government to record the testimony of Britain’s last living Holocaust survivors and concentration camp liberators. Focusing on those who had never spoken before, I interviewed more than a hundred people during the course of a year.
I’ve heard stories of immense suffering and loss. I’ve also seen the extraordinary strength that hope and love can bring in desperate times. It was a personal journey for me, too – in part settling a family score – after I’d discovered, courtesy of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? in 2007, that many of my own family were killed in a ghetto in Belarus.
Sybil Van der Velde shows Fiona Bruce her husband Joe’s concentration camp trousers
I felt it was my duty to record these testimonies so that future generations can learn what people endured during the Holocaust, that the millions of people who were murdered are never forgotten and, hopefully, to help to ensure it never happens again. The testimonies will be shown in a learning centre due to be built alongside a new National Holocaust Memorial in Westminster, adjacent to Parliament, at the very heart of our democracy. They’re a stark warning of the depths to which an enlightened society can plummet when hatred and prejudice are allowed to flourish.
I met Zahava again recently for the filming of a special edition of Antiques Roadshow at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, to mark National Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January. The artefacts shown to both Fiona Bruce and me are not just of enormous historical importance, but they’re also priceless. So, in a complete break with a near 40-year tradition, the programme does not attempt to place any value on the items brought in. How would it be possible to?
We saw clothing, letters, family jewellery and even thank-you gifts given by survivors to camp liberators. Children’s author and illustrator Judith Kerr brought along some sketches she did as a child, before her family fled Berlin in 1933 when Hitler came to power. And then there was Sybil Van der Velde. Out of love for her late husband Joe, she tells the story of his survival through a number of concentration camps. She talks with a pair of striped trousers folded neatly on her lap – trousers he was forced to wear while imprisoned. A tangible and haunting reminder of the barbarity he experienced.
There was something extremely special about coming together for the filming of Antiques Roadshow Holocaust Memorial. It was rather extraordinary that we all united, in spite, and because, of our past. And it was impossible not to be deeply moved by the respect the survivors have found for each other, and by the overwhelming love they have for the families they’ve created as they rebuilt their lives in Britain.
As they face the camera, these people are trusting you with their deepest emotions, their darkest experiences and their hope that prejudice and hatred will never be allowed to take hold in such a way again. I’m proud of the promise we are making to each of them that, by listening to what they have to say, their stories will live on and we will remember – today, and for every generation to come.