HOW THE ATTENBOROUGH FAMILY CAME TO HAVE TWO SISTERS
From Lord (then Sir) Richard Attenborough C.B.E
1989 12th June
Sidney Samuelson, Esq.,
You asked me to let you have some gen about my two adopted sisters. My father chaired a committee when Principal of Leicester University College devoted to bringing Jewish refugees out of Hitler's Germany. In a large number of cases it merely meant housing them for a relatively brief period of time while they obtained visas to go to relatives in either the United States or Canada (this applied particularly to children).
On the particular occasion, my Mama - known as Mary, my father being known as the Governor - went to London to collect two girls whose father was one of the medical officers for Berlin. They arrived back home, Irene aged 12 and Helga 9, the former with a dreadful nervous mannerism and the latter almost covered in sores.
As far as my two brothers and I were concerned, they were just two further lost children who seemed to inhabit our house every few weeks. However, the difference was that during their time with us, war was declared. One day on our return from school, David, John and I were asked to go and see the Governor in his study. Mary was also there. They both explained to us that the two girls who were at present staying in the house were by virtue of the threatened war totally stranded. They had little news of their father, their mother and elder sister were in concentration camps (perhaps I should add that by some miracle their elder sister survived, but they never saw their mother or father again). Equally there was now no possibility of a visa to go to America and so Mary and the Governor had decided that with our agreement the two girls should remain with us for as long as the war lasted and until they could rejoin their family. My parents were adamant that there was only one condition under which this was possible and it was that they should to all intents and purposes adopt the two girls. It would mean, they explained, that we would no longer be a family of five but a family of seven, and that the family would only engage in any form of activity - holidays, outings, supply of clothes etc - that we could afford as a family of seven. The girls would be treated in exactly the same way and that my parents would love them as they loved their three sons. In other words, they were to become our ''sisters” on a totally equal standing with the three of us, the only difference being that whereas we referred to Mary and the Governor as Mother and Father, the girls would call them Aunt and Uncle, naturally in the expectation that they would eventually be reunited with their own parents.
The decision, the Governor said, is up to you boys. If they are to live with us, your Mother and I are convinced that this is the only proper way in which we should anticipate the future. Naturally the three of us agreed at once and I am sure David and John would agree that it was one of the best decisions we have ever made.
We became devoted to Irene and Helga and have remained so for the last 50 years. They both live in the United States now, both were married (although sadly Irene’s husband Sam Goldschmit has died), but Helga remains married to Herman Waldman and they have two daughters.
So, my dear Sydney, that is how David and John and I came to acquire two sisters.
Lord (then Sir) Richard Attenborough C.B.E
(from New Zealand Holocaust Memorial)
THE TWIN BROTHERS I COULD NEVER MEET
In 1988, I visited my family in Detroit whom I had not seen for many years. I felt tension and strife between my parents and within the family, perhaps only because I had been away from it so long. I mentioned this to my Father, who opened up and for the first time spoke to me about his relationship with my Mother, the difficulties and frustrations he felt over the years; that he felt limited by Mom’s “Illness” (who was also a Holocaust survivor). He told me that a social worker would visit them, when my oldest sister was first born. The social worker would ask Dad questions, to which he would reply honestly, but Mom would never answer, never engage, avoid contact with the social worker - my Father expressing to me how this upset him, for the first time...
Then my Dad told me how he had been happily married before the war, with twin babies... I thought I had misheard; we have twins in our family, what is my Dad talking about? Then it became clear; we were my Dad’s 2nd family! The thought that I could be just a replacement to what my Dad had in happier times crossed my mind and exited it almost as fast. In retrospect, THIS could have been the spark I needed to ignite an interest in finding out more about my family -- but I wasn’t there yet, not yet...
It took another 17 years, after my Father passed away, that in 2008 I travelled to Poland with 5 friends from Temple Sinai, Wellington, NZ. We visited Oswiecim, the town next to Auschwitz, where my Father knew a happier life, before the War. I know this from the video we saw there at the Auschwitz Museum; residents spoke about the good lives they had there before the Nazis invaded. What I also found there is this book, “Jews of Oswiecim – 1918-1941”. As soon as I saw it, I quickly searched and found my Father correctly listed in its pages, and for the first time, the names and birthdates of his twin sons, Henryk and Wigdor, born 31 Jan 1940.
The book also lists the last known address for the three of them in the Sosnowitz Ghetto, the date arrested, 29 Mar 1941. Unfortunately, there is no mention of their Mother, Regina Monczyk, in the book, as she was born in Kleszczów. From new research, I now know that she was with them, but for how long, or what happened to her, I do not know. Or what happened to my half-brothers, the twins, Henryk and Wigdor. Neither did my Father... I am informed by CANDLES Foundation that he tried to find out what happened to his boys, after the war, during the rest of his life. As I do not have a date of their death, I remember them on the date of their Bar Mitzvah, had they lived so long, by chanting their hafatarah portion at shul, having done so at Temple Sinai and Beth El, so that in this small way, their memory can live on.
Rick Sahar (Hornung) Wellington, New Zealand
"LISTEN AS MUCH TO THE SILENCES AS TO THE STORIES PEOPLE TELL."
I recently visited the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand and was deeply moved by the project to collect 1.5 million buttons to honour the memory of the 1.5 million children killed during that time. 1.5 million…the number is unimaginable, 1/3 of the entire New Zealand population. My family only survives today because my grandmother, Vera O’Brien (nee Harth) was fortunate enough not to have been one of those children.
Grandma was born in Vienna in 1929. Following the annexation of Austria her family fled to her grandmother’s house in Vrbove, Slovakia and then on to Prague where arrangements were made to send her to Britain on the Kindertransport train. That was 1 July, 1939, she was 9 years old. In her seventies my grandmother wrote a book of her “journey to life” which documents, like many other Jewish families, the incredible resilience and fortitude of the human spirit in times of extreme adversity.
My part in writing this story is to tell something of the 3rd generation of Holocaust survivors. The Holocaust has had an indelible impact on my family, yet is not often discussed. I certainly never discussed my grandmother’s experience in depth with her, and it was not until she wrote her book that I knew her to reminisce about that time. Even in writing, she did not dwell on the experience of escaping the Nazi regime. It may be that she intentionally focussed on the positive, on her strength and growth following those events – her journey to life. Whatever the reason, there is a certain silence around the events of the Holocaust that I know extends beyond my own family.
I am now in my 30’s and an anthropologist, currently undertaking doctoral research that looks at the importance of cultural connectedness to mental and emotional wellbeing. My academic interests have undoubtedly been shaped by my family’s experience. Anthropology is essentially the study of people, of the similarities and differences between societies and cultures. I have always been amazed at how threatening difference can be to people, and at the very extreme reactions to it, like persecution and genocide. I believe in the power of narrative and the importance of telling stories, such as those on this website, which keep memories alive and, I hope, help future generations to understand the intergenerational impact of prejudice and terror.
It is important, however, to listen as much to the silences as to the stories people tell. Much research has been carried out into the long-term impact of the Holocaust and some of that suggests, quite reasonably, that the memories are too painful for survivors to relive. There is interesting research to suggest that 3rd generation survivors are enough removed from the events themselves as to be able to study the impact in more detail. That is certainly true in my own family, where my father does not discuss the trauma inflicted on my grandmother, and subsequently on himself.
Whatever the case, as a 3rd generation survivor, I am still acutely aware of the intergenerational impact of those events. I am eternally grateful to Sir Nicholas Winton for his bravery and altruism, and to my grandmother for her strength and resilience. My identity as the grandchild of a survivor gives me a desire to make the most of the life I have, and to work within my own sphere of influence to help others and shape society in a positive way.
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world’ – Anne Frank.
"THE WOUNDS WE’RE STILL WEEPING"
I wasn't previously aware of the Holocaust centre in Wellington and travelled from Christchurch to see it. Since listening to Vera on Radio NZ last week I have mentioned the
button project to many friends. It catches at something in peoples' hearts. When we learnt the lessons and saw the horrific images at school it seemed like something a long time ago. But your story brings it back into focus.
When I was in Berlin five years ago and listened to the fervour of the people my own age who were at the time appalled by the rising nationalist feeling amongst soccer fans in Germany, they were saying they would never raise their fists in that unthinking way. They were 25 years old and felt those wounds of their history, it was as though the wounds were still weeping.
I havent stopped thinking about you all since my breif visit last Sunday to the holocaust centre. Actually the images that are foremost in my mind are the drawings that the children did in the concentration camps. Of course it breaks my heart. The buttons are beautiful in themselves.
"I WALKED INTO THAT ROOM AND I WAS COMPLETELY TAKEN AWAY...."
In my History class at St Catherine’s College, I am studying the Holocaust and Holocaust denial for an internal assessment, so I decided that a great way to gather some more information about what really happened during the Holocaust was to take a trip to the Holocaust Centre. I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust as my grandishma Kitty Hilton’s family were victims and I’ve always heard so many stories about them and her family surrounding the Holocaust and so I wanted to know even more.
When Kitty and I first arrived at the Holocaust Centre I was introduced to Steven and Vera, who were children survivors of the Holocaust. Steven was the one who showed me around and gave me all the information I needed to help with my project, and was such a perfect guide to help me! Vera was a lovely woman who took a while to open up, but eventually told me parts of her story and I realised just how brave she was, as well as Steven. It really put in perspective for me just how much this horrific event haunted and affected so many people.
After Steven had taken me around and showed me all the information, Vera told me about the button project. The aim was to collect 1.5 million buttons to represent the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust. Now that all the buttons have been collected, the Wellington City Council has given their permission and support for the people who are involved in the button project, to come up with a design and place the final model somewhere in the city. I am so interested in this project, I think it’s such an incredible idea! And fortunately Vera took me into the room where all the buttons are kept. You can never picture 1.5 million objects. I walked into that room and I was completely taken away at how many buttons there actually were. There were around 20 boxes filled up with buttons, maybe more. It really was an emotional experience because each one of those buttons represents one little life that was taken away under the worst circumstances.
Overall, I enjoyed my day so much at the Holocaust Centre! It really helped my understanding with the event and just how much it affected and is still affecting people. I can’t wait to see the final product of the button project because I think it’s a fantastic way for people to realise that this event really did happen and just how horrific it was.
Sammy Allen, Aged 17, St Catherine's College, Wellington