Bernard Grunberg: The Experiences of a Holocaust Survivor

“I’d always determine to not show any signs, that those bullying me, weren’t having any effect on me”.

These are the words of Bernard Grunberg (pictured), who was at the University of Derby to raise awareness of the forthcoming International Holocaust Rememberance Day on January 27th.

Bernard himself is a Holocaust survivor himself, and has been talking to young children at the National Holocaust Centre in Nottingham about his experiences since the mid-1990’s.

This is something I noted straight away whilst preparing myself for the talk, as he looked at ease.

In contrast to other interviews of Holocaust survivors I’d seen before, they’d be understandably nervous and emotional as they begin to relive their past traumas.

Bernard was born in March 1923 in a small village situated in North West Germany near the Dutch border. There was a small Jewish community present, made up of a dozen families.

Amongst them, the families couldn’t afford to send their children to a Jewish school and attend the local Christian school instead.

Bernard doesn’t have any bad memories of his early days of school, saying he “wasn’t frowned up”.

His Father was a cattle dealer and in his spare time, he would teach Bernard how to milk the cows.

Then, three years after Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were elected into the Government, a young Polish man – who was Jewish – shot a German Embassy officer. At this point, things started to change.

The vermin had to be destroyed“, was a quote Bernard recollected, adding that Hitler used this incident as “propaganda” and as an opportunity to “send all Jewish men into the concentration camps”. 

He also noted a change in his school life. “Every moment you spent in the playground, you were attacked physically and mentally”. Everyone who was Jewish at his school was now discriminated as Hitler’s fascist ideologies had reached the village.

“I’d always determine to show any sign, that those bullying me, weren’t having an effect on me”. 

In addition to this, Nazis would turn up at the school to spread their ideologies further. “I only remember going to the first talk because after the first time, the teachers would tell me to go home as I need not be there”. 

“It was the only time I could walk home in peace”

On the 1st December, 1938, he travelled to Berlin to board the second kindertransport, part of a rescue effort organised by the United Kingdom to take in 10,000 Jewish children.

They would first travel to a neighboring country – in this case The Netherlands – before making their way to the UK.

“Nobody can feel more British than I do. I’ll never forget what the British had done, because if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be sitting here today”. 

The pride within Bernard’s voice as he spoke those words hits me with amazement. He is thankful for being saved and wants you to know about it.

Before the Jewish children could go when they arrived in The Netherlands, the Nazi soldiers onboard would inspect their suitcases at random.

Bernard said they’d remove items that which would seem “useful” or personal belongings “out of spite”.

When he was free and eventually arrived in the UK, Bernard looked into his suitcase and found a photo album, which contained photos of his family. “It’ll never leave me”.

A photo of Bernard’s family from the photo album given to him before he left Germany; the photos in the album are believed to be the last of them in existence. 

The last time he saw them was at the Dutch border when he got off the train but he was unaware of it at the time. “I didn’t know what was going on. No one would tell me what was going on”.

On top of this, he said that all the Jewish families he knew at the time believed that these arrangements would only be temporary.

Bernard was initially sent to work at an agricultural centre, which he wasn’t too fond of, and opted to volunteer on a dairy farm near Oxford.

He recalls two men who he worked with and the respect he received. “I was treated like a human being…it made all the difference in settling”.

At this point in Bernard’s life, he hadn’t heard back from any of his family. Unfortunately for him, and for most Jewish children of the time, he wouldn’t hear from them again.

Bernard would spend his days during the war working on the farm in the day and crying in his room at night. “It’d play on my mind”.

In addition to this, Bernard heard news of 600 Jews in Amsterdam taking their lives after Nazi soldiers marched into the city.

When asked about memories of his family later, he said he doesn’t recall a distinctive moment with but remembers the “little things”. His seems uncomfortable answering to begin with.

“I remember when I worked on the farm, my Dad would come up to me and say ‘You’re growing up like a Cow’s tail; downhill!'”.

Bernard has a warm smile across his face, demonstrating strength in reliving a happy memory with a bittersweet subtext.

After the war was over, Bernard opted to stay in the UK and has lived here ever since. However, in 1983 he was contacted by the local council of the village he grew up in and was invited to attend a remembrance ceremony.

Understandably, Bernard didn’t want to go. “I didn’t want to go to begin with, when I heard of a woman who’d been sent to Riga (Latvia) as a child. She said she was one of five survivors out of 1,000 Jewish children. That’s when I knew I had to go and so did she”.

Bernard now returns to the village annually, holdings talks with local schools in the area. The local council also pay for his accommodation costs during his time.

“I’ll be honest, I’ve been doing this since 1993 and the Holocaust Centre opened in Nottingham the following summer. And I’ve been an active member there talking to young children ever since. I wouldn’t say it helps me forget, but it more helps to digest it”.

“I’d never wish this upon anyone, child or grown up”.


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