Earlier in Spring, I had the honour of interviewing the Bergen-Belsen survivor Mala Tribich MBE.
Having been liberated on April 15th 1945 by British troops as they advanced into Germany, she was reunited with her brother two years after in England. Her sibling was one of a group of seven hundred and thirty-two Jewish children under sixteen, who had survived the concentration camps and been taken in by the British government in 1945. England has been Mala's permanent home for the last seven decades. Today, she continues to recount her testimony surrounding the Holocaust, at both universities and in the media. On March 1st, she was invited to the University of Kent by the Vice-President (Activities) at Kent Union, the Jewish Society and the Holocaust Education and Remembrance society to give a talk to hundreds of students at Woolf College. I sat down with her for around fifteen minutes before the talk and this is what she had to say.
Q: Mala, I’d like to start by asking you about your life here in England, as you’ve been living in the UK since 1947. How did you come to this country?
A: Well, after I was liberated in Bergen-Belsen - three months later, I was sent to Sweden with a group of children for recuperation and to stay if we wanted to. While I was there, I found out that my brother survived and he came here to England with a group of children. So ultimately arrangements were made for us to be reunited in England. So that’s the reason I came. But he’s got a very interesting story, not just him, all of them, they all have interesting stories. Because there were seven hundred & thirty-two who came. He was there. The government got permission for a thousand children from the camps to come, but they couldn’t find a thousand. I mean, not many children survived. Seven hundred and thirty-two came, they were mostly boys but a few girls too. Over time when people used to come and see them there were mostly boys. Lots of them went to Windermere in the Lake District, because the accommodation was there for them. So, when people used to inquire about them they would ask “how are the boys?” They came to be known as “the boys”. There’s a book called The Boys, which was written by Sir Martin Gilbert. Very prestigious, isn’t he? He wrote the Churchill biographies. So, there is a book about them, and that’s where my brother came, and I came to join him and be reunited.
Q: Have you been back to Poland since your liberation? If so, what feelings does it evoke for you?
A: Well, I go back with March of the Living every year, but I have been back before that. For a long time, Poland was dead, like my family. The best way I can describe it is that if somebody dies you can’t have them back. And for me, Poland was like that – it was gone, it was out of bounds. It was those sad memories and nothing else. Then one day I realised, well, it’s just a couple of hours on the plane, and I could actually go and look at the place I came from, where we lived, what we did. Suddenly, I had this burning desire to go and visit. And I have to say, I could just go back there anytime and I’ll be glad to be back. Even though its got some terrible memories, its also got my early memories, the good memories. To quote my brother, “when I am walking across the street, I feel that I’m walking with my parents”, and I feel exactly the same. You know, it holds something for me, a lot of tragedy as well. But I think of the good things. There’s a lot of emotion of course.
Q: You probably get asked this a lot, but do you have any specific memories from when the invasion happened in 1939? Or were you too young?
A: No, I remember the beginning of the war. I know that there was some commotion. I remember going out and that there was glass in the street, and some blood. I think there must have been some bombing and that somebody got injured. I just remember there was commotion. That’s the very initial thing. But after that, I mean we took shelter in the basement - the sort of semi-basement where our neighbours were while the bombing was on. Then we tried to escape the bombings by going to another town, but that one was worse than ours. Then eventually we returned. They invaded us within five days because I lived on the Germany side, not far from the German border in Western Poland. Piotrków (Piotrków Trybunalski) was my town, that’s where I lived. But yes, they invaded my town in five days, and they invaded the whole of Poland in two weeks. Poland was really unprepared.
Q: When you were living in the ghettos, and the camps, what kept you going? What emotions, what thoughts and what sense of hope kept you going while you were trying to survive that terrible ordeal?
A: One wasn’t specifically keeping hope. One wasn’t concentrating and saying ‘I’ve got to keep hope’. But it’s just how life panned out. I was in the ghettos with my parents, and I knew where we were. War was going on and knew people were being deported, and I knew people were being killed and it was all quite horrific. But at the same time I was with my parents, so I felt protected. While I was with them I didn’t worry too much because I knew I had this sort-of faith in my parents and that kept me going. But once we were separated it was quite different.
Q: You took care of your cousin too, until 1944?
A: No, until liberation. But I have the stories of two cousins. One that I was in hiding with, and one I took care of. They’re both different stories.
Q: Were there any other friendships or connections you made in the camps that you remember? Did any of those connections help you with the ordeal?
A: I don’t think so. It’s often been suggested these days that because I was with a cousin I had to look after her, and that perhaps that gave me the strength to keep going. I don’t remember it as that, to me it was a terrible responsibility. It was a worry looking after her. I was twelve, she was five. So, we were both very young. She was so terrified, because her mother was taken away, just torn away from her, screaming “who’ll look after my child?” And once she was with me, she didn’t want to lose me as well. So, she just physically held onto me all the way through, except when I had to work in the labour camp. She was very attached to me. And I don’t know whether that actually helped me. At the time I felt it hindered me, maybe it did help in some ways.
Q: Have you seen the Roman Polanski film The Pianist?
Q: There have been depictions, such as that of one character in the film, of Nazis who tried to help individuals within the camps. Did you ever have experience of anyone trying to help you out?
A: Well there were Nazis of course, but there were also – are you talking about the Jewish Police? And people in authority who tried to help others in the camps?
Q: Yes, indeed. Did you encounter anyone like that?
A: Well there were people like that, but on the whole people did their duty, because they thought that the more that they worked, and the more they delivered – the safer they would be. So, ultimately people really, in the last resort, look after themselves and not other people. But having said that there were people that did help – because they were in a privileged position and they were able to do a little bit. Some of them may have only done it for relatives, or some for very close friends. I actually have experience of a Jewish Policeman who really saved my life. Because when he took everybody he left me behind. If he hadn’t have done, then there is no doubt that I would’ve been killed.
Q: In terms of your children and grandchildren all being the offspring of a Holocaust survivor, how do you think their experience differs to those who have parents who aren’t survivors of such a tragedy?
A: I really don’t know. I don’t know if anybody has done a proper study of it, because I would like to think that children of survivors weren’t affected by their parents, or one parent having gone through it. I can’t speak about my own children, because if you say one of them was rather difficult, you get difficult children under any circumstances and you get easy children. You can’t really know without doing a proper study. I always tried to be as normal as possible, I didn’t like to be different from other people. Because I got married into an established English and Jewish family, I immediately took on the British way of life. They just embraced me and I became part of the family, so I felt I was having an English or British life. But there are certain things that do show that maybe it is different. I can’t face it, because I don’t want to think that it is different, so I don’t indulge in thinking about it too much. I like to think of my children, like everything else.
I shook her hand and thanked Mala for taking the time to speak with me. “You’re welcome”, she replied with a warm smile. That final tone was salient throughout the entire interview. Despite the sensitive topics that I was broaching, she was honest, candid as well as tender in her reflection. An incredibly brave soul, with a profound insight into the cruelest forms of injustice and dehumanization that all should take the time to hear and learn from.