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Harry's tale: Re-living history so it never happens again

​​Harry Olmer belongs to a rapidly dwindling group of people who experienced and witnessed the horrors of Nazi persecution of the Jews during World War 2.
In the year in which he will celebrate his 90th birthday, Harry will be sharing the story of his survival at the Old Town Hall, Stratford, on Friday 27 January.

He lived through one of the most barbaric, brutal periods of human history and managed  to survive no less than five concentration camps. He was barely alive when the Russians marched into a camp in Czechoslovakia on 8 May 1945.

After the war he was brought to the UK where he settled in Glasgow and studied dentistry. Harry ran a successful dental surgery in Potters Bar and only retired a few years ago. He married Margaret and the couple now have four children and eight grandchildren.

Harry was the fourth child of six and was  born in Sonsowiec, Poland in 1927. One of his earliest memories of the war is in 1942, when 650 people were taken to a wood and shot. Harry said: “I was in a truck with a lot of other people and could hear the shooting. We had a woman who started screaming, so they stopped the truck and shot her.

“They separated all the women and children, and they were put on the wagons and taken away. That was the last time I saw my mother and my sisters.  The trains took all the women and I did not have time to say goodbye.”

That was the beginning of the war for Harry who very nearly did not survive to see liberation – by the time May 1945 came, he was close to death from starvation and years of ill health suffered as a result of back breaking work and treatment at German forced labour camps.

Harry was taken, with his father and a brother,  to the Plaszow concentration camp near Krakow, later to become famous in the movie Schindler’s List.

In October 1943, he was moved to Skarzysko, where he was handling munitions. “That was even worse -  I looked through the gates and everything was yellow, even the trees, all the people that were working with chemicals.

“There were no showers at all, there was just this trough with taps and that was all we had. The latrines were absolutely horrendous. When I arrived, I was put into a hut and the smell was unbelievable and unbearable.

“There was a big box by the washroom and all the people that had died that week were put in that box – it was full of decomposing bodies”.

What is the worst thing he remembers? “Well, I think it was the living conditions, the accommodation and the food. We did not have bunk beds, it was just wooden platforms and the bed bugs and lice, they were just unbelievable. The food was cabbage soup, nothing else. They gave us a hunk of bread in the evening and that had to last us for 24 hours.”

Harry recalls that there was a heavy snowfall in November 1943 and that meant that the trains could not get through. Those who were on the night shift were ordered to pick up artillery shells. Harry said: “It was so cold that their skin stuck to the shells and I remember I managed to get some straw so I could pick up the shells.

“You can’t imagine what it was like… I hope no-one will have to imagine what it was like ever again. I still had my shoes and clothes but there were people who had shoes without any soles on them. The hydraulic brakes connecting the wagons were made of rubber and some boys cut them off, split them and nailed them to their shoes. The guards examined the shoes and found five boys with the rubber soles and hanged  them.

“How did I survive – it was just simply luck. I did not do anything heroic, it was just luck.”

In 1944 he was sent to Buchenwald. Harry said: “Buchenwald for me was like a holiday camp. They stripped us of our rags, gave us showers, striped uniforms and clogs.” They were  put to work, doing simple tasks. They were even given a midday and an evening meal. It was here that Harry was given a piece of chocolate, white chocolate no less, by a German guard.

From there he was sent to Schlieben, a munitions factory –filling shells with explosives, poisonous when handled without protective clothing.

One night, the entire factory blew up with the loss of the whole of the night shift – Harry was lucky – he was on the day shift.

When the factory was rebuilt it was with improved conditions, better food and even medical facilities. “It was because they needed us”, said Harry. By this time, the situation was so dire that when the prisoners went on strike because their cabbage soup had no salt, the guards told them: “when we get salt, you’ll get salt”.

By this time Harry was very sick and was among those who were evacuated.  He said: “I was very sick. We were evacuated from the camp. I did not know where we were going but the trains we were in were moved at snail’s pace. The railway had been bombed and one day we arrived at a marshalling yard and the train next to us had food provisions. We managed to get out to the other train and I tied up my trouser legs and stuffed them full of oats. Eventually we ended up in a camp in Czechoslovakia and I met up with a friend. We were both starving and with the tin plate and mug that we had, we started roasting the oats.

“I was taken to another hut and on 5 May the Red Cross took over the whole camp and on 8 May the Russians came in. I was very very sick and if the war had lasted another day, I would not have survived.

“You can’t persuade the people that  say it did not happen, that is their opinion but they are being proved wrong. This is my story and people say it can’t happen again but it did, in Cambodia, in Europe, Serbia and now, as we are seeing, in Syria with Aleppo.

“That is why I go to the schools, to talk to the schoolchildren. Its very important, I would not do it otherwise. So they can hear the story and in the hope that they will remember.  Its my story, its living history.

“For the first 30 years after I did not talk about it. The first time (that he spoke about his experiences) was when the Imperial War Museum asked me to talk about it. That first time was very very hard.”

Harry considers himself very lucky – not only to have survived himself, but also to find out that his younger sister and a brother had also made it out alive.

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