Tuesday 27th January 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. The liberation of the camp has become a date in the calendars of many communities at which we stop and reflect about the death, destruction and inhumanity in our recent past. For Julia Kinch, a member of Touchstone’s WY-FI Team, this date has a deeply personal meaning. This is her story.
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial day is keeping the memory alive. I’m very lucky, because for me the memory of the Holocaust is still very much alive, in the form of my grandmother Iby Knill, an Auschwitz survivor.
I didn’t know this when I was growing up though. Whilst growing up I just knew her as my Oma – my gran, and I thought of her probably in much the same ways as many people think of their grandmothers. We went on family trips to see her in Leeds, I played with her dog and got to eat some of her delicious cooking – Cornish pasties and apple strudels are two of my favorite dishes!
But as I got older I started to learn more about my Oma, and I learnt more about my family. I went on a family holiday to Bratislava and Prague, and met family members who I’d never even heard of before, and who spoke in a language that I didn’t understand.
I had always known there was something important about my Oma being Jewish, but hadn’t ever really thought too much about it. My family aren’t religious, and my gran doesn’t adhere to the Jewish faith either, it was just this word that was used to describe something about my gran, but I didn’t know what.
Over the years the picture grew, and as I learnt more about World War Two as part of my History GCSE I began to ask questions and become curious. I began to wonder whether the fact my gran was Jewish had anything to do with the Holocaust.
At around this time my gran also started to investigate our family tree, though at the time I just assumed that this was one of those things people did – there were lots of adverts on the TV for family tree investigations, and TV programs like ‘Who do you think you are’ began springing up. Looking back on it now, this was probably part of her search to understand her own family’s story.
I remember my gran working on her book, ‘The Woman Without a Number’, and taking part in the BBC My Story competition. This is when the penny really started to drop, about how close to the Holocaust she had been. When she published her book she gave me a copy. It sat on my bookshelf for quite a while, I think I was a bit scared to read it, because I had no idea what I would find. Eventually I took the plunge and started reading.
It took a while though, for it to sink in that I was reading about someone I knew. More than that, I was reading about my gran. My gran who wrapped my advent calendar presents in fabric, who taught me and my best friend how to make summer pudding, and who encouraged me to play the clarinet.
It was weird. There was a disconnect in my mind, I couldn’t understand how this person, who worked as part of the resistance, who spent weeks in Auschwitz and who saw unimaginable horrors could possibly be the same person as my gran, my oma.
Over the next few years I began to learn more about her life, about how she met my grandfather who was in the British Army, how she helped run a shop with him, and how she came to graduate with an MA in Theology at the age of 79. I began to join the dots between my gran, who raised my mum, and my gran the Auschwitz survivor.
My gran began to encourage me to learn more about her past, and suggested that I look at becoming a legacy speaker with the Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association, as they had just been given a grant by the Big Lottery to run a volunteer program.
In 2013 I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend some training run by the Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association. I also go the chance to go to Poland with a group of Legacy speakers. We spent three days visiting many of the important historical sites, including Auschwitz. At first I was a little apprehensive about going. Part of me didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to be reminded of the things that happened during the holocaust. It seemed too close to home, to imagine that had things turned out differently, as they did for many families, I would not be here talking to you today.
In the end I decided that it was an important thing for me to do. Sometimes things are hard, and make us feel uncomfortable, but sometimes these things are necessary, and for me going to Poland was one of these things.
It taught me a lot about the sequence of events that lead to the Holocaust, and helped me understand how different the life my gran had as a young woman was in comparison to mine. It amazes me still, to think that my gran spent time in Auschwitz, that she lost many members of her family, met my grandfather and immigrated to the UK all by the time she was the same age as I am now.
But more than this, my trip to Poland reminded me why it is so important that we accept that humans are different. That we accept that we won’t always agree with each other, but that this is ok, because the differences between us are what make us so special.
For me, this is why keeping the memory alive is so important, because if we forget that difference is ok, and that we are allowed to disagree with one another, then we forget what it is to be human.
There are many examples of prejudice and discrimination in today’s society, we’re not perfect. But it’s so important that we remember this, and that we actively challenge our own prejudices in order to make our mark on this world, and to help it become a better place. No matter how large or small the impact we have, it means something, and everyone means something. So let’s keep the memory alive, because as my gran would say ‘Under the skin we are all the same’.
To learn more about my gran you can look at her website: http://ibyknill.co.uk/index/ or type her name into Youtube to see her speaking https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=iby+knill
To learn more about HSFA you can see here: http://holocaustlearning.org/
If you would like a copy of the book, The Woman Without a Number, they are available through Amazon.