Holocaust survivor Harry Olmer BEM shares his story with New College Humanities students

15 Jul 2020 Harry Olmer

On Friday the 3rd of July, a group of students within the Humanities faculty at New College took part in a video call with Harry Olmer BEM – a survivor of the Holocaust. A total of 26 students and 10 staff members took part in the event, which was organised through the Holocaust Educational Trust. The Holocaust Educational Trust is a charity based in London, it works with schools across the country to educate students about the Holocaust.

Prior to the session, students engaged in a pre-testimony video call lesson with their Lecturer, Mark Owen. This session aimed to provide context for Harry’s survivor testimony. Lasting just under 2 hours, students were taught about European Jewry prior to Holocaust, with the aim of understanding the scale of loss. Furthermore, students reviewed a variety of different definitions of the Holocaust, in order to understand the complexity of defining this event.

Students were given the opportunity to listen to Harry Olmer’s survivor testimony and engage in a question and answer session. Harry’s testimony lasted for an hour and a half, which provided students with a very detailed account of his experiences as a Polish Jew. Students learnt about the loss of Harry’s immediate family, the selection process and his experiences in notorious work camps including: Plaszow and Skarzysko Kamienna in Poland.

Harry explained the type of work, which he and his fellow Jewish prisoners were forced to undertake. This included working in a dangerous chemical factory for a private German company, making shells and filling landmines with acid. Harry then went onto explain his time at Buchenwald, a concentration camp in Germany and his time in the ghetto at Terezin. Harry and his fellow prisoners were liberated by the Red Army on the 8th of May, 1945.

Student testimonials

Megan Richards: Year 2 student

Harry Olmer is an incredibly brave and inspiring man, whom I had the privilege of hearing testimony from through the Holocaust Educational Trust. As this was my first time hearing such a testimony, I didn't know what to expect; however, the pre session held by Mark was very informative and as a result I was well prepared and knew what to expect.

During the pre session, we used HET resources, which included photographs, home footage and diary entries from Jewish communities all over Europe, documenting their lives pre-war to further humanize and relate to the Jewish families whose lives were tragically affected and lost. This activity was very important because it humanised every Jewish life lost, which provides a distinct difference to the limited, quantitative Holocaust education I received in school.

When we delve deeply into the diversity of Jewish communities, we are able to relate and therefore empathise with their suffering more deeply. I also benefited from Harry’s biography that the HET presented us with in advance as it allowed me time to research unfamiliar concepts or places so that, upon hearing the testimony, there was no difficulty understanding the content.

Harry's testimony lasted approximately an hour and a half, and covered details spanning from his early life until his liberation; it was a truly moving experience. I was astounded by the seemingly small details Harry was able to recall, and also by the deliverance of his testimony, which was given with no bitterness. Additionally, as with the pre session, Harry’s testimony was incredibly humanising – all of the small stories served as a reminder that each and every Holocaust victim had their own stories and families, and were much more than just a number.

What I took away from the session was invaluable – not only did I gain much more knowledge about the history of the Holocaust, but I also saw the Holocaust from a completely different perspective to the one I was taught in school, whereby the tragedy, and therefore the importance of remembering the event, is amplified ten fold. During the Q&A held after the testimony, Harry was asked what the most important lesson we should take away from the Holocaust would be, to which he replied that we should only “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and also to “remain human”. These two lessons are timeless philosophies to live by while we pay our respects to those who lost their lives during the Holocaust, but also vital to keep in mind in the current political climate.

Claudine Richardson (Access to HE student)

“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness”, Elie Weisel

When I saw there was an opportunity to listen to the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, the above quote came to mind. With such a tragic blot on our history caused by the Holocaust, it is so important to listen to those victims who sadly had to endure such terrible things in order for us to prevent such atrocities happening again.

There was a pre session arranged via video call, which enabled us to gain a deeper understanding and insight into the life of Jewish people prior to the Holocaust in 1942. This involved thinking about the countries in Europe which had significant Jewish communities and the rich and cultured contributions made by many people. Through the process of humanising the people - seeing their relationships, shops, Bar Mitzvah’s, friendships, varying political beliefs, it heightened and broadened the depth of horror regarding their persecution by the Nazis. There were some things that I already knew, but much that I didn’t and I was glad we had the opportunity to have the pre-session.

Listening to Harry Olmer’s testimony was deeply moving and compelling. Realising how much of his childhood was marred by the cruel and horrific events of the Holocaust and the toll it took on his family was deeply saddening and moving. Only two out of five siblings survived and his parents perished too. He spoke eloquently and without bitterness, and referred to his grandchildren - the future, who were doing well. Harry took us on a journey through the Labour and Concentration camps he was incarcerated in and his liberation by the Red Army in 1945, to his transfer to the UK and the progression of his life to the present day.

Although it was sad listening to Harry’s testimony, it reinforced the importance of living history and hearing the voices of those who are now ageing who survived the Holocaust so that we can learn from the mistakes and prevent another genocide from happening.