Leeds Jewish community speaks out over anti-Semitism in Holocaust Memorial Week

After a week of events to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and to raise awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust, fears are growing that anti-Semitism is actually on the rise again in modern-day Britain.

Saturday, 1st February 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Saturday, 1st February 2020, 8:38 am

Today, the Yorkshire Evening Post speaks to two women who managed to flee the fate that became to six million Jews and settled in Leeds for a new life, a Labour Party MP with Jewish ancestry and the police chief who is trying to encourage religious groups in the city to report more hate crime to them.

‘Educate people to realise human beings are equal’

At 90-years-old - it has been a whole life-time, and more, since Gertrude Silman managed to flee Bratislavia and the horrors that were about to seal the fate of much of her family.

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Leeds North East MP, Fabian Hamilton

For some the memories may fade, but for Trude, as she prefers to be known, the passage of time has brought the effects of the Holocaust to the very fore-front of her mind.

Still searching for answers

Since she retired as a university lecturer she has dedicated her time to raising awareness of the Holocaust by telling the story of her family - but even to this day she still doesn’t know the final chapter.

She said: “I spend a lot of time thinking about home, now that I can’t read or write or use a computer after having a stroke, I have a lot of thoughts about home. I wonder about my mother.”

Leisel Carter's German mother Martha. It is thought the photograph was taken in England during the 1940s.

Trude grew up in Bratislava, then capital of Czechoslovakia, as the youngest of three siblings in a happy family environment. When her parents realised the intention of Germany to occupy Czechoslovakia, the Feldmann family started doing what they could to get their children out of the country.

Trude left her home aged nine and came to England with her aunt.She lived in Cornwall until she moved to Leeds to study and where she would meet Norman, her future husband.

Trude discovered later that her dad died at Auschwitz but despite years of searching and research - she still to this day doesn’t know what happened to her mother.

She said: “As a child, I used to pray in hope that I would see them (parents) alive. As I grew older I realised this was not happening and when that shock came, it was hidden inside me.

Leisel Carter fled Europe at the age of four - alone.

“I often wonder of my mother, how she managed when all her children were gone. It is one of those things that I have not put to bed yet.

“There were two million people who were never accounted for and there is now research into that but I shan’t live long enough to know the answer.”

Mrs Silman was recognised in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for her services to Holocaust education and says the story, as horrific as it is, needs to be repeated.

“If we can educate people to realise that human beings are basically equal and that denigration is the wrong thing, I still value that fact that I can do this.

Gertrude Silman is still searching for answers.

“The story really is to do with humanity. We were the worst treated group of people. It is something that is still going on even though people aren’t being taken off to be burned alive.

“Six million is a huge number. We were just ordinary people.”

Four years-old and alone

For a woman who was taken from her parents at the age of four, sent to England for her own survival, travelling across Europe alone to learn that her father was murdered and her relatives committed suicide to avoid enduring the impending horror of concentration camps, Leisel Carter is one of the most humble and grateful women you will meet.

But the cheeriness of the 84-year-old drops dramatically when asked about whether the racial prejudices that contributed to the Holocaust are still present today.

“It is awful, it is happening all over the world. Mankind has not learned from what happened 70 to 80 years ago. They are still targeting people because they are different and it is awful.

“If I meet somebody I don’t say ‘what colour are you, or what religion do you follow?’. Throughout (Holocaust Memorial Week) the banner has been ‘Stand Together’ but I don’t think it will ever stop.

“We have a rise in anti-Semitism again now, people are being targeted because of their religion.”

When asked why she thought there was ill-feeling towards Jewish communities, she sighs.

“I don’t know, is it because they are jealous?

“Jewish parents can be pushy and want their children to succeed. Look at law, medical science - the majority have come from Jewish backgrounds whether they like to admit it or not.”

Leisel’s background, however, is an unbelievable tale of bravery, forward planning and ultimately a happiness that many others never truly found again in the post war years.

Leisel was born Leisel Meier in Hildesheim, Germany in 1935. Leisel’s mother, Martha, left Germany on her own prior to the outbreak of war after getting a job as a domestic servant in Hull, but under terms imposed by the British government, couldn’t take Leisel with her so she was left behind, either in a children’s home or with friends.

Her mum’s employers in Hull tried to find a way to get Leisel out of Germany and eventually arranged for her to come out on a Nansen passport which was issued to refugees.

Four-year-old Leisel travelled through Germany, Sweden being put on one train to the next and left in the care of train guards, until she reached Norway. She stayed with a Norwegian family and would spend Christmas there before sailing from Bergen harbour to Newcastle where her mother was waiting.

However, she never lived with her mother again and was put in foster care in Leeds with Jack and Mary Wynne and would live with them until she married.

It was only in later life that she realised the significance of her early life and background.

She said: “I did not know what was happening. My mother was always someone to visit on the 10.10 from Leeds Central station.

“I found out many years later just before my mother died. My mother was 45 when I was born and my father was ten years older. Which child asks their parents what is happening, I never asked any questions. I knew that I did not have a father, but never questioned why. These are now very difficult questions to answer.”

Her father was beaten up in the street when Leisel was 18 months old and later died in a concentration camp. Her brother, who was 15 years older than her, swam across a river to escape being arrested and ended up joining the French Foreign Legion and eventually became a chef in America. They would only meet again twice more. She knows very little about her grandparents but knows some of her cousins were killed in Auschwitz and another aunt and uncle committed suicide on the train transporting them from Riga.

Leisel had told her story to her family but it was a primary school project that brought it to the fore-front.

“My granddaughter was doing the Holocaust at school and put her hand up and said ‘my grandma was in it and will come and talk’. There I am, with a group of ten and 11 year-olds telling my story and it went from there. It is very important to tell the story and I hope a lot of people will sit and watch whatever with their children. It is the youngest that need to know. This racial prejudice is dreadful and people have not learned.”

Anti-Semitism claim from Labour MP

Even a Labour party MP has warned that “anti-Semitism is coming back”.

The statement comes from Fabian Hamilton, who represents Leeds North East - a constituency which has a large Jewish community and he himself has Jewish ancestry.

After raising the issue in Parliament he told the Yorkshire Evening Post anti-Semitism is growing in British society.

Mr Hamilton said: “It is coming back. A lot of that fear was transferred at the prospect of a Corbyn government. I have never experienced that in the Labour party but it is growing in society in Britain - but not as bad as continental Europe.

“French influences might be fuelling it but also inequality to an extent. People take out the injustices of society against those that appear to be wealthy. It is definitely growing, we are lucky in Britain that we are much more tolerant.”

His father fled to Britain from Europe in 1934 as fascism was growing and while Mr Hamilton “assumed” there might have been a family connection to the Holocust, his father never talked about it. It was only in the last seven years, following contact from a second cousin in Paris he had never met, that the story was told.

Their mutual great grandmother Raina Sevilla had been born in Bulgaria, married in Istanbul, and persuaded by Fabian’s grandparents to move from Geneva to their new home in Paris.

Six years later, Paris was occupied and all Jews were asked to register with the occupying authorities and wear the yellow star.

In 1942 they were rounded up and taken to the Vel d’hiv, the Paris velodrome from where they were moved to Drancy, a suburb of Paris near the railhead at Bobigny. The cattle trucks left daily for the extermination camps and Raina was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau to be exterminated later that year. His great-grandfather was already dead by this time.

“My father must have known this but never talked about it.”

Solution?

West Yorkshire Police has a specifically appointed officers to lead on hate crime in the city and says reports have increased and incidents are still going un-reported.

Chief Inspector Richard Padwell, told The Yorkshire Evening Post, said: “While it is still relatively rare for anyone to be a victim of anti-Semitic or other faith-related hate crime in Leeds, we continue to treat any such incidents very seriously and do everything we can to take positive action and to reassure anyone who is targeted, as well as responding to any concerns that result in the wider community.

“Hate crime can have a devastating impact on individuals and on the affected community’s feelings of safety and we remain very firmly committed to tackling the issue alongside our partner agencies.

“We continue to engage with people across all our communities in Leeds to address any under-reporting of hate crimes and hate incidents and have seen an increase in reporting across a range of hate crime types which reflects increased confidence and our ongoing engagement work.

“We always encourage anyone who is the victim of a hate crime or incident to report it either directly to the police via 999 in an emergency or 101 for a non-emergency, to an independent Hate Incident Reporting Centre or via the Stop Hate UK app.”