Sunday, 15 February 2015

The boy with his hands in the air ..... by Miriam Halahmy

This is one of the most iconic images from the Holocaust - a seven year old boy with his hands up for the German camera man, surrendering to armed German soldiers. The terrified look on his face speaks volumes. It is 1943 and this image is from the Warsaw Ghetto. It is an image which is often used to show how the Nazis waged war on children; on those least able to defend or protect themselves.

But like so many pictures from history, even as recent as 72 years ago, there is a sense that all the people in this picture have vanished and so our connection to such horror weakens and becomes distant and easy to disconnect from.

However, on Holocaust Memorial Day, 2015, I had the privilege of meeting Arieh Simonsohn, now in his 80s -  Arieh was the boy with his hands in the air. Suddenly history came alive in front of me.

Arieh had been invited to speak at an event held at Southampton University for HMD 2015, the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. On that day 300 survivors of the camp gathered in Birkenau. Among them was my father's cousin, Renee Salt, who was also a child in the Holocaust and survived the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, slave labour and Belsen, only to find herself all alone in the world after liberation.
The HMD event in Southampton was one of 70 sites chosen around the UK for the lighting of one of Anish Kapoor's candles. Kapoor, the eminent sculptor, was commissioned to create a special installation for this important anniversary. He made 70 candles and Arieh lit the candle at Southampton.

I had a chance to speak to Arieh beforehand and he told me about the photo. He is seven years old and over his shoulder is a bag which his mother made for him. He has almost no memory of this time as though the trauma has been wiped from his mind. But he remembers the clothes and the bag. He kept everything he could scavenge in that bag, food scraps, etc until it was stolen from him. He thinks the woman behind him just in front of a German soldier is his mother, but he is not sure.

Arieh told me that for a long time he would not admit to being the boy because he was ashamed that he was surrendering. Well - he was only seven! Such was his strength and determination to survive, which he did when he was sent into hiding by his parents and faced so many terrible things, that the very thought of surrendering to the enemy was unthinkable. True grit even to this day.

Arieh also said that the soldier behind him, facing the camera and with his gun pointing straight at the child was a man called Bleuther who had personally massacred over 3000 people in the ghetto. He was a mass murderer. He wasn't caught until 1968 and then he was tried and sentenced to death.
"I was very fortunate, I was lucky," Arieh said to me with a smile playing on his face. "You were so strong, an inspiration to us all," was all I could say back as I patted his arm. The whole of Arieh's family disappeared in the Holocaust. "Until recently I could not accept that they were dead," said Arieh. "But probably they died on a transport to Treblinka." Over 300,000 people were transported from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka death camp and murdered. Thousands died within the Warsaw Ghetto from starvation, disease, torture and murder. Arieh is one of the few survivors.

Arieh is among the dwindling number of survivors who is still able to visit schools and communities to give their eye witness stories. Holocaust Memorial Day gives everyone an opportunity to reflect on this particular genocide and those which so sadly have followed since 1945 : Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and also that of the Armenian genocide which preceded the Holocaust.
My friend Helen Bonny wrote a song, Keep the Memory Alive, which was performed by Jack Cook, a professional singer and song writer and Helen's son.

Arieh was forced to look after himself from the age of seven until the end of the war, two years later, without his parents.He learnt many skills including running with a gang, removing German landmines to help the Allied advance and stealing food. He triumphed over all the odds and came to the UK where he built a new life for himself. He could not speak highly enough of his adopted country.But the real accolade lies with Arieh himself. He never gave up and he never gave in.


Sue Purkiss said...

Goodness. What can you say to a story like that? Thank you, Miriam.

Joan Lennon said...


Sue Bursztynski said...

I had heard that this boy survived, but he's still alive? Wow! My own parents were/are Holocaust survivors, though a few years older than Arieh(nice to put a name to the face) - Mum 13, Dad 16 - and Dad was in the Warsaw Ghetto. They might have survived, but their lives and families were stolen from them all the same. It might be a good thing for him that he can't remember much about this time, but unfair. I hope those responsible are roasting in hell!

Becca McCallum said...

Just what Sue said. Thank-you. I am now always going to remember Arieh and his story. It really does make a difference to know the names of people in photographs like this one that are so widely shared in textbooks and magazines as a symbol of the horror. Because we are so exposed to them it's almost as if we are immune to the significance - but something so simple as learning a name can make it stand out again. Not expressing myself very well here, but I wanted to leave a comment anyway.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I think you've expressed yourself very well, Becca. And the ancient Egyptians certainly got it. About the worst thing they could do to you when you died was make sure your name went with you. Even today there are dictators trying to wipe out names and the very existence of inconvenient people. For most people, that child is a symbol; with the name - Arieh! - he becomes more. He becomes a person.

Incidentally, there's that famous picture of the young girl running with napalm injuries - she's still around too, and I'm embarrassed to say I've forgotten her name, but it should be possible to Google it. But a lot of us assumed she was dead too.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Thanks for all the comments. Sue -remarkable testimony about your parents too. And yes, I have seen the girl who was the victim of the napalm bombing interviewed as an adult on TV and again, there was this amazing sense of reality - these are not just pictures but real people.

Anne Booth said...

This was a wonderful post.

Helen Bonney said...

Just catching up Miriam. Thanks for coming down to the very memorable event. xxx

Katharine Rosenstiel said...

I've read several sources over the years that the boy in the photo was actually Tsvi Nussbaum and that, that has been verified so a little confused now

Katharine Rosenstiel said...

I retract my last comment but according to sources there are 4 possibles for the boy in the photo of Artur Siemiatek, Tsvi Nussbaum, Levi Zelinwarger and a 4th who asked to be kept anonymous, for all the sources (of which there are several) none of them mention Arieh Simonsohn as being a possible