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Harry’s tale: A living witness to persecution

Harry Bibring’s story is one he has shared on almost 500 occasions in schools and colleges. 

He will do so again on Wednesday 27 January 2016 at the Old Town Hall, Stratford, as part of our Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration in association with the Holocaust Educational Trust.

Harry Bibring
Harry Bibring, 90, has been telling his story for many years. His first-hand testimony is a powerful reminder of the horrors so many experienced during the Holocaust. He is a living witness to Nazi persecution, keen to ensure we honour the memory of those who died, and learn the lessons of where prejudice and racism can lead.

Harry said: “My story begins as a 12-year-old Jewish boy in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss, Hitler’s annexation of Austria in March 1938. At that stage I was totally ignorant of anything other than my own comfortable life. Between March and November that year things began happening which I couldn’t understand, particularly when Jews were prevented from doing certain things.

“My favourite past-time was ice skating, but the rink was closed to Jews. I knew we had a new government that didn’t like us, but I couldn’t understand what ice skating had to do with being Jewish.”

Harry was prevented from going to school and his family were unable to have a summer holiday. There was little money coming in after his father Michael was made to put a sign outside his clothing shop saying it was owned by a Jewish proprietor.

He recalls the wave of anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish businesses and synagogues on the night of 9 and 10 November 1938 known as Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass). Shop fronts were shattered, goods looted and the glass in the streets gave the night its name. It was the Hitler’s regime’s first step towards the Holocaust.

Said Harry: “From then on I was a different boy. The order that synagogues were to be burned down and shops were to be vandalised was the final wake up call I needed.”

He recalls seeing Jews being forced to scrub pavements and being beaten. Non-Jewish friends didn’t want anything else to do with him. On 10 November his father was arrested. Harry said: “He was taken away and the rest of us were on house arrest. He returned ten days later and his hair was shorn and his clothes were filthy. He had been in a jail cell with 12 other men.

“My father continued to open the shop, but it didn’t take any money. He remained optimistic in front of us but I’m sure he didn’t believe what he was telling us.”

His father believed he could buy visas from the Chinese consulate in Vienna for the family to travel to Shanghai, but it fell through. Fearing for the safety of Harry and his sister Gerta, 15, (Harry always called her Gertie) his parents decided they should leave as part of the Kindertransport, the British scheme to rescue predominantly Jewish children from Nazi occupied territories.

Harry said: “I remember being at the station at 10pm with 600 children saying goodbye to our parents. They promised they would see us in a couple of months. I was apprehensive because I couldn’t speak a word of English. I don’t know if I cried. I probably did. I can only remember the noise of screaming children being forced to go. It was the last time we saw our parents. My father said he just wanted to protect us from all evil.”

The only contact the children had with their parents was through letters. Harry said: “I do remember the letters coming. There were always references about my parents joining us, but then all kinds of excuses. This went on and on.”

It was in one such letter from his mother Leah Esther that Harry discovered his father Michael had died but his mother did not say how. It was not until a return visit to Vienna in 1951 that he discovered the truth.

He said: “My wife and I visited the district to see the rooms our parents were in. The porter at the block was the same and he told me how in November 1940 my father was dragged out and put in a van. He had a heart attack in the van and his body was brought back for my mother to bury. In that respect he was the lucky one of the two.”

Harry searched for many years after the war for information about his mother. He said: “We finally received a letter from Vienna saying that my mother had been deported to Izbica in Poland on 29 June 1942. It was a holding ghetto for the extermination camp at nearby Sobibor. I don’t know how long she was there but she went with her sister. There were no further traces of them.”

Retired engineer Harry is now one of a handful of survivors who visit schools to tell their stories as living witnesses, but the number is getting smaller. He said: “People ask me why I do it and I say I don’t like daytime television. The real reason of course is that there is still prejudice to challenge.

“Modern society has appeared to have learned nothing from the Holocaust. People are still discriminated against because they live a different life or a different skin colour. Just look at Rwanda and Cambodia and now in Syria where different sections of the same religion are killing themselves. It has got to stop.

“I tell people to never fall into a group who differentiate against somebody because they are different to you. There is only race on this earth, the human race, and we have to get on with each other.

“This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day message is Don’t Stand By. I have been saying that for years. Standing by is bad. That’s why I want to meet young people and to tell them my story.”

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